After the publication of country reports we talked to H.E. Aivo Orav, EU Ambassador to Montenegro about the current situation in the country.
EWB: How would you evaluate the parliamentary elections which were held in October this year?
AIVO ORAV: It is important to underline here that the EU bases its assessment on elections on the assessment made by the OSCE/ODIHR whose observers concluded that the conduct of the Election Day itself proceeded in a calm and orderly manner, with few cases of procedural irregularities observed.
As the European Commission stated in its latest Report on Montenegro, the parliamentary elections of October 2016 were conducted under a substantially revised legal framework. Despite the technical delays and difficult relationships between responsible institutions, overall the election preparations were conducted in a more participatory and transparent manner. The elections were held in a competitive environment and characterised by general respect for fundamental freedoms. The relevant national authorities are expected to swiftly and transparently investigate alleged procedural irregularities, the arrests made and the temporary closure of two mobile communication platforms.
EWB: And how would you evaluate freedom of media in Montenegro?
AO: Montenegro has achieved some level of preparation in the area of freedom of expression, but no further progress was made in the past year. This was clearly noted in the 2016 Report adopted by the European Commission in November. The number of defamation cases remains high, which points to weak self-regulation mechanisms, as well as to challenges in understanding the role of the media. Montenegro still needs to achieve overall alignment with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. As noted in the findings of the Commission’s Report, the premises of one commercial media company were damaged and several journalists were physically and verbally assaulted and threatened during anti-government protests in October 2015. There has been no progress in the resolution of cases of attacks on journalists. Transparency and non-discrimination in state advertising in the media should also be ensured. The revised Code of Ethics for Journalists must be effectively and uniformly applied across the media community.
EWB: The OSCE’s Election Observation Mission stated that while media has provided the contestants with the opportunity to present their views through interviews and debates, the news mainly focused on the campaign-related events by major political parties, providing little in-depth coverage about their platforms. What do you think, is this good for democracy?
AO: Media are a powerful tool which channels information to citizens; they shape public opinion and therefore have a significant impact on choices people make, especially in the electoral period. It is therefore important for journalists to do their job professionally but also without any pressures from any side – be it from various business circles, editors or politicians. For citizens to be well-informed, it would of course be beneficial if media provided more in-depth coverage of important topics, for instance during electoral periods.
EWB: Montenegro is rated as the second worst country of the Western Balkans region on 2016 World Press Freedom Index made by the Reporters Without Borders (former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is ranked as the worst – 118th place, Montenegro is 106th). What should be done to make this score better, not only in Montenegro, but in all Western Balkan countries?
AO: In the European Commission’s Reports on enlargement countries, there are clear recommendations as to what should be done to improve the situation in different areas, including in the area of freedom of expression.
Since I am the Head of EU Delegation to Montenegro, I will concentrate on the priorities this country should focus on. These include: solving older cases of violence against media, including the 2004 murder case and other sensitive ones, reviewing such cases and identifying not only the perpetrators but also those who ordered the attacks; continuing to provide guidance to the judiciary on aligning decisions with the case-law of the European Court of Human Rights on freedom of expression, notably by establishing a pool of specialised first instance judges; ensuring transparency and non-discrimination in state advertising in the media, including through adequate legislative solutions; and reinforcing the capacity of the self-regulatory bodies. If these tasks are adequately addressed, it is reasonable to expect improvement in Montenegro’s ranking on relevant international freedom of expression indexes.
EWB: Montenegro is approaching NATO membership? Is everything going well on this path? How important is it for Montenegro to become a NATO member?
AO: EU and NATO accession are the two key foreign policy priorities of Montenegro. In December 2015, Montenegro received an invitation to join NATO, which is an important achievement. The relevant Accession Protocol was signed in May 2016 and is currently being ratified by NATO members.
EWB: Montenegro and Serbia are the only two countries of the Western Balkans which are opening the negotiation chapters. Montenegro is doing this job way better than Serbia (24 opened chapters). Could you explain to us, is this a good score? What should be done better?
AO: After four years of negotiations, with 24 chapters opened and two provisionally closed, Montenegro continues to move steadily on its European path and remains the frontrunner of the EU integration process in the Western Balkans. This is an achievement of the entire society.
Montenegro’s EU agenda is now concentrated on rule of law reforms. The legal framework in this area law is now largely complete and the institutional set-up is in place. The entire rule of law system now needs to deliver more results, in particular to strengthen the track-record in the fight against corruption and organised crime. Progress on the rule of law chapters, demonstrated by tangible results notably on fighting corruption and organised crime, will continue to determine the pace of accession negotiations overall.
EWB: Let us conclude this interview with the latest document adopted by the EU on Montenegro – 2016 Report. It is stated that in the field of human rights, implementation of the legislation remains weak. What should be done to solve those problems?
AO: Montenegro completed several legislative reforms to further align with the EU and international human rights standards and ensure that adequate mechanisms are in place to protect vulnerable groups from discrimination. It is true that implementation of the legislation remains weak. Amendments to the overall legislative framework, to ensure a coherent sanctioning policy for human rights violations, have not been adopted yet. Institutional capacity needs to increase further. The Roma minority remains the most vulnerable and most discriminated-against community in various areas of life.
In the period ahead, human rights institutions, including the Ombudsman and the Ministry of Human Rights and Minorities, need to be strengthened further and their knowledge of international and European human rights law and standards increased. The Ministry’s capacity to handle and supervise the spending of funds for minorities and religious communities remains limited and should improve. Implementation of the anti-discrimination framework needs to be more effective. This year’s Report also noted that the lack of a uniform approach and low levels of penalties for human rights violations continues to create legal uncertainty. Additionally, impunity is still an issue of concern in connection with abuses in prisons and by the police. Judges and law enforcement officials’ knowledge of European standards and case-law should be improved. Legislative measures to increase police accountability should be considered.
EWB: “Strengthening the administrative capacity for ensuring the application of the acquis remains a substantial challenge for Montenegro” is another finding of the Report. What does that mean for Montenegrin citizens?
AO: Montenegro is currently in the process of aligning its national legislation with EU rules in different areas. For these EU standards to be properly implemented it is important for institutions to be strong and capable to deliver results that will make a positive impact on citizens’ daily lives. Just to give you one concrete example, when toy safety rules need to be implemented, Montenegrin citizens – future citizens of the EU – must be sure that their institutions are as strong as those in EU Member States so that they can benefit from the same degree of safety for their children.
EWB: In the Report, it is also stated that on the common foreign and security policy, Montenegro aligned, when invited, with all relevant EU declarations and Council decisions (100% alignment). What is the situation in other fields where Montenegro has not been invited?
AO: Candidate countries are invited to align gradually with CFSP decisions and actions during the accession process. Montenegro has always aligned fully with EU Council Decisions including restrictive measures and statements. Montenegro has always been a reliable foreign policy partner to the EU.
Author: Nikola S. Ristić