Montenegro was invited to join NATO earlier this month, a long-time goal of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. The invitation came after loud and sometimes violent street protests by his political opposition, which demanded his resignation and mounted accusations of corruption in the government. There was also an angry reaction from Moscow, which has hinted at retaliation. Djukanovic has, in turn, accused Russia of organizing the protests to defeat the NATO bid. RFE/RL staffer Sabina Cabaravdic got a rare opportunity to interview Djukanovic this week on a wide array of topics, including his tenure, his opposition and what he sees ahead for Montenegro.
The interview, as edited, appears below:
RFE/RL: What did the protests against Montenegro’s joining NATO show us in terms of your opposition’s strength?
Djukanovic: I wish I could say that this strength is melting away with time. I must say I expected it to melt after the referendum for independence in 2006. However…keep in mind the circumstances. For [many] years since the reestablishment of our independence, Europe, including the Balkans has been through a deep and extended economic crisis. That affects all governments’ policies, not only our government . . .However, it is important that we managed to preserve political domination in Montenegro. I believe that we have improved the support of . . .the path to full NATO and EU integration-- and that is something that brings significant satisfaction to the creators and participants of this state policy.
RFE/RL: What is going to happen if your opposition succeeds in the next election? Does that mean an end to the path toward NATO?
Djukanovic: First of all, and I truly believe that this. . . is not going to happen. The opposition significantly contributed to the stalemate in the political scene, especially regarding the relations between the government and the opposition that have not changed in 20 years. It is the same opposition that tried to stop Montenegro from its dissociation from Milosevic’s Serbia in 1996, 1997 and 1998. It is the same opposition that tried to expose Montenegro to NATO bombings in 1999. It is the same opposition that practically begged NATO and European officials not to accept Montenegrin applications for NATO and EU membership, and it is the opposition that strongly and openly opposes Montenegrin Euro-Atlantic and European integration these days. So,the opposition is trying very hard to bring Montenegro back to the past. It is clearly not aware of the necessity of all those processes that took place in the 90s starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that influenced the Western Balkan region and Montenegro as well. So, in fear of the new and the unknown, they are trying to keep Montenegro in the past – that is their main goal. That is why I believe a reasonable, sober, prudent, and definitely democratic and pro-European majority in Montenegro is aware that support to that [opposition] policy would mean the annulment of all the financial, political and social achievements in the past 20 years.
RFE/RL: So, you are not even considering a possibility that the opposition could win?
Djukanovic: No, no. I am a realist… That is why I tried to and succeeded in avoiding unpleasant surprises in the past. ... I am certainly aware that the government in Montenegro will change. Montenegro cannot be different from other countries when it comes to that. I believe, though, that such a moment will be postponed by the opposition itself, with its short-sightedness and its inability to face the challenges of modern civilization in the right way. They are not just the opposition to the government, but the opposition to Montenegro as a state, and that is their problem. They can hardly win the majority of votes of the citizens of Montenegro with such a political platform.
RFE/RL: Do you have concrete evidence that Russia is funding the opposition or meddling in Montenegrin politics?
Djukanovic: [Two points}…The first is something constant in the actions of the opposition in Montenegro. [The opposition believes that] help from the outside is always needed. In the past it was Belgrade, and at one point [they thought that if they could] … get Brussels to trust them, that Brussels would help overthrow … the democratically elected government in Montenegro. When that did not happen, and when Montenegro managed to build reliable partnerships with the EU and NATO . . .then that same opposition remembered Moscow. It turned to Moscow and it expects the support that would, so to say, enable them to achieve their goals. . .. People here always expect someone from the outside to deal with our problems. I believe that is a major delusion, and the fact that we became aware of that is a novelty in the Balkans, definitely in Montenegro. We started thinking more proactively about our pro-European future and we initiated mutual cooperation in the region. I believe that certain progress has already been achieved. We are trying to liberate ourselves from the Balkan mentality, which is that everyone knows our situation better than we do.. . . We have turned to our own problems and we are trying to work, complement, implement. I believe that is the way to . . . achieve full Balkan integration into the European and Euro-Atlantic structures, which is a synonym for stability and development.
When it comes to Russia's influence, it needs to be noted that Russia unfortunately left more than enough evidence” …regarding their involvement in the political life of Montenegro in recent months. [That includes] several official statements from Russian Duma or the ministry of foreign affairs. I also want to remind you about several articles from Russian state media in which they were not only biased but also brutally aggressive. . . [There were] numerous statements by Russian officials, starting with Russian deputies, then numerous statements from several Russian institutions which, without any attempt to hide anything, presented themselves here as being close to the Kremlin. There is no need for interpretation, this is more than obvious . . .This is surprising to me… that a state of such size, strength, power, seriousness, and history allows itself to meddle directly into internal political relations of another country. And it goes even further and gets more personal about some people who play an important political role.. . . It did not happen in the past decades. But this is our Montenegrin experience and we can't ignore it. It is true that the opposition in Montenegro tried to build its political strategy on this. I am someone who doesn't think that Montenegro opts for membership in the European Union and NATO in order to be against someone. Not even against Russia, with which we have traditional, centuries-long , official mutual relations. We choose the European Union and NATO because we think that we will be better there, and because we follow our interests. So, I wasn't expecting such a level of direct meddling
RFE/RL: How do you explain Russia’s stance? Why does Moscow care about Podgorica?
