by Stephen Karganovic for The Saker Blog
A hundred years ago, at the mention of Montenegro word association would most likely have linked it with Franz Lehar’s lighthearted operetta “The Merry Widow”. In the rather transparent libretto, an American millionairess arrives in a tiny, mountainous European statelet and begins flirting with the crown prince, suggestively named Danilo. Disrespectful allusions were strewn all over the otherwise delightful musical production, so much so that the offended Montenegrin royal court promptly sought the expertise of Europe’s top legal talent to punish the impudent composer Lehar for the flagrant lese majeste. To the affronted majesty’s great chagrin, however, European civil courts of that distant pre-political correctness era had enough sense of humor to playfully disallow the offended plaintiffs’ passionate objections.
But it seems that in one respect Marx may have gotten it right, after all. To paraphrase one of his insightful thoughts, what in 1905 in Vienna began as operatic entertainment, now, in 2019, repeats itself as a sinister farce. Lehar’s poverty-stricken Balkan fiefdom of Pontevedro now mounts the international stage as the proud new NATO power, Montenegro. And the dissolute operatic crown-prince Danilo finds his antipode today in Montenegro’s long-time mafioso ruler, Milo Djukanovic.
The familiar refrain about Byelorussia’s Lukashenko as “Europe’s last dictator” works only if you have never heard of Djukanovic and Montenegro and have no idea of what has been going on in that hidden corner of Europe literally for as long as Lukashenko has been ruling Byelorussia. Their formative stages were similar enough, but from there on they diverged rather dramatically. Lukashenko, like Djukanovic, was also raised as a Communist Party stalwart, but after the dissolution of the Soviet Union instead of turning into an obedient neo-liberal tool of Western policy, he committed the cardinal sin of seeking the best systemic solutions for his country, while remaining geopolitically aligned with Russia. The former Tito Jugend Pioneer Djukanovic, on the other hand, had no such compunctions and went where he thought the grass would be greener for himself .
Initially a protege and ally of Slobodan Milosevic in beleaguered early 1990’s Yugoslavia, Djukanovic was installed by his mentor as prime minister of Montenegro, one of the country’s federal republics, at the tender age of 29. Soon thereafter the Balkan conflict erupted and Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was a constituent part, sought ways to evade the impact of savage sanctions that were imposed on it by Western powers. The regime and its secret services mounted a huge smuggling operation in order to ensure the availability of at least the most vital supplies to the population. According to Djukanovic’s former political ally Momir Bulatovic, that is when the young new ruler of Montenegro “smelled blood” in the form of enormous proceeds from the gigantic black market operation that was being run with discrete official blessing. Montenegro’s geography in particular conspired to corrupt the young Communist idealist who was in charge of its government.
Sanction-busting illegal runs of cigarette shipments across the Adriatic from Italy to Montenegro and then on to the tobacco starved rest of isolated Yugoslavia brought enormous illicit wealth to the gatekeeper of that operation, Milo Djukanovic. The operation could hardly have been executed without engendering close ties with the Italian mafia, which facilitated it and shared in the profits. Human nature being what it is, Djukanovic’s relatively easy profit-taking stimulated an insatiable hunger for more. Other shady operations with partners on the opposite shore of the Adriatic were soon added to tobacco.
The rest is, as they say, financial history. Entangled in deep corruption, all duly recorded, of course, by Western intelligence agencies, the young Montenegrin don was soon presented with an offer that he could not refuse, not that we have any reliable information that he would have been inclined to do so. Partly because he was blackmailed (the Italian prosecutor in Bari would trott out criminal charges against Djukanovic every time he hesitated to fulfill some Western demand, only to shelve them promptly as soon as compliance was ensured) but partly also, no doubt, because he came to view association with the Milosevic regime as a political liability (with the Hague Tribunal being set up, and all the rest of it) Djukanovic became an obedient tool of Western Balkan policy. By the end of the 1990’s Djukanovic’s fiefdom remained a part of federal Yugoslavia in name only, while effectively pursuing policies that clearly diverged from those pursued by the central government leadership in Belgrade. By the time of the NATO aggression in 1999, a US “adviser” was ensconced within Djukanovic’s Montenegrin government, although formally Montenegro was also targeted by the aggression and was under attack by NATO forces.
