The upcoming presidential election in Montenegro will be an opportunity for the country’s political future.

Ljubomir Filipović, analyst and former deputy mayor of Budva, told Euronews that “these presidential elections should not be taken lightly, despite the limited powers that the president of Montenegro has.”

The country is divided between two blocs – one that supports the country’s pro-European stance and another that leans towards Russia. This divide has led to frequent protests over the past three years.

However, recent events in Montenegro have made these elections even more crucial. In August 2020, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) was removed from power, and a coalition of nationalist and civic-oriented parties formed a government, which has since been restructured twice.

Although Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, it is still struggling to shake off Serbia’s attempts to influence its politics, particularly through the Orthodox Church.

Milo Đukanović, the incumbent president and DPS leader, played a crucial role in organizing the independence referendum and has branded himself as the sole defender of Montenegro’s sovereignty and pro-Western path.

In the presidential election, one of his opponents is Andrija Mandić of the Eurosceptic Democratic Front, a party that openly advocates closer ties with Russia and Serbia.

Filipović points out that this is not just a fight between Đukanović and his opponents, but a fight between two ideologies in Montenegro.

He said that “while Đukanović represents corruption, organized crime, captured institutions and a tendency towards political monopolization on the one hand, he also represents opposition to those who question Montenegro’s independence and sovereignty as a nation.”

“Those who are against Đukanović do not represent a strong enough resistance to the influence of Serbia and Russia in the country, especially through the Orthodox Church,” he stressed.

Battle between two churches

The struggle for control and influence over the religious and political landscape of Montenegro has been shaped by the ongoing feud between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC).

The Serbian Orthodox Church, which is closely aligned with the government in Belgrade and the Kremlin, has been accused of meddling in Montenegrin politics and spreading pro-Serbian propaganda.

The Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which split from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1993, has accused its counterpart of trying to undermine its independence.

The fight boiled over in 2019 when the Montenegrin government passed a law that would transfer ownership of religious properties from the SOC to the state.

The SOC saw this as an attempt to strip them of their influence and rallied their supporters, held protests and even encouraged their supporters to boycott the Montenegrin census, claiming it was biased against them.

On Thursday, Đukanović issued a decree dissolving parliament, days before the election and as the legal deadline of three months expired for former top diplomat and prime minister’s nominee Miodrag Lekić to form a government.

Recent iterations of the government, at one time led by Prime Minister Dritan Abazović of the green-civilian URA party, have been notoriously weak on SOC’s influence in the country, and the outcome of the presidential election will dictate how the next government will handle this sensitive question.

Not enough new blood

Jovana Marović, a respected member of civil society, was part of the URA party and government but recently resigned from her positions due to political differences.

She warned that both leading candidates in the election, including Đukanović and Mandić, could pose a challenge to the country’s democratic processes.

“The biggest problem is that not one of the candidates is a civic option,” she told Euronews.

Marović recalls that it was during Đukanović’s previous terms as prime minister and foreign minister that the country’s institutions were brought to their knees due to cronyism and corruption.

“Elections are always important in the Western Balkans because they define the general direction the country is heading. These elections come at a time when the country is experiencing a deep political crisis, and the results can significantly affect the democratic processes in the country,” she continued.

The third predecessor, Jakov Milatović, is a young economist from the increasingly popular Europe Now Movement. His party was not in parliament and a win for him could strengthen the party’s results in the parliamentary elections.

Montenegro is a forerunner in its European integration process and how the upcoming election is shaped may affect how quickly the country moves forward on this path.

Although the country has completed most of its tasks at the technical level, the unreformed legal sector remains a challenge due to high polarization in society, Marović stressed.

“On the other hand, the fact that there have been several government rotations after 30 years of what was effectively one-party rule. This is the healthiest way to strengthen a country’s democratic reflexes,” she concluded.