Djukanovic: This coincides with a serious decline in relations between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the European Union. I think that is a crucial part of the explanation. Simply put, had we applied for NATO several years earlier, when there was extensive cooperation between NATO and Russia, all of this would have had much smaller dimensions than it has now. This does not mean that Russia wouldn't oppose NATO enlargement. We know that Russia continuously opposed NATO enlargement. . .But what is happening with Montenegro is definitely out of this framework. [Russia] was much more aggressive and much less diplomatic than it was on previous occasions when other countries were joining the NATO after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many say that this is because of emotions and the tradition and I know that there are reciprocal emotions in Montenegro and in the Balkans regarding our relations with Russia.I don't think we need to abandon the tradition or history, but I also don’t think that it would affect Russia if Montenegro has friends in NATO. Is Montenegro Russia's first friend in NATO? We know it isn't. We know that Russia has great bilateral relations with many countries that are NATO members today. That's why I really don't think Montenegrin membership in NATO means an automatic worsening of the relations with Russia, especially having in mind Montenegro's size. I don't think it can cause any global shifts. I really think that [Russia’s aggressive stance toward] Montenegro is a collateral effect of something that is happening on the global scene, a serious worsening of the relations between Russia and NATO.
RFE/RL: Supporters and opponents of Montenegrin membership in NATO keep mentioning Serbia along with Russia. But I don’t have the impression that Serbian authorities are supporting these protests. What is your impression?
Djukanovic: You have a good impression, and I spoke about that on several occasions. In the past several years we have experienced serious improvements in our relations with Serbia. Let me remind you that before we held the referendum the situation was boiling, and it took a long time after the referendum to normalize these relations. It is also worth noting, especially with the new government in Serbia, that we have reached a new phase in our relations, an intense increase of cooperation. Today we are able to say that we are living a new experience in that Serbia is not interfering in Montenegrin internal political relations. That is very… beneficial not only for Montenegro, but as a new practice in the region, because Serbia’s stance towards Montenegro is not an exception. I believe it is a precious step towards normalization of the relations in the region, establishment of mutual trust that will lead to regional cooperation as the most important precondition on our path to the European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
RFE: What is your relationship with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and what is your stance regarding his politics? Is he going to be able to overcome his past? Is he going to succeed?
Djukanovic: I communicate regularly with Mr. Vucic and I am an optimist when it comes to that evolutionary process that we are noticing in Serbia. So I truly support the opinion that people, even political structures, should be allowed to change, and we should not stay trapped in prejudices regarding someone’s early work… I am less inclined to accept a premise that people don’t change.. It is natural for people to change for the better, especially serious people who keep working on themselves. So, at this point I believe that Mr. Vucic is taking Serbia toward European integration. It cannot be easy for him. Also, one must be a political realist and say that he is a realistic political force supported by Serbian citizens and has the capacity to lead Serbia’s state policy.It is good for all of us that he is leading Serbia toward European integration. . It is [however] logical for a leader to change faster than the structure that supports him, so I believe it is logical for Prime Minister Vucic to change faster than his constituency, and we must all show understanding, patience and support. There are certainly mistakes, as with all of us.. But we must be realistic. It is a devilish job to lead a pro-European policy in the Balkans today. We must know that the European and Euro-Atlantic values are not deeply rooted in this region. So turning to those values means turning away from the past, and that is a radical turn that many people oppose because they don’t see themselves in that new system of values. They fear the new. They are mostly supporters of the old because the old is easier. That is why it is not easy to implement such reforms in this region. I believe it is very important that we are supported by the relevant European political structures. Why? Because we know very well that without stability in the Balkans there is no stability in Europe. Europe can believe . . . that events in the Balkans are not important, but the experiences – even those from the 1990s – are a warning. If we have problems,Europe is forced to invest enormous potentials – both financial and human – in dealing with those problems. I believe that today we are in the phase in which Europe understands that. Therefore, they intensified the policy through the Berlin Process. Europe is doing much more in the Balkans now. It is encouraging and very important for us to realize that integration is another name for stability in the Balkans. And without stability in the Balkans there will be no European stability, let alone economic and democratic prosperity in the Balkans.
RFE: You have been in power for more than 20 years. How do you explain benigin power for so long?
Djukanovic: ... I believe that the change of the government would have already happened in Montenegro if we had better competition.… . We won despite our weaknesses because we had very, very bad competition. I expected things to change, at least after the referendum The opposition had hoped that they would win with the help of Serbia and others. That did not happen. SoI expected the opposition to realize that this was because of a response of the Montenegrin democratic public and that they would reorganize themselves and try to become a serious alternative to the current government. But they continued to work against the interests of Montenegro, justifying it with a different opinion--that… there is no Montenegro and that Montenegro should be governed from Belgrade. . . . The opposition has continued to act [that way], and that helps us win. The change of the government was not possible simply because we are lacking serious competition. I am not happy for that, and to tell you the truth, I am an economist. I understand that any kind of monopoly leads to defeat and to mistakes. That is why in 1992 as the Prime Minister in my second term, when we won over 60 percent of votes at the elections, I formed the government together with several other parties, with four or five partners, believing that it would be better to have those partners as some sort of surveillance, control, competition that is going to prevent the minister from the ruling party from getting too comfortable…. I believe that despite all that, the opposition continued to make the same mistakes; we can only hope that the opposition will mature enough and become more serious competition that will help the ruling party . They should help us become even better so that we can use Montenegrin political potential even better. And to answer your question… it has to be a man of steel will, it has to be a man willing to make enormous sacrifices in his private life [to continue in power so long].I must say that the last year of my term has been the hardest one in the past 20 years, and there wasn’t a day when I wasn’t working for less than 15 hours. Politics is a serious profession that is constantly proving that only those who are responsible can become a part of it.