Russia is the convenient scapegoat whenever things go wrong in the world, but is it really responsible for the mass discontent in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, or have the people simply had enough?

 

When the KGB archives were opened after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, it caused much discomfort for some leading figures on the left, showing the likes of Romano Prodi (who would become President of the European Commission and Italian Prime Minister) and the British trade union leader ‘Emperor’ Jack Jones to be on the payroll, despite their protestations to the contrary.

These days, Russia under Putin has fostered many links with nationalist parties including Jobbik in Hungary and even extended loans to Front National in France.  Yet just as George W. Bush’s War on Terror provided cover for autocrats to shut down protests while they were ‘combatting terrorism’, Russia’s fall from favour has likewise allowed certain leaders to quell any domestic protests, charging the protesters with being puppets of the Kremlin, irrespective of whether this is in fact the case.

In late September in Montenegro, the main opposition parties started staging protests on a daily basis demanding the resignation of Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović and the creation of an interim government until fresh elections could be held.  Under the umbrella group Democratic Front, thousands turned up in the main square of the capital, Podgorica, at 6.30 pm everyday.  The culmination of a campaign since May, with a slogan ‘Milo the thief’, it remained largely peaceful until the 25th of October when there were clashes between the activists and the police, leading to the latter firing tear gas and driving armoured cars into the crowds to break them up and the demonstrators in turn, responding with flares and fireworks, culminating in dozens of casualties on both sides.

Later that evening, Đukanović claimed the hand of the Kremlin  was at work, with ‘nationalist circles in Serbia and Russia’ seeking to change the Balkan country’s pro-western orientation.  He added that the protests were nothing less than an attempted coup d’etat.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to deny a role, saying Đukanović’s claims were groundless and that he had produced no evidence to say that Russia encouraged clashes between demonstrators and the police.  The Montenegrin Government replied that Russia’s statement mentioning ‘peaceful protesters’ confirmed Đukanović’s claims of a Russian involvement, accusing the demonstrators of initiating the violence.

Milo Đukanović is a controversial character who has been either Prime Minister or President of Montenegro—barring two brief interludes—since 1991 (before independence in 2006 as part of the federation of Yugoslavia).  Since 2012, he has embarked on his fourth stint as Prime Minister.  In 2003, the prosecutor’s office in Naples linked Đukanović with an organised crime racket involving tobacco smuggling in the 1990s worth billions of euros, only finally dropping the case in 2009.  The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) named Đukanović as joint runner-up (with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) after Vladimir Putin for the 2014 Person of the Year award, recognizing ‘the person who does the most to enable and promote organized criminal activity’.  This was primarily for Đukanović’s government bailing out First Bank, one of Montenegro’s major financial institutions which just happens to be majority-owned by himself, two siblings and a friend.  Through properties and company shares, the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters (ICIJ), estimated his wealth at nearly $15m though his government salary never topped $1,700 a month, the latter being the only source of income he has declared.  According to the ICIJ, Đukanović’s brother is worth $167m and his sister $3.5m.  Whereas the President, Filip Vujanović, refuses to have bodyguards, Đukanović has an extensive security team.

Now, it may well be that Russia has incited public dissent against Đukanović’s administration.  Unable to invade Montenegro and shake its territorial integrity, as the Kremlin did in Georgia and then Ukraine in order to forestall European Union and NATO membership for these countries, Putin and his team may be trying a more subtle approach to derail Montenegro’s accession bids with these organisations.  Moscow has frequently said that Podgorica’s NATO ambitions are in opposition to hundreds of years of ‘fraternal relations’ between the two countries.

But as the Kremlin press secretary said in a separate statement, ‘It is a well-known amusement of many states to search for the devil everywhere and to continue demonizing Russia’.  Much of the anger of the demonstrators was about fraud, with Đukanović having fingers in many pies despite promising to divest himself of his businesses.  Such concerns extend beyond Montenegro’s borders as the EU is also starting to become worried about corruption and organised crime.  As Milka Tadić, editor of the country’s influential Monitor magazine, told OCCRP, ‘Montenegro is a lawless country and if you are part of the government or close to its circles, you can do whatever you want’.

 

Sources:

With eyewitness reports from the BBC – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34630765

BalkanInsight – http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/russia-montenegro-bicker-over-podgorica-protests-10-28-2015

The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project – https://www.reportingproject.net/underground/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=19