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Interviews

[EWB Interview] Abazović: The change of government in Montenegro is an example for the entire region, the government is committed to EU membership

After political changes in Montenegro in summer 2020, the first ones after establishing a multi-party system in this country, expectations of the new government were high regarding the democratization process, but there was also dread that the new majority could call into question the European path of Montenegro and its foreign policy orientation. Ethnic tensions also marked the previous period, and it seems they continue to dominate the public. We talked with Dritan Abazović, Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro and President of the Civic Movement URA, about the European perspective of Montenegro, the successes of the new Montenegrin government in the field of European integration and necessary reforms, as well as the role of nationalist discourses in the region.

European Western Balkans: When your government took office, there were a lot of fears in which direction things would go, but at the same time, there was optimism that the government could speed up the process of European integration. When we take a look at everything that’s been happening in the meantime, how would you assess the accomplished success when it comes to European Integration and the requirements?

Dritan Abazović: I really believe that the government hasn’t changed its foreign policy direction and that the entire skepticism and criticism that arose during that period about the government straying off the European path was unfounded and untrue and that it was just propaganda used by the members of the former regime for discrediting the government, and from that aspect, we are very satisfied. So, I think that if there is one segment that functions right in the new government it’s the segment of international support, mostly the international support coming from Brussels and EU member states.

When it comes to the pace of the process, we could actually discuss certain criticism. I think the process of reforms has not accelerated in the past six months, but some assumptions are being made that indicate that it will really gain greater dynamics at the beginning of autumn. Why am I telling you this? First of all, the segment that was mostly lacking was the segment of the rule of law. We will try to improve this segment with some changes in legal solutions. The most important legal solution that has changed is the Law on State Prosecution. That institution can be either a great obstacle or a catalyst on our path to integration.

The segment that was mostly lacking was the segment of the rule of law. We will try to improve this segment with some changes in legal solutions.

 

I hope that the election of the new Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office and the new leadership in the State Prosecutor’s Office will create the assumption that the blocked wheel regarding the rule of law and better distribution of justice in Montenegro will start spinning, and therefore I expect real results that are yet to come. However, I am satisfied because the government showed its absolute commitment to European Integration and I think that the grace period, if we can refer to it as such, has expired. That’s why now we have to do something really visible so that we don’t end up like the former government – that we are all rhetorically in favor of European integration, without fundamentally changing things in practice.

EWB: Do the turbulences that currently exist on the Montenegrin political scene call into question the consensus reached on European integration, and can they harm the government’s commitment to the process?

DA: Of course they can and of course they do. So, the greater the political instability, the more the focus is shifted from European integration. The greater the political stability, the greater the focus on reforms, and that’s why I personally believe that it is very important to induce as much political stability as we can in the following period. That is difficult in these circumstances, and we weren’t expecting it to be easy. There hasn’t been a change in government in the elections here until the 30th of August, so these are all labor pains of democracy that take some time. However, it is important for all political subjects to understand they are responsible for their decisions and to make an effort to produce as much stability as possible in the following period  because that means better results, and thus probably a reward from the citizens. If it doesn’t turn out that way, I think the citizens will somehow realize it later.

The greater the political stability, the greater the focus on reforms, and that’s why I personally believe that it is very important to induce as much political stability as we can in the following period.

 

EWB: What are the biggest obstacles for Montenegro on the path to European Integration at the moment according to you, and by that I mostly refer to the transitional provisions for Chapter 23 and Chapter 24? What are the biggest obstacles that prevent problem solutions, and why are they still on the agenda?

 DA: Some of them we have already mentioned, but one of the things that are constantly warned about is finding a consensus regarding the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors. So, we have to start a political dialogue that is supposed to somehow lead to the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors in the state. For something like that, we need a consensus, not a total consensus, but still a consensus, and I hope we will succeed in it at one point. That’s something Brussels insists on. Another thing being insisted on is the selection of new people that should bring about new energy so that the existing practices of impunity for acts and affairs that are big and that seem like they can never get an epilogue, finally get an epilogue.

We have to start a political dialogue that is supposed to somehow lead to the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors in the state. For something like that we need a consensus.

 

So, it’s not all about technical things. There is need for changes in certain legal solutions too, but I think that this political dimension regarding the rule of law is especially prominent in Chapters 23 and 24 and that we should work on it more. If we demonstrate we can hold elections, that we can agree on key directions of the rule of law as it will change in a positive way in the future, then all the other things that are a lot less complicated, and require certain technical reforms, will be easier to accomplish.

EWB: Is there support from Brussels for what you intend to do with the Law on State Prosecution? Are there any problems regarding what you believe is necessary and what the EU insists on?

