Montenegro: divisive elections and no government in sight

The Montenegrin democracy seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. The parliamentary elections on 16 October 2016 have highlighted longstanding political tensions and difficulties and put them in broad daylight, and the message for the Montenegrin democracy is indeed a difficult one. And the results confirm it.

One month after the elections, there is still no government, and the Parliament was constituted on 7th of November without the opposition, which does not recognise the results.

To highlight the tensions between the two main political blocks, the Prime Minister claims to have been the target of an attempted coup on election day, where the pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition would have orchestrated the plot and engaged Serbian and Russian citizens to carry it out.

The campaign was largely portrayed along two lines: first that the government under Prime Minister Djukanovic stands for the pro-EU and pro-NATO path towards a bright future, and that the opposition is backed by Russia, and the opposition’s claim that the government is corrupt and abusing its power. Both sides have credible arguments and the combination of them paints an ugly picture.

Given the accusations against the Prime Minister of involvement in organised crime, corruption and abuse of power, in combination with an opposition actively advocating closer ties with Russia rather than the EU and in particular NATO, the question is whether any of the options available is willing to actively strengthen democracy, rule of law and separation of powers.

The results

2016 was a rather turbulent year for Montenegrin politics, when four new parties were born out of the already existing ones, and MPs changing allegiance within the Palriament,which makes direct comparison of electoral results somewhat difficult. To complicate the comparison, also coalitions have changed. But nevertheless, the results are as follows, with incomplete figures from 2014 to give a broader picture:

Party Results 2016 Mandates Results 2012 Difference
Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, (DPS) 41.41 36 33 +3
Democratic Front (DF) (Coalition) 20.32 18 20 -2
Ključ (Coalition) 11.05 9 Not present 0
Democratic Montenegro (DCG) 10.8 8 Not present (new party) 0
Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (SDP) 5.23 4 6 -2
Social Democrats of Montenegro (SD) 3.26 2 Not present (new party)  
Bosniak Party (BS) 3.16 2 3 -1
Albanians Decisively (AO) (Coalition) 1.27 1 Not present 0
Croatian Civic Initiative (HGI) 0.47 1 1 0


The Parliament has 81 seats, with a threshold of 3%. Minority parties covering more than 15% of the population have a threshold of 0.7%, except from Croats, which have a lower limit of 0.3%.

The ruling DPS won an ambiguous victory, and needs to seek a coalition partner to secure a majority. It has long been in coalition with the SDP, which won 4 seats. That is not enough to form a government, even if the SD would be willing to enter into coalition with the DPS again.

The opposition, on the other hand, is seemingly too shattered to get together and form a new government and to reach its long standing goal of ousting Mr Djukanovic. Internal splits and new party creations have not helped the opposition to unite, not even the parties which carry largely the same agenda.

As such, it may take considerable time before a government is formed. In fact, the negotiations are discreet and have not created much rumour.

The long reign of Milo Djukanovic

Milo Djukanovic has been in power since the first multiparty elections in 1991, either as prime Minister (1991-1998, 2002-2006, 2008-2010, and 2012 to present) or as President (1998-2002) apart from two periods of retirement between 2006-2008 and 2010-2012. As such, he and his party DPS have been the backbone of Montenegrin power for over 25 years. In fact, given that Mr Djukanovic started his political career in the Montenegrin communist party, and that DPS is a splinter from the Communist party, the country has not seen a transition of power from former communists to another political party.

He has proven to be a political chameleon, moving from being a part of the Communist party and even a close ally of Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1980’s, to becoming a Montenegrin nationalist and pro-independence advocate. He is also behind the Montenegrin EU application and opening membership negotiations, and as late as in 2015 Montenegro was invited by NATO to become members, which he advocates.

Allegations of corruption, electoral fraud and abuse of power

As such it is excusable to believe that he would be an advocate of deeper democratic reforms and protector of the rule of law, given that these are prerequisites for EU and NATO membership and corner stones of a modern state seeking international legitimacy. But Montenegro demonstrates serious problems with these aspects, where Freedom House reports that “abuse of power, misuse of public resources for party purposes, and excessive employment within the public administration remain common issues.”

Mr Djukanoviv has long been accused of being involved in, or at least associated with, organised crime, in particular cigarette smuggling , and he was even investigated by Italian prosecutors at one point in time but the investigations could not proceed due to his immunity as the then Prime Minister of Montenegro.

These are heavy allegations indeed, and the allegations continue to follow him. As such, he is a divisive figure in Montenegro, although seen with some respect for his achievements during his reign.

