Recent parliamentary elections in Montenegro hold an unclear future for the country. Russia’s role in this future is also under question.

 Montenegro's Prime Minister and long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists leader Milo Djukanovic, center, speaks in his party headquarters, in Podgorica, Montenegro, early Monday, Oct. 17, 2016.

Montenegro, an Adriatic country with a significant pro-Russian segment of the population, held parliamentary elections on Oct. 16. Given the ongoing debate over the country’s relationship with Russia and the possibility of Montenegro becoming the next member of NATO, these elections turned out to be the most contentious and most closely observed by international audiences since introduction of a multi-party system in this Balkan country.

While Montenegrin voters are still waiting for the final results, a preliminary unofficial count indicates that the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) will likely occupy 35 seats in the 81-seat parliament and the main opposition Democratic Front will receive 18 mandates.

The chief of the DPS and the incumbent Prime Minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, who has occupied leading positions in the Montenegrin government without break for the last 25 years, has announced that he will easily cooperate with minority parties (Bosniak, Albanian and Croatian) in order to remain in power. At the same time, the leaders of opposition said that they would form a coalition government in a joint initiative, which would finally allow them to oust Djukanovic.

Despite these largely inconclusive results and clear signs of deep divisions in the public opinion, a number of European Union officials as well as influential Western media outlets have praised the “victory” of the pro-NATO DPS. Some even welcomed the efforts of Djukanovic in directing his country “towards the European future” and shielding it from “Russian colonization.”

Commentators have pointed out that, for better or for worse, the anti-Djukanovic opposition is internally divided, while over last two decades the prime minister and his team have been very skilful in exploiting disagreements of their counterparts and turning every election into a referendum: for or against Miloševic, for or against the country’s independence, for or against European integration, etc.

For Russia, Montenegro is important for several reasons. First, there is the economic factor. Over the most recent decade, Montenegro has become one of the key destinations of Russian investment in the Balkans. Russian projects in the tourism, property and construction sector, as well as the extraction industry, have been instrumental for Montenegro’s spectacular economic growth.

Second, Montenegro still remains the only non-NATO country on the Adriatic Sea, even though it was invited to join the organization in May 2016. This carries important political implications. Third, there is the symbolic aspect. For centuries Montenegro has been Russia’s most trusted ally in the region, with close cultural, religious, and political ties of the two countries reaching back to the period of Peter the Great and the Montenegrin ruling archbishop Danilo. Thus, growing anti-Russian rhetoric is often seen as an affront to historical comradeship by the Russian elites.

Montenegro’s three referenda

The peculiarity of the current elections is that they have turned not into one, but into three referenda at the same time. This fact dramatically raises the stakes for all political actors and enhances the ability of the opposition to cooperate and shape Montenegro’s future.

First of all, if EU aspirations are rarely put into question, the Montenegrin population is severely divided over NATO membership. Polls have found that around 46 percent support joining the alliance, while 39 percent vehemently oppose it. The leaders of the political opposition unanimously agree that the delicate decision on NATO should be taken in a properly organized referendum, instead of being imposed on the country’s citizens from above.

Also read: "If Montenegro joins NATO, get ready for a firm Russian response"

Second, the dissatisfaction of both electorate and political elites with what is called “the Milo [Djukanovic] system” (a system of governance built by Milo Djukanovic during his 25 years in power) has been growing in recent years. Many politicians, including minority leaders and former Djukanovic collaborators, are simply fed up with his personal rule, administration through patronage networks and behind-the-scenes politics.

Thus, they see the current opportunity to oust the prime minister as momentous. Last, but not least, the post-independence attempts of Djukanovic’s administration to facilitate “Montenegrization” of public life have consolidated those who consider themselves Serbs (30 percent of the population) or do not see Montenegrin identity as opposed to Serbian identity. They argue that the current nation-building policies cannot continue in a 19th century fashion and the government should allow more freedom of choice for the citizens.

The outcome of the current political contest is hard to predict. On the one hand, the leaders of the opposition emphasized that they are determined to collaborate on forming the government. In his speech on Oct. 16, Djukanovic mentioned that his party would form a coalition government with Social Democrats and minority parties, but they seem yet undecided. Another potential ally of the incumbent prime minister and his former collaborator Ranko Krivokapic, who leads the Social Democratic Party, strenuously denied the option of supporting Djukanovic.

On the other hand, none can guarantee that the prime minister will not be able to reshape the current political constellation in his favor relying on his patron-client networks. The Montenegrin political developments may even follow a long-lasting protest scenario (similar to the opposition demonstrations in Albania in 2011). Contentious politics in the region are clearly on the rise (think of Macedonia, Bulgaria or even Ukraine).

Arguably, the ruling party is tempted to use its leverage with the country’s police and defense forces, which a suspicious arrest of 20 Serbian citizens under the accusation of preparing terrorist attacks on Election Day aptly illustrates. At the same time, on Oct. 18 all opposition parties agreed not to recognize the election’s result, blaming the government for numerous abuses of the electoral process.

Recommended: "Russia's European integration dreams could be fading"

Whether the new government is formed or not as an outcome of these elections, the political situation in Montenegro will likely remain unstable in the near future, given existing political and cultural divisions within the country. The only viable solutions to this volatility are democratization, decentralization, cessation of divisive rhetoric and termination of aggressive nation-building.

Dissenting voices within the European Union have already called the political preferences of the current Montenegrin government “paradoxical” (European integration without democratization) and urged the EU to have a closer look into the Montenegrin political system and public opinion.

It remains to be seen if this advice will be followed by the leading decision-makers. Proper respect to the electoral process and referenda on the key issues of the country’s future would be main stepping stones for internal consolidation in Montenegro.

Implications for Russia

The current situation produces a political opening for Russia, whose role is one of the key issues in the current Montenegrin political contest. So far Russian officials have kept a low profile, perhaps fearing being routinely accused of “intervention.” But in the long run, Russia will likely defend pro-Serbian parties in the country pushing for fair elections and decentralization.

This is in accordance with publicly articulated Russian strategic interests, which contrary to many partisan misinterpretations, have always focused on one goal in Eastern Europe, namely preventing a “happy NATO (or other “Western”) future” being imposed on all countries in the region, including those, where substantial portions of the population possess pro-Russian sentiments.

If the opposition parties come to power in Montenegro, this country’s accession to NATO may be terminated or delayed. One of the objectives of the Democratic Front and its political allies is to conduct a referendum on NATO membership. And a majority of the population can easily vote “against.”

In addition, referenda or public consultations can be held over the issue of Montenegro’s economic policy towards Russia, especially with regards to anti-Russian sanctions (Montenegro was among quite a few non-EU countries imposing sanctions on Russia in 2014). As a result, the sanctions can be abolished and better conditions offered to Russian investors. This will necessarily lead to growing economic cooperation, as the research indicates that Russian economic performance in the Balkans in the recent decade heavily depended on the  political climate.

Even in the event that the opposition does not win the current contest, pro-Djukanovic political forces will find themselves under constant pressure, which may require from them concessions related to the nation’s relationship with Russia.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.