Upon the overthrow of Milosevic in October of 2000, Yugoslavia’s new leadership, handpicked by Madeleine Albright, cheerfully acceded to Western pressure and began taking steps calculated to ultimately undermine the country’s unity. In 2003, the federal republic was transformed into a vaguely defined “State Union of Serbia and Montenegro,” which provided that in 2006 Montenegro would hold an independence referendum. By that time Djukanovic had built up a political machine capable of counting ballots and potent enough to maintain him and his cronies in office, a vital condition for retaining immunity that would keep them (and especially their don) a step ahead of the Italian prosecutor. Djukanovic lucked out from the marvelous convergence of his personal and his Western sponsors’ interests. The latter were keen not only to proceed with the breakup of Yugoslavia (Kosovo’s turn to declare “independence” came shortly thereafter, in 2008) but also to close the Adriatic off to Russian influence. In a minor way (if you compare it to the Ukraine) Montenegro was nevertheless a significant geopolitical prize, especially in view of its traditionally close relations with Russia during the preceding centuries when it was struggling to shake off the Ottoman yoke.
Endowed with a keen survival instinct, Djukanovic quickly grasped (probably without even having to be told) what his senior mafia partners (not those in Italy, to be sure) expected from him. He anticipated Ukrainian russophobes by initiating a ferocious government-sponsored identity altering campaign, in an attempt to deny Montenegro’s Serbian heritage and to reinvent it as a separate nation. Equally precociously, though a declared unbeliever, he set up a Montenegrin “Orthodox Church,” having it registered sacrilegiously as an NGO at a police station. And, of course, he lost no time “privatizing” every state asset he could lay his hands on, which in practice meant reassigning ownership to one of his front men or cronies.
By 2017, with self-generated tensions rising on the Russian front, Montenegro was “invited” to join NATO,
“with a seat at the table as an equal, with an equal voice in shaping our Alliance, and its independence guaranteed,” as the official cant had it. Djukanovic accepted the invitation with alacrity, pointedly neglecting to hold a referendum on an issue and consult his people because he knew that they would reject the invitation indignantly and overwhelmingly. The cooperative Montenegrin don followed the playbook to the letter.
And yet he seems to have miscalculated, like many previous imperial minions. Mysteriously, a few months ago Djukanovic had a messy public falling out with Dusko Knezevic, until recently a close confidant and trusted lieutenant in many of his financial escapades. The precise motives for the quarrel are not entirely clear, but the fact that Knezevic fled Montenegro to ominously take refuge in London, of all places, should send a troubling message to Djukanovic.
Indeed, a latent but progressively noisier protest movement, objecting to Djukanovic’s imperious rule, has been shaking up Montenegro’s political scene for the last several months. Suggestively dubbed “Balkan Spring,” it should be food for serious thought for Djukanovic and many of his regional colleagues. Having dragged Montenegro into NATO against the will of its people and established a corrupt system of patronage bound by oligarchical ties and beholden to the Western alliance, now with a life of its own and which could survive him politically, Djukanovic may have become expendable. As Suharto, Mobutu, and many other Western favorites ultimately discovered, they are no more than toilet paper with limited utility.
By all accounts, in the judgment of the former political Wunderkind Djukanovic’s transatlantic keepers, it is now time for regime change in Montenegro. A fresh face is to be put on the system that Djukanovic’s ambition and greed have helped build, and as it now turns out primarily for the benefit of his foreign masters. The patient Italian prosecutor may get his day in court, after all.
The empire’s contempt for its Montenegrin vassals was vividly illustrated at a NATO meeting in Brussels on May 25, 2017, when President Trump shoved Montenegro’s prime minister Dusko Markovic aside as he strode into the room.
Not even daring to be offended, the pushover Markovic obsequiously declared that he was happy to be shoved aside by such an illustrious person in front of the cameras because the humiliating incident “put Montenegro on the map”. The Montenegrin statesman was also no doubt delighted when Trump later called him “a whiny punk bitch”. Montenegro has indeed come a long way from its spunky Merry Widow days.