Given these allegations against Mr Djukanovic and his rule, it is natural that the opposition has focused its campaign on corruption, abuse of power and electoral fraud. In September 2015 the opposition alliance Democratic Front (DF) initiated protests against the government claiming that the government did not enjoy the legitimacy to organise free and fair elections, accusing the Prime Minister of electoral fraud and misuse of state funds for party political purposes. After some weeks of protests, the Police met the demonstrators with tear gas. As the situation turn violent, people got injured, including opposition politicians.

The demonstrations continued well into late winter, and the immediate crisis ended with an agreement between the government and the opposition where a number of ministers were replace with opposition figures. The aim was to break some of the power and direct control over key aspects of the state and the organisation of the elections.

The opposition and ties to Russia

Djukanovic on the other hand, claimed that the protests were in fact orchestrated by Russia with the goal to derail the Montenegrin NATO bid. The opposition is in fact to a large extent set up by a number of pro-Russian, pro-Serbian parties which are strongly opposing a future NATO membership.

Both being Slav and Orthodox countries, Russia and Montenegro have held tight ties up until recently. Hundreds of thousands of Russians make Montenegro their holiday destination each year, and as many as 30% of Montenegrin companies are Russian owned. As such, Russian interests and influences in Montenegro have been relatively strong.

However, Montenegro joined sanctions against Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, a move which has cooled down the relationship. It deteriorated further as NATO invited Montenegro to join the Alliance, a move which may be seen as more geopolitical than actually driven by common values and interests.

But nevertheless, Russia is trying to keep relations close, and has been courting the opposition parties actively during the spring.

The pro-Russian camp in Montenegro is also pro-Serbian, which means that it opposed national independence and would have preferred to remain in state union with Serbia after the referendum on independence in 2006. In fact, about 30% of the inhabitants in Montenegro identify themselves as Serbs, and almost 45% declare that they speak Serbian. They tend to side with Serbian nationalists on a number of issues, including on EU and in particular NATO membership, and relations to Russia.

The deal

The demonstrations were only one part of the protests. The biggest opposition party (which is in effect a coalition of parties), the Democratic Front (DF) boycotted Parliament between October 2015 and May 2016,and this only ended when the opposition and government came to an agreement on the division of power and how to proceed with the elections. The deal, which had been facilitated by the EU, meant that four ministers and one deputy prime minister were to be allocated to the opposition parties.

The ministries affected were the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare. In addition, a new speaker of Parliament was elected and a set of committees monitoring the electoral process were set up. The deal was signed by the governing DPS and its junior partner Social Democrat Party (SDP), plus the opposition parties Demos, URA Civic Movement, the Bosniak Party and the Social Democrats. The DF, which started the protests, did not sign.

New parties and splits

It should be noticed that both Demos and URA Civic Moment are two brand new parties, where Demos is the new creation of the former leader of DF who left that party in 2015 to set up Demos, and URA which is led by a former SDP leader. In fact, 2015 was the year when four new parties were born in Montenegro through the splitting of existing parties.

Although nothing strange in the Balkans, the phenomenon was, somewhat ironically, labelled the “Gemino spell” after a spell in Harry Potter where things double when touched, creating “dozens of parties which are indistinguishable copies of one another.”

Such moves do not help strengthening the opposition, but are rather signs of the personalised aspects of politics, where disagreements are met by split rather than programmatic debate within the party. The result is, however, that the opposition parties that started the protests and demonstrations did not sign the deal. Indeed, they also refuse to recognise the electoral results.

The elections

Election day was generally calm and orderly, and voting was overall smooth, according to international observers. The opposition, however, highlighted a number of incidents which they denounced to the court. In addition to these accusations, there were a handful of returning difficulties, which international observers continue to point out: the electoral list is contested, media is biased and keep a low level of quality, and party funding is far from transparent.

First, the electoral list is a typical matter of concern in many countries, and also in Montenegro there are allegations of duplications, dead persons still on the list, etc. In fact, the list contained 528,817 persons in a country with an estimation of 622,218 inhabitants according to official statistics, leaving 85% of the population as eligible voters. As the opposition claims that this number is too high, an electronic system to clean up the list has been developed and put in use. However, when the Minister of Interior, coming from the opposition, needed to sign the list, he refused to do so arguing that it had not been properly cleaned from false entries. Eventually, a solution was found as a secretary signed it, but the doubt of the accuracy remains.

