Is it about time to find an alternative in Montenegro?

The vast majority of oppositional leaders are millionaires. In comparison, the minimum wage is 193 euros per month and one third of the population lives below the poverty line... It is hard for millionaire politicians to put themselves in the shoes of these people.

"It's time that Montenegro finally moves on from a two decade long political deadlock."

Author: Balkans Post

In 2014 a group of educated and unemployed young people decided to organize a citizens group that would stress the necessity of radical change in the southeast European country of Montenegro. The first such organization in the country was symbolically named Alternative Montenegro (Alternativa Crna Gora). Its members made various street theatre actions that drew media and public attention to their activism. But after two years of existence as a non-formal political group, they decided it was time to build on the foundations they had already laid and make the transition to a formal, political party. The party with the same name was founded four months prior to the October parliamentary elections, in which the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) won 41% of the votes. That gave it 36 seats in a 81-seat Parliament and allowed it to, yet again, form a new government with a handful of minority parties that traditionally lean to its side. "Alternative" fell in the bottom 5% and the allocation of the seats remained more or less similar to the last postelection draft. Vesko Pejak, the group's leader, speaks about why the change of government still remains an unfulfilled dream for the Adriatic country that is on a brink of becoming a NATO member.

Pejak speaks at one of Democratic Front's rallies in 2015 during the series of Autumn protests that shook Montenegro

Balkans Post: Before and after it transformed into a political party, Alternative based its work on economic and social justice issues, which apparently wasn't received well with Montenegrin voters. The Prime Minister recently stated that Montenegro can stand side by side with Monte Carlo and Saint Tropez, the richest European tourist centers. Do you think that's why the majority of voters didn't think that social matters deserved more attention?

Vesko Pejak: People in Montenegro live not with a dream of a better life, but with a fear that the current situation could get worse. That fear is what paralyzes them and makes them see the current political situation through a prism of apathy. The great irony is that the bigger the crisis gets, the fewer activists are there on the ground. Montenegro is a small country and with less than a million inhabitants it's reminiscent of a borough in which everyone knows everyone. In such circumstances, it's hard to make an impact with the existing number of activists. The profile of a regular voter of both the ruling and the opposition parties is basically the same. In such feigned confrontation there is no place for new political forces, and subsequently there is no place for a radical change.

BP: Many critics of the ruling party usually say that the biggest problem in Montenegro is not the ruling party itself, but the opposition, which is bad, or at least not good enough to supersede the government in the elections. What makes the Montenegrin opposition so weak?

VP: Political opposition in the true sense of the word practically never existed. All this time since the multiparty system was introduced the exact same congregation of politicians (with small modifications) has been running the show, each on their respective side. For the past 27 years they have had the opportunity to get to know each other, mingle, work together and make business deals. To a common voter it might seem that the government owns its opposition, an opposition that it knows very well and which it definitely doesn't see as a threat. Each time the people decided to change the government, someone from the opposition offered a helping hand and saved it from collapse.

The vast majority of oppositional leaders are millionaires. In comparison, the minimum wage is 193 euros per month and one third of the population lives below the poverty line. Social assistance for a family of five is 120.70 euros per month. The minimum consumer basket for a family of four is worth roughly 800 euros. It is hard for millionaire politicians to put themselves in the shoes of these people from the statistics.

The prevailing issue with both sides is their immutability. There are no known examples that the leaders of the main oppositional parties resigned after they lost elections. It is worth mentioning that basically in Montenegro we've had the same party in power since 1945, when this country was part of Socialist Yugoslavia. League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the ruling party of that time, just changed its name to Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro in 1991 and continued governing. All main politicians are remnants of that time. They still work and think in the 1990s. A considerable number of deputies are computer-illiterate.

Alternating members of Alternative protested every day for over a year in front of the local government building in their hometown of Nikšić to draw attention to the gloomy situation of the city


BP: It is a commonplace in the electoral race that two opposing sides – the government and the opposition – clash with each other, but you argued that some factions from the opposition obstructed Alternative during the past few months.

VP: Yes, unfortunately Alternative was criticizing only the government. We took the initiative to unify the opposition factors during the October 2015 protests and this year in March and September. All three initiatives were futile because the strongest oppositional parties focused most of their efforts on attacks against other segments of the opposition. Alternative participated in the 2015 protests, but we were there to support the change and not the organizers. The nature of our party is different from what the citizens expect from the regular opposition. We tried to bring the problems of the little man into focus: social issues, workers' rights, etc. It was absolutely unacceptable for us to participate in nationalist rhetoric that’s been tearing down Montenegrin society. It was a fresh way of doing politics. It had a downside. Our initial capital at the beginning of electoral race was fifty euros.  Compared to the millions of euros available to the other side, we stood no chance of having a fair fight.

BP: DPS personalized its campaign on the figure of its patriarch Đukanović, but shortly after the final results of the elections were announced, he introduced Duško Marković as a new prime minister and his successor. Did DPS deceive its voters?

VP: The average DPS voter knows that Đukanović still has a leading position in the party and that Marković will most probably be a very capable pawn. Most of the oppositional voters, from what I can see, share the same stance. The Đukanović family took over the energy sector of the economy. The son (BP: Blažo Đukanović, Milo’s only child and an entrepreneur) leads projects based on preferential status contracts with the state. If anything goes wrong, the state will always act as a guarantor. The sister (BP: Ana Đukanović, Milo’s older sister and a lawyer) participated in the privatization of the state-owned telecommunications company and has been accused of corruption by US authorities. She and other suspects allegedly received at least seven million euros from Magyar Telekom which purchased the company. The brother (BP: Aco Đukanović, Milo’s younger brother and a businessman) is in control of the banking sector. In a way then, he is the actual owner of Prva bank (First bank), which is a private bank that has access to state money. Depositors in Prva bank are Elektroprivreda Crne Gore, national energy company, all local governments and all the companies in control of DPS. Duško Marković has no auhority to control the "grey political zone" of Montenegro.

BP: Grey political zone? Can you elaborate?

VP: I'm thinking of certain elites that are not completely part of the business world nor just political. They take their power from state institutions as officials, but use it for their illegal activities in the business sector. During the nineties a new business elite gained economic strength by trafficking with the EC countries. The activities stopped after Montenegro gained independence in 2006 because the EU was able to better control its borders. That's when a new business elite - both political and economical - was formed. It's a pure grey political zone. They are able to change the laws and regulations for their own benefit and subsequently make huge profits. Amidst such an imbalance of power we dared to enter the race with 50 euros. We knew what we were facing, but it was hard nevertheless. All of our financial streams were blocked and we couldn't count on donations inside Montenegro either. Nobody wants to donate money when the fear of retaliation from the state apparatus is real.

BP: What are the prospects for change in Montenegro?

VP: In the absence of funding, Montenegrin political parties are forced to accept donations from foreign entities. It puts them in the position of a marionette, because no one gives their money for free unless they receive something in return. The only way to change something is to create a fund that would finance new political forces. That fund could be financed from EU funds, for example. The existing system is not friendly towards new political parties, because it doesn't guarantee equal opportunities for every participant of the electoral race. Alternative received its statutory funds fifteen days before the very election and didn't want to succumb to foreign funding in the receding period. You know the rest.