DA: A lot of dust was raised regarding that, but we were determined to do it the way it should be done. There were two attempts, one of them which failed was suggested by the parliamentary majority, after which the office of the Deputy Prime Minister started coordinating the new Law on State Prosecution with the parliamentary majority. The Venice Commission was consulted and gave us recommendations two times. Many of those recommendations were incorporated. There may be some that remain a dilemma and that only time will tell whether they were completely implemented or not. However, we have to be satisfied. I think that the entire story regarding the rule of law would have been pointless.

I do not claim that this legal solution will be one hundred percent successful, but anything regarding the rule of law in Montenegro would be pointless without it, and after many talks and active communication I think our partners realized that it is something that is right, that is rational and needed. After the Law was adopted and came into force, I haven’t read nor heard any significant criticism from any relevant political position worthy of attention.

EWB: You have started your mandate with serious and numerous personnel changes in the system. In your opinion, what were the effects of these changes, did they lead to better functioning of institutions in Montenegro, how much did they prove to be a useful mechanism for policy change?

DA: They were and stayed the assumption that we are still transforming. We cannot expect different results from the same people. So, that’s Einstein’s hypothesis, that we cannot use the same formula repeatedly and expect different results. So, if these people could have made different results they probably would have done so in the last 30 years, and that’s why they had to make way for some other people. Of course, it’s not easy and we cannot say that the level of efficiency is significantly better in all institutions than it was. The progress is clearly visible in some institutions, while in some the visible progress is yet expected to be seen. However, the changes were necessary.

When it comes to personnel solutions in the vice president’s office, those are about the security sector. I am very, very pleased with what we have accomplished in the last six months. There is also some success in certain sectors that are not within my jurisdiction, there are also things that are maybe supposed to be worked on faster, but in any case, it is not easy to find people who would occupy high positions.

If these people could have made different results they probably would have done so in the last 30 years, and that’s why they had to make way for some other people.

 That’s one thing, and the other is that in a country that has been captured for so long we cannot expect results as fast as we think we can. To conclude, we did not take over the government in Sweden, but in Montenegro and I think the citizens understand that. There are for sure those who think everything could have been solved overnight. We did not choose revanchism and violence since that would count as “blitzkrieg”. We believe that society is extremely polarized, divided and charged, and that we do not need such moves. This may be a slower path but it seems to me that it is definitely a more efficient one in a sense of acquiring capital for future social cohesion that is necessary for Montenegro.

EWB: Despite all the problems we’ve mentioned, Montenegro is still a frontrunner in European Integration and the only country that has accomplished some progress in the last year and a half, especially since it opened the last chapter in July last year. What does the perspective of Montenegro and its membership in the EU look like according to you? Do you think that by the year 2025, or as Olivér Várhelyi mentioned that at least one country should enter the EU by the end of his term, it is possible to accomplish this?

 DA: If any country joins the European Union by 2025, then it will be Montenegro. I would like that to happen, we really need to commit ourselves to reforms, but we should also keep in mind that membership does not depend only on the candidate country, but also on the political will within the EU at the moment when some country is to be accepted or rejected.

Our ambition should be the following: that we accomplish what depends on us. That’s it. That is our responsibility, we need to accomplish the tasks that are given to our country, and whether that will be rewarded with full membership and whether political circumstances in 2025 or 2026/2027 will dictate the mood for enlargement is something we hope will happen. However, what is most important for Montenegro, and I suppose other candidate countries as well, is completing our homework and aligning our system with the functioning of the EU countries’ systems.

Our ambition should be to accomplish what depends on us. That is our responsibility, we need to accomplish the tasks that are given to our country.

 That’s more important than formal membership. It’s better to wait a few years and reach certain standards than to have full membership while having a non-functional system that does not correspond to systems in other EU member states.

EWB: Do you think there is political support from the EU, i.e., the Brussels administration and the member states for Montenegro’s accession to the EU?

 DA: I think there is huge support and approval for Montenegro which is a capital we must not gamble and must not lose, as well as the respect we have gained in the process of European Integration. When it comes to whether there is tiredness from the overall enlargement process, that operates according to the hot and cold principle. It’s determined based on overall geopolitical tendencies in the world, as well as certain crises that have occurred in the previous period and might occur in the following period as well, but it would be tragic to leave the Western Balkans as a black hole in the heart of Europe and not to open the door towards full membership for those countries.

Therefore, I believe that we belong in modern Europe at both geographical and civilizational levels. It is true that we have to carry out certain reforms in all the countries of the Western Balkans, to improve democratic processes and democratic systems within our countries, but I expect that even those member states that are skeptical regarding the enlargement to change their attitude and to open the door to the Western Balkans countries so that the integration of all countries that want to be part of the EU is complete.