Second, the Montenegrin media is divided along political lines, and far from free and open, leaving it difficult for the population to make an informed choice. Government officials show “blatant favouritism” towards certain media outlets, and journalists, not only independent such, face “threats, attacks, and vandalism of their property”, leading to self-censorship and editorials being everything but independent. This puts Montenegro as number 106 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index, and affects the possibility for the electorate to get a broad and in depth analysis of the choices available, hampering the free choice.

Thirdly, the funding of political party is far from transparent. The ODIHR election monitoring mission writes that “All campaign finance transactions must be carried out through a specially designated bank account[…]. Some parties opened campaign accounts late or reported little or no donations”. At the same time, the EU points out that “There has been no political follow-up to the alleged abuse of public funds for party political purposes” underlining the international concerns on this issue.

At the bottom of these concerns lie worries about where the parties get their funding from, and how they use it. The “Audio recording affair” which broke in 2013 show that the governing Democratic Party of Socialists offer jobs and loans to party donors and supporters.  At the same time the government accuse parts of the opposition to receive funds from Russia, which is indeed illegal as foreign funding is prohibited by law.

The lack of transparency regarding party funding is deeply worrying, in particular in combination with the severe accusations form both political sides, and international worries in addition. It casts a shadow over the level of separation between party and state, and the level of political corruption in the country. A shadow which has been better defined and more evident during the electoral campaign and the aftermath of the elections. The Montenegrin democracy is indeed caught between a rock and a hard place.

Contingent direct exchange*

Vote, vote,“, they told us, “vote and she’ll get a job.”

The woman in front of me could at a glance mistakenly be taken as about 70 years old. The wrinkles in her face, the four missing upper front teeth, her style of dress. But her playful glittering eyes and a quick calculation of her daughters’ age reveals that she is no more than 55 years old. Maximum.

I know her. She’s hard working, doing her best to make ends meet. Maybe she, like so many of her generation, only has elementary schooling. 5 years. She definitely does not understand the fine grains of politics, only that jobs are promised by politicians and sometimes you get one if you vote for the winner.

Her daughters are of the new generation. Educated, both with a profession. It was one of the girls that would have got a job at a hotel in exchange for the family’s votes.

“But of course she did not get the job. Someone else got it”. You could almost touch the disappointment in her voice. They needed that extra income. Like so many other families struggling in southern Italy’s small towns. It is easy to fall prey to politicians empty words when hope is almost the last thing you have to cling to.

Some 500 km further north, not far from the Capital, a commune is holding early elections.

I am told by a friend that the candidate who is openly awash with money “has no political affiliation, all the money comes from private donations.” A senator is apparently involved. Another prominent person from the south who moved in just six months ago is working as head of the campaign. There are other rich, influential people involved.

I am told about the non-affiliation to political parties and private donations to be assured that this particular candidate is independent, not involved in the dirty politics of Italian parties. Instead I hear alarm bells.

The commune council, including the Mayor, have been removed from power by the Court. The Mayor himself has been found guilty of neglect and abuse of power (and accused of much more), and will have to pay hundreds of thousands of euro to his former employer.

The commune is beautifully set with breathtaking natural scenery, all now depressingly littered with rubbish as the commune is brought to the brink of collapse. But the rubbish itself is also an economic attractions. The commune hosts a hub for waste. Lots of money involved in waste management. There are voices about the Neapolitan mafia Camorra infiltrating the local businesses.

It is here the private donations enter.

Because contingent direct exchange does not only work in the sense that politicians promise personal goods and benefits to voters, but also that politicians promise goods to donors. It is such an ingrained aspect of the Italian political life that is is hardly even questioned.

Upcoming politicians-to-be may fall an easy prey to forces stronger than they expected. Or perhaps they knew exactly what they entered when accepting the money and didn’t care.

The point is that the free vote is perhaps not as free as one would hope. That is not acceptable in a democracy.


*The interested reader can find more about contingent direct exchange in for example Kitschelt and Wilkinson, eds (2007) Patrons, Clients, and Policies: Patterns of democratic Accountability and Political Competition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Elections in Serbia 2016: The game that backfired

I wrote this analysis for Baltic Worlds, a scientific, peer-reviewed online journal, where the original piece is posted. Visit their Election Coverage for more great electoral analysis! 

Serbia held early Parliamentary elections for the second time since 2012 on 24th April, together with regional elections in Vojvodina and local elections in a majority of communes.

The early elections were called by the Prime minister, Alexandar Vučić, with the argument that he needed a longer period to ensure stability to oversee the opening and first phases of EU membership negotiations. But the move has been widely interpreted as a cynical attempt to consolidate, or even increase power now when Vučić has managed to open EU negotiations and at the same time the opposition against the EU in Parliament is weak.

