The Balkan country’s ambitious road towards the EU
Montenegro is a country of wild beauty: crystalline shores, majestic mountains and flourishing valleys. It is no surprise that tourism is Montenegro’s leading industry, directly accounting for more than 23% of its GDP. After a referendum declaring independence from Serbia in 2006, the Western Balkan country, home of roughly 700.000 people, joined the WTO in 2012 and NATO in 2017. Montenegro’s ambition to join the European Union, however, faces serious hurdles. Since the launch of the accession process in 2012, 32 negotiating chapters out of 33 have remained open, questioning the feasibility of a full integration by 2025, as the European Commission initially indicated.
Montenegro has been shaken by corruption scandals, cases of bribery in public procurement and (alleged) electoral frauds. Ongoing protests highlight the country’s political gridlock, centered around the figure of President Milo Đukanović , who has de facto ruled for over 27 years, leading Montenegro’s transition from a former Yugoslav republic to independence. Đukanović’s party, the DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists) is omnipresent in society. Party members have better chances for securing a job in the public sector, which is by far the largest employer in the country. Despite the establishment of agencies against corruption and organized crime, NGO activists, civil society organizations , grassroots movements and opposition parties denounce the ‘captured state’ of Montenegro, in which the rule of law is subjugated to major political interference.
The Centre for European Progression has met with Ana Đurnić, Public Policy researcher at the Institut Alternativa, an independent think-tank based in the capital Podgorica, to discuss about the state of play of Montenegro’s prospected membership to the EU. The setting was the panel discussion “Frontrunner in a slow race? Montenegro’s EU integration path” organized by the European Policy Centre (EPC) and the Center for monitoring and research (CeMI) in Brussels. Along with Đurnić, the speakers’ list included Thomas Hagleitner, the European Commission’s Head of Montenegro Unit, Nikoleta Đukanović, CeMI’s Executive Director, Bojan Šarkić, Ambassador of the Republic of Montenegro to the EU and Corina Stratulat, Senior Policy Analyst at EPC.
CfEP: What is your take on Montenegro’s position as frontrunner for EU membership in the Western-Balkans? Can Montenegro still be considered as such, taking into account the 32 open chapters?
Ana Đurnić: To use a metaphor, Montenegro is the best in a classroom of bad students. The government has partially fulfilled some of the EU conditions but the implementation of the Action Plans concerning the several remaining chapters require constant monitoring. Montenegro’s government has a longstanding record of concealing data and information from the public, keeping citizens uniformed about the current status of the integration process. Chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) are definitely the most difficult to ‘close’. These chapters are crucial as they oversee the work of the anti-corruption agency, the special prosecutor’s office, public procurement and civil rights. Right now, we can only see a backslide in all of these areas, particularly in public procurement, media freedom and access to information.
CfEP: Montenegro ranks 104th in the RSF- 2019 World Press Freedom Index. In 2018, Olivera Lakić, an investigative journalist was shot and wounded outside her apartment. This and several other accounts depict a grim picture of intimidation and indirect censorship of independent media outlets. What’s the current climate for journalists and reporters in the country?
D: Although the government does not own any news organization, political pressure on independent media is tangible. Public procurement tenders are advertised only on pro-government media, while critical reporters are systematically smeared, name-called and publicly discredited. Investigations of physical threats and attacks against journalists are often obstructed. In Montenegro the space for dissent is shrinking: in theory, the Freedom of Information (FOI) law allows every citizen to access public information; in practice, greater political interference is very often exercised towards newsrooms’ editorial choices, preventing the publication of a broad range of “sensitive information”. There is, in fact, an attempt to censor and silence non-aligned voices.
CfEP: Public protests are ongoing since the last general elections in 2016. What is your outlook on the opposition movement’s media coverage ?
D: Independent media are keeping an eye on the protests, whereas the public media, funded with taxpayers’ money, is reluctant to report on dissident movements in order not to lose governmental support. Several movements took the streets over the past three years: the most recent is the “resist” movement, supported by several NGOs and grassroots groups. Protests are also endorsed by the opposition parties that have been boycotting the parliamentary activities since the 2016 elections.
CfEP: Russia has traditionally retained major influence in the Balkans, but now China is the “new kid on the block” . The most ambitious project since Montenegro’s independence, the Bar-Bojare highway, is the result of a controversial partnership between Chinese investors and Montenegro’s government. The project costs 890 million Euros and, according to various sources, tax-free construction materials and two thirds of the workers come from China. Is the infrastructure a debt trap or a real chance for development?
D: Analyzing the statements of Montenegro’s high officials, our key allies change from time to time. For a while, Brussels has been our privileged partner for economic development. But whenever the EU assumes a slightly critical position towards Montenegro’s executive, the tone shifts in favor of alternative partners, namely Russia and China. It is true that a part of the population still holds an emotional connection with Russia, although Beijing has been investing heavily in our economy. However, Chinese investments do not come as a present but as a loan that we will have to pay back. The new highway could be an opportunity, but the key issue is the project’s overall lack of transparency: most of the documents and reports concerning the infrastructure are kept away from the public eye.
CfEP: Thank you, we would like to get a closing statement from you. In a few words, what’s the greatest contribution Montenegro could give to the EU in the future?
D: Montenegro is naturally a part of Europe. Thereby, it can definitely be part of the EU too. The biggest contribution would be our human capital: lots of young and creative people that could help not only Montenegro, but the whole Union to improve.