(Written by Marc Santora)
Several dozen protesters had gathered on the promenade of the coastal town of Tivat, wedged between Montenegro’s rugged mountains and a sparkling Adriatic Sea. Behind them, as if on cue, a superyacht was pulling into port.
“They want to turn this place into the next Monte Carlo,” local journalist and activist Antonela Rajcevic told the group. “It is great if you are a billionaire or a millionaire, but it is not a good place for the citizens of Montenegro.”
Rajcevic and other organizers were traveling across tiny Montenegro, in late April, trying to keep alive weeks of protests against the government of President Milo Djukanovic.
But with summer fast approaching, and tourism season arriving, hopes for a “Balkan Spring” seem likely to be disappointed in Montenegro, as they have so far elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia.
From Bosnia to Serbia, and even in Albania, citizens have taken to the streets by the hundreds of thousands for months in an epidemic of discontent.
Specific grievances vary, but all are animated by the sense that their governments are increasingly ruled by kleptocrats with authoritarian tendencies who have taken advantage of young democracies with weak checks on executive power.
Where there was once hope that the path to joining the European Union would compel leaders to take on reforms, many taking to the streets across the region feel the opposite has happened.
Djukanovic, 57, is perhaps the most salient case in point. He is now the longest-serving leader in Europe, in power longer than both Presidents Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
During three decades in power, Djukanovic steered the country into NATO in 2017, with much fanfare from Western officials, and has put it on a path to joining the European Union.
At the same time, his critics say, he has effectively turned Montenegro into a one-party state, a veritable fief, where his near-complete control has undermined the rule of law and enriched himself and his family.
“Any serious business done in Montenegro has to have his family or friends involved,” said Srdan Kosovic, 31, editor-in-chief of Vijesti, one of the few remaining independent media outlets.
The president’s sister is the nation’s top lawyer, helping foreign investors join in the building boom sweeping across the coast. His brother owns First Bank, the country’s largest financial institution. His son runs the country’s biggest power plant. His nephew is involved in the country’s largest tourism projects.
The corruption at the heart of the government has long been an open secret. But it was not until Dusko Knezevic, chairman of the Montenegro-based Atlas Group and a leading business figure, released a video in January showing how easily he could bribe a local politician that outrage turned to action.
Knezevic, who fled the country under threat of arrest, said the reaction to the video was a reflection of the deep anger in the country.
“I would be allowed to function as a businessman so long as I paid a tribute to Milo Djukanovic and helped to fund his party,” he wrote in an email. “This was something everyone working in Montenegro had to accept as a fact of life. Those who seek to oppose the system either go broke or get a bullet in the back of the head.”
The protests began in the capital, Podgorica, on Feb. 3. Week after week they gathered under the banner “Odpri Se,” or “Resist.” At their peak, protests drew 25,000 people in this country of 620,000.
They are part of a broader, though mostly thwarted, season of unrest in the Balkans.
In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, tens of thousands demonstrate every Saturday, but what was originally a grassroots movement is now largely driven by opposition politicians. President Alexander Vucic has only tightened his grip on the news media, law enforcement and the courts.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the anti-government protests over the winter have faded, and the country remains as dysfunctional as ever, divided along ethnic lines that have only hardened.
In Albania, protesters have been staging rallies for months, even trying to storm Parliament as they demand the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama, whom they accuse of corruption and of manipulating elections in 2017. Still, Rama, who is backed by both the United States and the European Union, appears secure in power.
Many in the Balkans had hoped that the prospect of joining the European Union might reinforce fledgling democracies. But with officials in Brussels absorbed in fending off threats from nationalists within the bloc, the European Union’s chief interest in the Balkans appears to be stability, even at the cost of democratic institutions, critics say.
In Montenegro, that is the widely held belief.
“The changes the government has made to appease the EU have been almost all cosmetic,” said Tatjama Crepulja, 44, an opposition politician in the coastal city of Kotor. “They will arrest some small fish, but the major corruption, the corruption at the heart of this government, they do nothing.”
As the weeks of protests in the region have turned to months with little to show for all the outrage, there is little faith that they will topple leaders. Djukanovic once again appears to have found a way to not only survive but stay on top as well.
“He is very flexible in terms of ideology,” said Kosovic, the editor. “He was a communist, a nationalist, a champion of independence, a friend of the West, and is now appealing to a new strain of Montenegro nationalism.”
As a young man, Djukanovic joined the Democratic Party of Socialists, a direct descendant of the Communists who ruled the country from the end of World War II to the breakup of Yugoslavia.
He was one of the “young lions” of Montenegro in 1989, leading street protests condemning government corruption as the seeds for the Balkans wars were being planted.
As he consolidated power in the 1990s, he allied himself with Serbia’s strongman, Slobodan Milosevic.
While Montenegrin forces fought in the Balkan wars, no battle was ever fought in the country itself, a fact that still helps him maintain support among older voters.
In 1997, the West recognized Djukanovic could be a counterweight to Milosevic and provided millions in financial support. Djukanovic switched allegiances, setting the country firmly in the Western camp.
Djukanovic has bounced between posts as president, prime minister and party boss, but with each move kept a viselike grip on power.
All the while, he has been dogged by allegations of corruption.
Italian prosecutors issued an order for Djukanovic’s arrest in 2005, accusing him of playing a key role in a conspiracy between Montenegrin officials and the Italian Mafia to smuggle cigarettes.
The charges were eventually dropped after Montenegro became independent from Serbia in 2006 and Italian courts granted Djukanovic diplomatic immunity.
Djukanovic, who declined to be interviewed, has denied breaking any laws.
Much of the alleged corruption has been fueled by booming tourism industry in a country now drawing more than 1 million visitors a year.
In the port city of Bar, the government has been trying to seize the most desirable land near the waterfront. But when developers began cutting down 200-year-old cypress trees loved by residents, the town fought back.
Eventually, the chain saws were shut off; the remaining cypress trees stand at attention behind a construction fence.
“It showed at the very local level, change is possible,” said Goran Jankovic, 32, a local architect.
On the national level, however, he was not as optimistic.
“It is the petty corruption, the day-to-day corruption that infects the country,” he said. “It is rotten to the core.”