However, that was a move which backfired quite substantially. At first it looked like it was going to be quite an easy victory, but after the nationalist right wing leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted of all the accusations against him in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the electoral game changed quite radically.

But despite the re-entrance of anti-EU and pro-Russia forces in Parliament, the vote was quite substantially interpreted as a strong approval of the governments EU policy. In fact, the results of these elections are widely interpreted as a referendum on how Serbia should relate to the EU and the recently opened membership negotiations. From this point of view the governing SNS got a strong mandate from the population to continue the road towards EU membership and away from the past.

The elections were generally deemed as in accordance with international standards, efficiently administered and in concordance with the law. EU representatives have praised both the result and the electoral process. However, international observers took notice of the biased media coverage, which gave “undue advantage” to incumbency. The collected opposition asked to review the electoral material in protest to what they claim to be rigged elections, and promised to stage protests if they did not pass the 5% threshold to enter Parliament. Electoral irregularities were identified in 15 polling stations, and reruns were held on 4 May. The opposition parties eventually all entered Parliament with a tiny margin, two parties even with fractions of a percent.

This analysis of the elections is divided as follows: first a discussion on the EU integration and Serbia’s relation with the EU. That is followed by a discussion on the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Then the results will be discussed and the analysis will end with some words on the possible new government, the role of the divided opposition and the state of the Serbian democracy.


The given reason for snap elections: EU integration

Vučić campaigned on portraying himself and his party as the road towards the future, against extremists from the past. And this future is the EU, there is no other option. This became even more pronounced as the far right nationalist Vojislav Šešelj, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav War of dissolution, was acquitted from all accusations in March. His return to politics showed clearly what Vučić claimed he wanted to leave behind.

The role of Serbia and its former nationalistic leader Slobodan Milošević in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia, and the crisis in Kosovo put the country at logger heads against the EU and NATO. Milošević ruled Serbia, and later the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, until 2000 when he was forced from power. His authoritarian regime and policies were consequently strongly anti-EU and anti-NATO, pursuing a nationalist rhetoric and politics along the lines of Greater Serbia in the region, seeing the EU and in particular NATO as the enemy which forced Serbia to give up on Kosovo and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After his removal from power Serbia has struggled to find a new path, balancing the past and the challenges for the future. The process of democratising Serbia, leaving the authoritarian and nationalistic past has been difficult. The Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003 when he challenged organised crime and the power of the former security structures under Milošević. The nationalists have preferred a pro-Russian foreign policy, in particular since Russia is backing the Serbian position on Kosovo and Srebrenica. Overcoming these forces and pursuing a pro-EU path is not uncontroversial in Serbian politics. This is an achievement to be recognised.

All along, the EU has worked hard to pull Serbia closer, to make both politicians and the population embrace democracy, rule of law and human rights, and the EU itself. It has not been easy, as both Serbian and member state interests have at times clashed. One such moment was when the Netherlands halted the Serbian Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2006 over disputes regarding cooperation with the ICTY. Today Croatia opposes opening negotiations on two central chapters of the Acquis and demand that Serbia strengthen the situation of the Croat minority and act stronger on war crimes.

But despite these difficulties, the EU and Serbia could open membership negotiations through the adoption of a negotiating framework in 2013. This process started in earnest in 2013 as some important hurdles regarding Kosovo were agreed to be dealt with. Many Serbs feel that Kosovo is an integrated part of Serbia, and it’s possible, indeed highly likely, separation from Serbia through an EU membership has kept many against the EU. Many EU members have recognised Kosovo as an independent state, adding fuel to the fire. This is the most sensitive issue in Serbian politics, perhaps in all Western Balkans, and it has taken finely calibrated diplomacy mixed with geopolitical realpolitik to come to the conclusion that Serbia is better off in the EU than outside in partnership with Russia.

Given this background, the strong support for the pronounced pro-EU is a huge success for the EU and pro-EU forces in the country.


The return of ultra-nationalism

However, that victory was somewhat clouded by the return of the ultra-nationalists in Parliament. Ultra-nationalism has a long history in Serbia, with several prominent politicians and parties in parliament coming from either Milošević’s SPS, or Šešelj’s SRS. Both Vučić and the President Nikolić come from the SRS, and the SPS is the second biggest party in Parliament. But the most extreme party, the SRS, which is anti-EU and pro-Russian, have been pushed aside the last couple of years, losing their seats in 2012. After that they have almost been considered a force of the past.