EWB: When it comes to relations in the Western Balkans, what do you think of initiatives such as Mini-Schengen and other regional cooperation initiatives? Is that the way towards the progress of the entire region and moving closer to the EU or do you think it’s a substitute for membership?

 DA: I think of Mini-Schengen differently than my colleagues. Every initiative that has the improvement of regional cooperation as its goal is acceptable to me. All of us are already part of CEFTA. So, regardless of whether we will use Mini-Schengen as another political instrument or not, our goal is to have good neighborly cooperation. I a priori support any instrument that can improve that cooperation. However, I am against every instrument that can set it back because I think the region needs more connecting. That’s a way for creating both trust and reconciliation and to increase mobility between Western Balkans countries and any instrument that can contribute is acceptable to me.

I consider everything that can help to be correct, and a substitute for membership should not be sought in any political concept. The political concept is clear, the political concept is the European Union, and that should be a crown of foreign policy accomplishments of these countries.

 Mini-Schengen is probably used by some countries in a political narrative as their personal accomplishment and they probably wish to instrumentalize it somehow politically, but I think that discussing whether something should or should not exist is an unnecessary waste of energy. I consider everything that can help to be correct, and a substitute for membership should not be sought in any political concept. The political concept is clear, the political concept is the European Union, and that should be a crown of foreign policy accomplishments of these countries. Until that end goal is reached, other instruments and elements can be used for improving the game before the grand finale.

EWB: When it comes to relations between the countries in the Western Balkans region you were under pressure regarding the choice of a coalition partner last year, especially from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the formation of a government consisting of pro-Serbian parties was negatively perceived. What do you think about the relations between Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina? Is there a dose of mistrust or are those problems somehow overcome?

DA: What can you do, the Western Balkans region is full of paradoxes and absurdities. On one hand, we want reconciliation, and on the other, we are not ready to step forward and enable cooperation between those political subjects or those nations that perhaps haven’t been cooperating as much in the previous period. That’s where the entire absurdity of the propaganda from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and partially from Albania and Kosovo lies. Therefore, I really can’t understand the political perception of those who ask for reconciliation between our people, and then determine that certain political entities that are marked as national should not cooperate with some other entities that are of a civic nature.

Dritan Abazović and Nikola Burazer; Photo: EWB

The hypothesis is supposed to be completely the opposite, those who did not succeed at establishing cooperation in the previous period should do it because that would lead to greater reconciliation. That is so easy to explain if one thinks rationally, but in the Balkans, we are living in parallel worlds, in national pens, in echo chambers where we can’t hear each other. We do not understand elementary things, we are talking about the EU and find it difficult to cooperate with those who have different political visions to ours. We talk about wanting to be part of some great European narrative, but those are anti-European messages. I don’t care whether they come from Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, or Montenegro. There is this open fascism and nationalism coming from Montenegro, that targeted our subject specifically because we made a move that some other subjects weren’t able to do for 30 years. Outbursts of hatred stemmed mostly from jealousy, rather than from political deliberation.

In the Balkans, we are living in parallel worlds, in national pens, in echo chambers where we can’t hear each other. We do not understand elementary things, we are talking about the EU and find it difficult to cooperate with those who have different political visions to ours.

So, I think that Montenegro became an example that the change of government is possible without any conflicts or problems. We have passed that democracy test and we have given a bit of hope to the region that this wave of changes can be passed on to other countries so that they start finding new people, new politicians, some new political elites, and people that are not contaminated and do not live in the nineties and to look for people that do not look back but forward.

Of course, that’s a process, there are a lot of mistakes and problems, and nobody is glorifying any government, not even this one, but it is of utmost importance to establish a trend where people are looking for something new and want us to go for normalization. However, there are often media and political structures that are behind other media, especially tabloids, that want to keep the region in the jaws of organized crime and do not want to let us truly become part of Europe. I am proud of my political subject that didn’t waver, didn’t give up despite everything.

With each passing day, I was more and more convinced that our decisions were correct because we promote a new value that isn’t dominant in the Balkans at this point, but which will serve as the only basis for changes that will take place in this region in the following 10 and 15 years. I guarantee that even if the support isn’t big right now and if it doesn’t happen through our subject, it will happen through our program for sure, and that will be the way for Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as other countries in the region to change if they wish to have their own European path. If they want to live in the jaws of nationalism I wish them luck, but we will not be part of such political structures and we will fight for our ideas and I have no doubts that those ideas will become dominant not just in Montenegro but in the entire region after a while.

