Why #Montenegro is not ready for EU accession

| December 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

Montenegro has been waiting patiently in line to get into the EU for six years now, but the process appears to be picking up steam. On 4 December, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic (pictured) said that his government expects to open two more chapters in its negotiations with the bloc within the next two weeks. And the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has underscored commitment to the cause from the other side, saying that Montenegro and Serbia will be members of the EU “before 2025.”

Seven years is a long waiting period, but Montenegro undoubtedly needs every minute of it. For while it may position itself as a “reliable”, safe pair of hands in the region, it is nowhere near meeting EU standards in key areas such as the fight against corruption and organized crime and respect for rule of law. For its own sake – and more broadly, for the sake of strength and unity in the EU – it is vital for Montenegro to get its own house in order before it is allowed to join its Western neighbours.

Indeed, how far it has to go was laid bare in recent local elections that demonstrated the extent of political polarization in the country. While the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) won the most seats, it was not the result of the elections that was telling, but the process. According to Jovana Marović, executive director of the think tank Politikon network, the election was marked by an “exceptionally tense and brutal campaign” which included “physical attacks on members of the polling boards and party officials, as well as police and state prosecutor interventions.”

Such chaos surrounding what should be an unremarkable voting process is nothing new in the country. In 2016, the opposition party boycotted parliament after the DPS won national elections, claiming that a supposed coup plot – alleged to have been masterminded by the Kremlin, a claim it has vigorously denied – was little more than a sideshow to give the DPS the traction, and Western support, it needed to stay in power.

This is not too fanciful a claim. Unfortunately for the country, the man who won that election was Montenegro’s own political yoyo, former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, a politician so corrupt that in 2015 he actually won an award for it. He stepped down following 2016 elections and installed a political stooge in his place, but now, it seems that he is ripe for a comeback, intimating that he may make a bid to regain office in 2018 if – magnanimously – the country needs his help. This is undoubtedly help Montenegro can do without. His return to politics would simply stoke tensions and make it ever more difficult for Montenegro’s political class to undergo a much-needed purge.

Djukanovic himself is a walking microcosm of all that is wrong in the country. With personal wealth that is at odds with his modest government salary – and largely attributable to his connections to tobacco smuggling – critics say that he has reduced the country to little more than Djukanovic Family, Inc. A series of investigations have connected him and his family with millions in concealed wealth and inappropriate use of government funds: for instance, recent probes have raised serious questions about manipulation of First Bank, which is suspected of having been used for years by Djukanovic and his family as their “personal ATM.”

Not only that, but Djukanovic has also been suspected of having made the country a safe haven for organized crime over his 25+ years in power. Certainly, the police don’t seem to trouble the doors of the nation’s gangsters too often. Derisory numbers of gangland killings are solved, for example, largely because the state is in on it. “The reason most killers are not identified yet are the links between organized crime and police structures, prosecution and security institutions,” said one crime expert.

Perhaps not surprisingly, attacks on the press are legion, especially when their work risks uncovering the identity of the puppeteers in the country’s murky underworld. For instance, the freelance investigative journalist Jovo Martinović is among those who has been targeted, having been arrested in October 2015 for suspected drug trafficking and ties with a criminal organization. Though Martinović had extensive evidence that his contacts were part of his investigation into drug-trafficking and other criminal networks, and has already been imprisoned under shaky evidence, he is still under trial and now faces up to 10 years in prison. As Human Rights Watch put it, the state seems to have an interest in keeping “journalists in court rather than out doing their jobs”.

Given that media freedom is a key indicator for whether a country is ready to join the EU, Montenegro merits close attention for this failing alone. Of course, some argue that it is better to nurture Montenegro and other Balkan States from within the bloc but – while it is true that the EU has a major role to play in supporting Balkan states in progressing – Podgorica must do more to show a modicum of internal impetus to enact meaningful reforms.

Given the fact that European officials have previously confessed to admitting other states such as Romania and Bulgaria too early and ended up funding the very people it should be fighting against, it must now learn from its mistakes and make it clear that Montenegro can join the EU only when it meets its standards. And to do this, it needs to start putting its house in order – starting with holding snap elections alongside presidential elections in April to bring back some sorely-need legitimacy to its broken parliament. Otherwise, the EU-Western Balkans summit to be held in May next year will be full of dashed hopes and broken promises on both sides, with gangster-politicians continuing to keep a tight grip on Montenegro’s government.

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, Montenegro

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