However, Šešelj, who has been under trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the ICTY, was cleared from all charges in March 2016. The acquittal surely overturned Vučić’s calculations completely, and he has in fact accused the ICTY to be biased against Serbia politics by acquitting him so close before the elections. The timing of Šešelj’s return to Serbian politics made it possible to get maximum media coverage before the elections without needing to make a strong effort or to pay much advertisement. His release naturally made the headlines without him needing to do more than being visible.

Commentators have warned that Šešelj’s release could be seen as a possibility for other politicians, the PM Vučić included, to clean their pasts and even legitimising some of their nationalist stands, as there will always be the more radical SRS to compare with. That is indeed something which needs to be monitored by the opposition and analysts in Serbia, particularly in the light of the fear that the quality of democracy is weakening.

The right wing parties have fed on the growing discontent with Vučić’s pro-EU stands and the austerity policies coming in the heels of a poor economy. The SRS and the DSS/Dveri coalition will not be strong enough to substantially challenge Vučić, but would be able to voice their anti-EU and anti-NATO opinions in Parliament and give Vučić considerable trouble at times, in particular regarding deals concerning Kosovo.

Vučić, in turn, does not turn the back on Russia, rather the opposite. He is actively pursuing a sensitive balancing act, perhaps leaning towards his former political preferences, but being clear that an EU membership is the strategic goal of Serbia. Vučić, has managed to balance the EU and Russia in a delicate equilibrium allowing Serbia to continue towards the EU without upsetting either Russia or the nationalists substantially. Serbia even participated with troops in the traditional Russian military parade celebrating the victory in the Second World War on May 9 2015, recognising the common foreign policy interests in some areas and the domestic dynamics in Serbia.


The results

The final results, as announced on May 5, were as follows (it should be noted that the coalitions are not exactly the same from one year to another):

Party Vote 2016 Mandates 2016 Mandates 2014
Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) coalition 48,25% 131 158
Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) coalition 10,95% 29 44
Democratic Party (DS) coalition 6,02% 16 19
Social democratic Party of Serbia (SDS) coalition 5,02% 13 18
Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 8,10% 22 0
Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) coalition with  Dveri 5,04% 13 0
Enough is Enough 6,02% 16 0
Others 10 11


The category “others” is made up of parties representing ethnic minorities and which do not need to pass the 5% threshold.

The governing SNS and its (former?) governing party Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by the former Milošević protégée Dačić did both lose seats, together as many as 43. It is thus very clear that rather than strengthening his position in Parliament, Vučić has actually lost ground. And he lost to his former party and leader, the Serbian radicals under Vojislav Šešelj, plus a new reformist minded movement, both representing diametrically different views of how Serbia should be governed. The outgoing, and very likely incoming, Prime minister is having a very different hand to play with than he could have imagined when he declared that the snap elections were needed.

The opposition parties, which stood against Milošević during his time in power, the Democratic Party (DS), led by Pajlić, and its splinter party Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDS), led by the former President Boris Tadić, also lost ground, and holds not even 30 seats together. They have been the effective pro-democracy, pro-EU force in Serbian politics until that role was taken by the SNS.

In this sense, the majority of parties represented in the 2014 Parliament were all losers in this election. The winners were those who entered at the expense of the parties already present, in particular the SRS which won as many as 22 seats.

The right wing nationalists, represented by Serbian Radical Party (SRS) with Šešelj as its most prominent member, and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by the former prime minister Koštunica, which entered into coalition with the pro-Russian group Dveri, together won 35 seats, giving them a substantial platform in parliament to disturb the SNS in its negotiations with the EU and the necessary reforms to conclude the negotiations, but not enough to effectively block legislation.

The second new force in parliament is the party Enough is Enough led by the former minister for economy, Saša Radulović. They did not pass the threshold in 2014, and took a substantial leap forwards in these elections. This party based their campaign almost solely on digital platforms and social media, as they felt excluded from and discriminated by the traditional media. Nevertheless, they took 16 seats and represent a different political force in Serbia. They are pro-EU and pro-reform, and accuse Vučić of not being able to solve the real problems of the country: that of corruption. Radulović has vowed to never enter into coalition with the SNS, nor its partners.


Setting up a new government

It seems like one of the aims of Mr Vučić with the snap elections was to distance himself from the governing partner SPS rather than making a reshuffle of the government. The game to form a government has started, and while Vučić was initially hesitant to invite the SPS for talks, it seem like he eventually will need to in order to secure their backing on regional and local level, in particular in some key communes, where it in certain areas is crucial for the SNS to get an absolute majority to be able to pursue their policies. Such a move would go against the pre-election indication given by Vučić that he did not necessarily trust the SPS and its leader, and also against post-election statements that the sole coalition partner in government for the SNS would be the Alliance of Vojvodinan Hungarians, holding four seats.