We promote a new value that isn’t dominant in the Balkans at this point, but which will serve as the only basis for changes that will take place in this region in the following 10 and 15 years.

EWB: One could say that in Montenegro, at least in the public discourse, identity issues are dominant. The same could be said for relations in the region. Do you think that we can rise above such discourses in the Western Balkans, and focus on questions that are important for citizens, such as institutions in their respective countries, rule of law, democracy, economic development? Do you think there are conditions for overcoming those matters finally?

DA: I think this is connected to the previous question. I think that certain political structures that used the conflicts in Montenegro to accumulate capital and then tried to legalize that capital later, even though that capital stayed partially illegal, do not want to let this region democratize under any circumstances. Democratization combined with rule of law would mean great damage to those political elites and part of that political establishment would be held responsible for something that happened in the past. That’s it, that’s the same pattern that has been functioning flawlessly for the last 20 years.

What does that mean? That means they will not allow citizens to shift their focus from conflicts, nationalism, national tensions, ethnic tensions and religious tensions. They do not want to let citizens think about progress, better living standards, and ideological clashes about good things. That’s it. In order not to disturb that focus they have a constant need to further intensify contamination so that the people never sober up. That’s it. Do you understand?

Let me make it simple. Behind Serbian nationalism, Bosnian nationalism, Albanian nationalism, Montenegrin nationalism, there is an attempt at protecting organized crime groups that use countries as a training ground for achieving financial interests. Simply put, that’s it. People who really believe in those ideologies are used for this because there is a category of people who really live in some “romanticism” and believe that some plans for territorial expansion should be carried out here. However, I think the main generator is within political elites connected to organized crime that are supposed to generate nationalism and sustain it so that some other progressive topic or trend doesn’t appear on the agenda.

Behind Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, Montenegrin nationalism, there is an attempt at protecting organized crime groups that use countries as a training ground for achieving financial interests.

It’s up to us to fight it. I don’t know whether we will succeed, but I believe that the time ahead of us should be used for opening people’s eyes and pointing to the fact that there is a pattern with the goal of having us perceive reality unrealistically.

EWB: You have already answered my next question, and the question is can we say in a way that political elites in the Western Balkans induce ethnic conflicts so that discussions on topics that do not suit them are avoided?

DA: Yes, that’s right. That hypothesis is correct.

EWB: In the end, we have to touch on the recently adopted Declaration on Srebrenica in the National Assembly of Montenegro which caused a lot of tensions, I’d say in Belgrade most of all and we could even say on the Belgrade-Podgorica relation. Do you think that is part of the same pattern or do you think there is a fundamental problem that arose by adopting the resolution?

DA: There is no fundamental problem. That is also an attempt at revitalizing certain political subjects in a country aided by certain foreign structures, and nothing out of the ordinary happened there. We had the declaration back in 2009 and I see no problem in it. There is nothing in it that a rational person wouldn’t accept and I do not understand the need for manipulating it in a way that is incorrect. So, the claims from certain officials that Serbs are genocidal is a flagrant lie which is really inappropriate for people who should be obliged not to lie in public discourse.

On the other hand, you should know that this topic was not affirmed by the Government of Montenegro, nor the new parliamentary majority, but by the opposition party, probably for their own premeditated plans so that the victims of Srebrenica could be used for political points. Therefore, I support some of the criticism coming from Belgrade and Podgorica in that context because we have to finally somehow leave that matter, but we still have to determine our values. So, we cannot say that something true is false. That’s it.

However, I really see no problem, nor do I think that that item on the agenda of the National Assembly of Montenegro was more important than any other item. I do not wish to banalize the matter, don’t get me wrong, but I am really sorry that this raised so much dust in the public and especially in the media of the Republic of Serbia. We do not deal with decisions of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, nor do I think the government of Serbia should deal with decisions made by the National Assembly of Montenegro. Those are autonomous bodies, two independent countries, and they define themselves as they wish.

I would just like to say that Montenegro doesn’t have any other country that is closer to it than the Republic of Serbia and that acute political problems that exist or are imposed by others for reasons known to them, should be overcome in a way that is accompanied by an understanding that the sooner we establish a quality, brotherly cooperation, the better it will be for the citizens of both Montenegro and Serbia.

My message is that for me personally there are no restrictions, I would gladly go to Belgrade and meet with all of your officials. On the other hand, all of them are more than welcome in Montenegro and I think that we should solve all of the open questions with a friendly, brotherly dialogue and relations. I also think that such topics that were told so many times in the region before should not continue to raise dust because nothing good will come out of it for the Western Balkans countries.

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