Montenegro’s Chance for Change

Montenegro’s Chance for Change

The Adriatic country’s June 11 elections will be an opportunity for reformers to take charge.

Earlier this year, on March 19, the Montenegrin electorate went to the polls to elect a new president. The people delivered a seismic political upset by finally dislodging long-time President Milo Đukanović from the seat of power he held for thirty-three years. During that time, by constantly switching between the offices of prime minister and president, he built a system where he effectively became the state itself.

But that system was riddled with corruption and the influence of organized crime to such an extent that criminality had become all but legitimized. The tiny NATO member state has served as a backdoor into Europe for smugglers and money launderers for the past three decades. Western security and intelligence agencies spend billions of dollars countering the drugs and dirty cash that flow into Europe through the Adriatic statelet. A corrupt political class enables this by helping criminals avoid prosecution in exchange for bribes and other favors. So when Đukanović finally fell in March, Montenegro was presented with a historic opportunity for change.

But deposing “Milo” is only the first step in a long reform process. The system he created will outlast him unless the new government aggressively uproots it. This means the upcoming parliamentary elections on June 11 will serve as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul the country’s political system. For this reason, the eyes of the world—and specifically the U.S.—should be fixed upon events in Montenegro.

Out with the Old Guard, In with the New

Đukanović’s replacement as president is the fresh-faced, thirty-six-year-old reformer Jakov Milatović. He previously served as the minister for economic development in the short-lived government of Zdravko Krivokapić between 2020 and 2022. Standing on a moderate, economy-focused platform, Milatović is a technocratic centrist who hopes to lead his country into the European Union. But, to achieve this, he must first tackle the corruption and organized crime that have embedded themselves within the Montenegrin state and act as the main barrier to EU membership. Following the upcoming vote, the country’s new prime minister and parliamentary makeup will greatly affect Milatović’s ability to pursue his agenda.

Although Đukanović’s career is likely over forever, political forces with ties to organized crime have not simply disappeared. Indeed, they are ready and waiting to fill the void left by Milo and perpetuate the crooked status quo. The former mayor of Budva, Milo Božović, though recently arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking and other crimes, is one example of a politician who could maintain the Đukanović nexus. While Božović is not running in June, he was considered a rising star before his arrest in April. Milojko “Mickey” Spajić, Milatović’s one-time ally, could be another such example.

Spajić is the co-founder of Evropa Sad (Europe Now): the party he and Milatović are members of. The pair served together in the 2020–22 government before jointly establishing their own party a year ago. Spajić currently serves as party president and was originally the party’s intended candidate for national president against Đukanović in March. But his candidacy was rejected by the State Electoral Commission after it found he lied about possessing Serbian citizenship.

As in many countries, Montenegro’s constitution bars dual citizens from running for elected office due to concerns about split loyalties. Serbian citizenship is also particularly problematic due to the historical influence of Montenegro’s larger neighbor over the country’s affairs. Both nations were part of socialist Yugoslavia and remained together after that federation fell apart. In a referendum held in 2006, Montenegro voted for independence. However, around a third of Montenegro’s population identifies as ethnically Serb. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a significant property owner in the country and continues to hold considerable sway in national politics.

This history means Spajić’s Serbian citizenship badly damaged his image. But his botched attempts to cover it up only poured further fuel on the fire. First, Spajić sidestepped questions regarding his dual citizenship. But then he backtracked and claimed he obtained a Serbian passport to travel to Japan without a visa. Later, it emerged that Spajić owned significant real estate in Serbia registered in the name of his Serbian partner. This, combined with his unedifying flip-flopping, made his candidacy unviable, forcing Milatović to step in and take his place as their party’s standard bearer.

Scandals and Cryptocurrencies

Milatović’s historic victory in March may have stolen the limelight, but that doesn’t mean Spajić has left the stage entirely. He is still a household name, and, more importantly, his ambitions remain undimmed: Spajić is angling for the premiership after the parliamentary election, in which Evropa Sad may emerge as the largest party.

The president ultimately appoints the prime minister and, as the president of Milatović’s party, Spajić can make a convincing argument that he is the “natural” choice for prime minister. But the Montenegrin constitution does not specify that the president and the premier must come from the same party nor that the largest party in parliament is entitled to the premiership.

Although there will be a degree of behind-the-scenes pressure for Milatović to appoint Spajić as premier, this is not inevitable. A rift has formed between the two following the citizenship scandal because Spajić is embittered that Milatović got to lead the party into victory over Milo. But there are also serious concerns about Spajić’s character.

There have been well-publicized reports in the Montenegrin press on Spajiić’s links to the Russian crypto-tycoon Vitalik Buterin, who founded the cryptocurrency platform Ethereum. This has drawn significant public attention since Ethereum is the second-most prominent cryptocurrency after Bitcoin. Then, on Tuesday, Spajić was also forced to deny his alleged links to the crypto fraudster, Do Kwon. Kwon claimed in a letter sent to the outgoing prime minister, Dritan Abazović, that he enjoyed close ties with Spajić and even helped finance his party’s recent local election and presidential campaigns.

A U.S. federal grand jury has charged Do Kwon with securities fraud, commodities fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy to defraud investors for his role in Terra/Luna, one of the most infamous crypto Ponzi schemes ever. The links between crypto, money laundering, and organized crime are well known, and it is also well known that Spajić holds a particular interest in digital currencies. According to news reports published last year, Spajić had invited a group of global crypto experts to visit Montenegro, believing they could contribute to developing the country’s economy by attracting investments and creating new, high-paying jobs.

Spajić’s political opponents fear that, should he become prime minister, the tech-savvy thirty-five-year-old could use crypto to help entrench criminality in the country even further.  The vast patronage networks and clientelism built during the Milo years haven’t been dismantled, which means that anybody with enough political influence and desire could simply step in and fill the shoes that Đukanović left behind. If this were to happen, change in Montenegro would be merely cosmetic, with new faces replacing the old ones in a system where the ethos remains largely the same.

The Future is Decided on Election Day

It is impossible to know which path Spajić would take if he became premier. Still, there is increasingly substantial circumstantial evidence to believe that the direction could be the wrong one. This places the new president in a peculiar situation where he might hope that votes drift towards other reform-minded parties with an appetite for change. A heterogenous parliament would allow alternative candidates to emerge and arrange the deck in such a way that would create the cover for Milatović to choose a less prominent figure from a smaller party as his prime minister and pinning the blame for sidelining Spajić on coalition-building parliamentary arithmetic to avoid a political confrontation.

This could be good for the country because it would place someone who appears to be a genuine reformer in a position of power. But it would also benefit the president by marginalizing a political rival with serious question marks hanging over his character. Several alternatives might be a better choice for this position: the aforementioned former prime minister, Dritan Abazović, is one. During his time in office, he made serious attempts to tackle organized crime like cigarette trafficking. Similarly, his election running mate, Aleksa Bečić—a long-standing political opponent of the Đukanović regime—is another. A more outsider option is Vladimir Leposavic, the leader of Pravda za sve (Justice for All.)

A U.S.-educated lawyer who served in the Ministry of Justice and Human and Minority Rights and also in the 2020–22 cabinet, Leposavic has a reputation for decency and honesty. Like Milatović, he is a new, technocratic face and a clean break from the Đukanović years.

Because the fact is that Đukanović’s defeat was a beginning, not an end. And that, by removing him, Montenegro simply gained an opportunity to change course. But this is the moment when that opportunity is at its most fragile, and the battle for change could be over before it even gets a chance to begin if results go the wrong way on June 11.

Aleks Eror is a freelance journalist whose works have been published by Politico, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, and other publications.