There will surely be some political dancing back and forth before a government is settled. But given the SNS’s actual loss of seats in Parliament and the need for SPS backing locally, the SPS will most likely eventually be invited by the SNS and will probably accept the invitation after having strapped some desirable posts as ministers or other political positions.


A divided opposition

With the democratic opposition from the early 1990’s decimated, the return of right wing nationalism as a political force, and a third pro-reform party entering Parliament, it is obvious that the opposition is divided. Although they did get together to protest against alleged electoral fraud, it is unlikely that they will pose a strong, efficient, united opposition against the SNS and its possible future coalition parties.

Boris Tadić is making an effort to unite the opposition, which may have only one single point in common to unite around: the wish to weaken the SNS and Vučić. Šešelj, however, is showing few signs of wanting to cooperate with the rest of the opposition, or indeed to attack Vučić, as of yet.

But at the same time as we conclude that the opposition is weak and fragmented, it is important that they function efficiently. Vučić has been accused of being a Putin-like leader, and under his watch the press freedom has considerably weakened, and he is named in person by the Freedom House as putting pressure on media. He and his government have also been noticed to be sensitive about criticism in general, including by civil society and watchdogs like the Ombudsman. These are developments which have prompted the growth of Enough is Enough and similar movements protesting against the high level of corruption and the attacks against free speech and media freedom.

Commentators notice that Vučić has been good at talking the talk on issues such as the fight against corruption, but has achieved little. There are those who fear that this strong pro-EU mandate will give him the opportunity to show good results on EU reforms and negotiations, while at the same time close an eye regarding democratic standards. Some even predict a scenario similar to that in Hungary: weakened democracy and rule of law but without a significantly weakened EU commitment. Although he has a weakened position in Parliament, the SNS coalition still holds an absolute majority. A weak and divided opposition will have little to set against the government, and that may be a bad prospect for Serbia and its level of democracy.

From this point of view, Vučić may not be the ideal partner for the EU, although they have solidly backed the Vučić government and have expressed their satisfaction with the electoral results. Given the strong pro-EU mandate given by the electorate, the EU should be able to afford to be somewhat critical towards Serbia, in particular regarding press freedom and the general state of democracy and rule of law. It is true that the Radicals and their partners are pro-Russian, and it is true that Russia is particularly offensive regarding foreign policy at the moment, but that should not steer the EU away from being tough on the core EU values for the fear of pushing the country towards the nationalists. There are other forces to collaborate with in the country and to strengthen, such as Radulovic’s party. That is a potentially good platform to build on, and which can function as a further lever of democratic norms into the Serbian society. That would be good not only for Serbia, but for the entire region.

Macedonian early elections: an opportunity to break with the past

So the date is set. The invitations are out. Even the grumpy old uncles will be there whether we like it or not.

But now?

Macedonia is facing its fourth consecutive early parliamentary elections  on June 5th 2016. The reason for these early elections is the difficult political crisis which culminated during 2015 when the opposition party SDSM decided to publish transcripts and recordings of wiretapped conversations between high level politicians, business men, journalists and others. These recordings revealed in detail how high level politicians had been involved in electoral fraud, abuse of power and corruption.

It was obvious that the levels of trust between the two main political parties, the governing VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition SDSM were exhausted. The SDSM had already boycotted Parliament since after the early elections in April 2014, claiming that the ruling VMRO-DPMNE had won through fraud. They continued to stay out of parliament until 1 September 2015.

During the spring of 2015, after the publications of the transcripts and recordings, the international community got involved, and the EU entered and brokered a deal, called the Przino agreement,  including the resignation of Mr Gruevski and the preparations for early elections. SDSM returned to Parliament in September 2015, and participated in the preparation of a revised electoral law. The election date was set for 24 April 2016, and parliament was to be solved 60 days before, on 24 February. But after a marathon session on the eve of  this dissolution,  it was decided to postpone the elections to the 5th June, in order to be able to prepare the elections properly.

While the dynamics behind the political crisis are both disturbing and yet food for analysis and debate, there is now reason to look forward towards the elections themselves. What could we expect?

The deal from 2 June 2015 explicitly states that in order to hold free and fair elections, the State Election Committee should be strengthened, and that all recommendations from the OSCE/ODIHR should be implemented. That includes a revision of the always contested voter list and the potential pressure on voters and abuse of state resources during the campaign period.

