As the world looks in despair at the crisis in Belarus, its re-occurrence may only be around the corner. On the fringes of Europe lies another electoral tinderbox, where voter manipulation is rife and toleration of dissent mild. Nestled in the Western Balkans, Montenegro goes to polls to select its next parliament on the 29th of August.
Its path to the ballot box bears strikingly resemblance to that of Belarus. Both leaders have occupied the top seat of their respective nations since the early ’90s.
Former Soviet collective farm boss Alexander Lukashenko became President in Belarus’ first election in 1994. Milo Djukanovic, a young leader of the League of communists, became Prime Minister of Montenegro in 1991 – then part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Nearly thirty years later, protest movements have been sustained throughout the former Soviet and Yugoslavian republics for months before their elections.
In Belarus, demonstrators flooded the streets carrying slippers, needed – they said – to “Stop the Cockroach”. In Montenegro, tens of thousands turned out weekly to protest a law that many believe would lead to state seizure of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church, whom the majority of the nation identify with.
In neither country did the government offer serious dialogue to diffuse tensions. One movement has gone through an electoral breaking point; the other approaches its next week.
Oppositions similarly have been undermined and harassed at each step. Lukashenko locked up his most serious challenger before the election; the leader of the coalition opposition in Montenegro has been languishing in jail since 2018.
Neither does civil society have any space to make grievances heard. In fact, the Orthodox Church was the last independent pillar around which any opposition could coalesce in Montenegro.
But despite plainly being the cause of instability, both leaders like to tell those that will still listen a story: that they are surrounded by hostile and nefarious forces, that foreign actors are scheming to undermine their nation’s sovereignty, and that they alone are the defender able to stand against these winds. It is a playbook seen in many elections across the world. Yet Lukashenko and Djukanovic appear to be reading from the same edition.
Lukashenko claimed to discover Russian mercenaries planning a coup in the week before the poll. Remarkably, Djukanovic uncovered a similar plot in the last parliamentary election, where agents were supposedly going to storm parliament and assassinate the protector of Montenegro himself. Plotters were arrested – conspicuously – on the day of the vote.
The coincidence is that these schemes only materialize around an election. It is surprising – to say the least – that foreign forces would choose one of the few times these countries receive global media attention to launch a covert operation.
Few believed Lukashenko’s Russian mercenary story. Fewer still believe Djukanovic’s latest tale: that 235 agents of the Serbian security services are apparently on the territory of Montenegro in the build-up to the election. This was reported in a video in which each operative was individually revealed alongside their photo.
Given Djukanovic dismissed the recent religious protests as a front for Greater Serbian ideology, this latest conspiracy should surprise no one. The story has been widely ridiculed, with journalists who have investigated government links to organized crime featuring among the operatives. Citizens have begun photo shopping their faces on the report with the heading “I am an agent”.
But when fewer believe – both voters and international onlookers – strongmen often turn to their last option: fixing the election. Yet greater manipulation begets greater tension once results are announced. This is the situation Belarus is now living through.
BIRN – one of the few media units run by the president’s cronies –has also discovered widespread manipulations ahead of Montenegro’s vote. After investigating the electoral roll, over 50,000 voters have been exposed as phantoms; over half of the names were listed without a valid address.
Further evidence has surfaced in recent days. New voting cards have been printed for citizens from other Balkan nations, including Croatia, Albania and Kosovo. Neither their names nor the dates of birth have been changed from their voting cards in their respective countries. These and other instances of pre-electoral fraud ratchet up tensions ahead of results day.
Belarus is in freefall. Any exit from the crisis is looking increasingly messy. It doesn’t have to be the same in Montenegro.
Unlike Lukashenko, Djukanovic has moved from hard-line communist to acquire the trappings of a progressive (though the reality may be otherwise; he wears the politics required to extend his rule). In fact, he has staked his presidency on gaining membership to the EU, pledging in the 2016 parliamentary election to achieve it within a term.
This hasn’t happened. The European Union must make clear that electoral malfeasance will freeze its candidature – at least until he again stands for President in two years’ time. Here, the EU has leverage that it lacks in Belarus. They must use it to prevent another electoral crisis in Europe.
L. Todd Wood is a former special operations helicopter pilot, graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and currently a writer, a publisher and a journalist.