The electoral law was amended according to the Przino agreement in November 2015, but there is broad agreement that this needs to be further revised after the elections. Continuous revision of the electoral law is neither new, nor uncommon, in Macedonia’s modern history. But it is a bad habit to repeatedly leave out the same aspects over and over again, and thus avoid writing a good and acceptable law which suits a country aspiring to join the EU. Such moves question the democratic dedication of a country.

But a good law is far from enough to conduct good elections. Macedonia’s post-communist elections have a history of troubles, in particular after the armed crisis in 2001. Violence was of concern until the disastrous elections in 2008, when the two Albanian parties DPA and DUI clashed heavily during the campaign, and one person was shot dead and eight wounded during election day.

It was obvious to anyone that the violence had to be dealt with once and for all.

That was done through two moves: first, the responsible DPA minister of interior lost his seat in government as DUI replaced the DPA as the VMRO-DPMNE. Now the DPA trouble makers did not any longer enjoy the protection by the Police. Second, Mr Gruevski realized that violent elections were damaging not only the country’s reputation, but also the legitimacy of his victory, and ordered total calm for the 2009 local elections. That has been kept ever since.

What happened next is that the physical violence was replaced by a more subtle version: voter intimidation.

Or rather: the visible problems have gone from being a violent battle for votes between two Albanian parties to become an administrative battle over votes between the two biggest (Macedonian) parties.

The VMRO-DPMNE allegedly set out to force employees in the public administration to find up to 30 voters each, and to ensure that they would vote for the governing party. VMRO-DPMNE has denied this to me in interviews, and said that they only targeted party members within the public administration, and that such call-centres were perfectly legitimate.

These allegations have been published in Macedonian media, including transcripts of the conversations, but it is prudent to believe that these are no new habits, as VMRO-DMPNE came with counter accusations, and that voter intimidation has been reported earlier also during SDSM-led governments. What is however worrying is the apparent scale of it, and that it seems to be very well organized.In addition it i s aditurbing sing of poor, or absent, division between party politics and the state.

In fact, commentators see this as part of a broader trend where the VMRO-DMPNE is creating an atmosphere of fear where citizens feel controlled by the government, and even on the road towards a more authoritarian state. Stronger clientelistic structures would be a part of this trend.

The elections of 2016 are in this context an opportunity to really break with the past. First, it is clear that Gruevski cannot come back and lead the country towards anything closer to EU membership. His credibility is exhausted and his means of governing are not in line with EU criteria for membership. If the VMRO-DPMNE is reelected, and he returns to power, the EU will have a difficult situation, but it will be almost impossible to endorse him as nothing has happened. Doing so would legitimize his increasingly non-democratic rule, state capture and set a difficult precedence in the region by the EU.

However, there are commentators that voice concern ( see also here) over the willingness to actually acknowledge such irregularities and to take strong action.

It is also an opportunity to break with voter intimidation and electoral malpractice. Such a move takes political courage and support by (domestic) electoral monitors. It is the duty of domestic observers and law enforcement to investigate claims about voter intimidation and electoral malpractice, and to bring out evidence. The new electoral law from November 2015 has strengthened the State Election Commission and given it more investigative resources, but the question is if that is enough to defend the free vote of the citizens.

The revelations coming from the wiretapping scandal show that high level politicians and power holders have been deeply involved in disturbing illegal practices. These persons are likely to fight hard to avoid losing power and ending up in court.

Although the campaign period is officially one month, the preparations for elections are already underway, and it is difficult to imagine that all political parties are preparing according to best international practices. It is unfortunately likely that it will become harder and dirtier by the day.

The opportunity to break with the past, both regarding political culture, electoral practices and general political behaviour, it there. It takes courage and determination, but if it is not taken, the risk is that Macedonia will slip even further away from democracy, rule of law, and good governance, and subsequently a closer relationship with the EU. That would not be good either for the country or its citizens.

Although there are many aspects of the past needed to be broken with, the upcoming elections is a first, and very important, opportunity. It should be taken, and taken seriously.

In the end, the international community, and in particular the OSCE/ODIHR will have the difficult task to judge whether the elections were free and fair. That is to a large extent a political decision, having to balance good progress with reported fraud and malpractice. That is indeed an ungrateful task, but also part of the opportunity.


If you want to read more about Macedonian elections, I have published a chapter here (no 5), and here (no 6). 


The EU in the Western Balkans: a political failure?

This is a translation of an op-ed I wrote and published in the Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet 25 December 2015.

“The EU risks a political fiasco in the Western Balkans”

After little more than a decade of relative tranquillity in the Western Balkans, the interest of the EU and its member states has declined. At the same time, research, analysis and understanding of the region have decreased substantially. In parallel with the fact that thee armed unrests have calmed down and the countries in the region have reformed in line with the EU membership criteria, it is excusable to think that all is well: that peace, democracy, and respect for human rights have taken root in the region. Unfortunately that is not the situation, and the Western Balkans is on its way back onto the agenda, and for all the wrong reasons.

Perhaps the most apparent reason is the current refugee crisis, where the countries in the region lack the resources, and perhaps even the willingness, to help the large amount of people going through the region on their way to the EU. This challenges the internal and external stability of the region. The second is more worrying; that the quality of democracy and rule of law has declined during the last years. That is the result of several linked processes which have been ongoing for quite some time. The third is the ever present, but recently increased, Russian interest in the region.

We can, unfortunately, observe backsliding and worsening of the situation in several countries. Macedonia has gone towards an increasingly authoritarian leadership and is going through a deep political crisis. Molotov cocktails have become uncomfortably common in the Kosovo Parliament. Important political processes are being blocked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with increased political tension in its footsteps. There is indeed a risk that we could face crises which were foreseeable and preventable.

Given this, and the large amounts of resources that the EU has spent on reforming the Western Balkans into a stable region which would eventually become EU members, it is obvious that the capacity and image of the EU as a strong foreign policy player is at risk. It has been very difficult to promote democracy and rule of law in the region, and Russia’s increasingly intense activities, in particular in Serbia, could force some countries in the region to take side in what Moscow seemingly see as a zero-sum game.

In my PhD thesis from Uppsala University I show that the transformative power of the EU in the Western Balkans is not only weaker that previously assumed, but also that the EU actively avoids acting strongly in situations where EU rules and standards are not respected and complied with. The wish to be a positive actor, spreading the core values of the EU regarding democracy, rule of law and human rights has had the unintended consequence that the EU instead actively avoids the use of stronger power tools such as sanctions.

The effect is that the EU manages to induce formal reforms of fundamental democratic structures, but face a much more difficult situation when it comes to changing the underlying values. My research shows that EU has been successful in changing laws and regulations, but not in changing values and behaviour. The consequences are that the laws and the structures lack a normative foundation and could easily be reversed if wished to. This means that democracy and rule of law are built on the surface, without deeper fundaments and risk remaining weak and unstable.

This represents a dilemma for the EU. If, in this situation, the Western Balkan countries are invited to closer cooperation and even membership negotiations, with the aim to show signs of positive developments and integration, the risk is that it signals that geopolitics are the core aspects for coming closer to the EU and not the quality of the state as such. There is also a risk that the pattern observed is strengthened in such a case.

The alternative is to be tough: to openly say that the countries in the Western Balkans are welcome into the EU, but that they have to deal with the necessary reforms to fit in. But that could on the other hand result in a process where the countries in most need of reforms instead distance themselves and turn towards other regional powers.

It is here that the newly re-awakened Russian interest for the region comes into the picture. Russia is continuously present, in particular regarding energy issues, but also through a general political interest, in particular for Serbia and Montenegro. Russia has supported Serbia in certain foreign policy matters, in particular about Kosovo but also regarding Srebrenica. The interests are mutual: Serbia participated with troops for the Russian commemoration of the end of the Second World War last summer.

The fact that Serbia opened EU membership negotiations on 14th of December 2015 should be seen in this light: the EU tries to get a better control over the developments in the region.

Given all the resources, money, experience, time and knowledge which have been invested by the EU and its member states in the region, there is a risk that the EU is approaching a big foreign policy failure. It is not at all certain that all the resources have had only positive effects on the society, its laws and guiding norms. Or indeed the will to join the European Union. This is an important geopolitical issue for the entire EU and all its member states, which has been well exemplified by the events in Ukraine the last years.

It is thus about time for the EU and its member states to dare to show some political creativity in the Western Balkans and dare to show some leadership. Partly to lend confidence to its role as a foreign policy actor, where the failure to transform countries which want to join the EU is becoming increasingly clear. And partly to strengthen its position against an increasingly more intensive Russia which is more or less discreetly courting the countries in the Western Balkans and is giving clear indications that this is also their sphere of interests, with a right to influence both domestic and foreign policy issues.

By continuing along the same path as always, we risk repeating the same pattern: formal, shallow reforms while old behaviour and values prevail. It is time to dare to change the policy towards the region. Deeper changes will not come about through laws and institutions only, but a more active approach is needed if the EU and its member states really want to see change. No one could afford Potemkin villages without content, neither the citizens of the Western Balkan countries, nor the EU and its member states.