Montenegro’s prime minister, Duško Marković, recently announced that the country expects to open two new chapters in its EU accession negotiations by the end of 2018. Marković made the proclamation at a joint press conference with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was in the Montenegrin capital as part of his tour of Western Balkan nations hoping to join the bloc. Among these countries – Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo – the first two are the furthest along in the accession process and the only ones so far to have been given an indicative entry date, 2025.
This date is far from set in stone, and the two frontrunners could yet be overtaken by other candidate countries if they speed up, or—more likely—if Serbia and Montenegro fall behind. If talk of “frontrunners” and the possibility of “catching up and “falling behind” makes the process sound more like a race than has been the case with previous EU enlargements, that’s because that is exactly the tone that Brussels is going for this time around. “What we have is a kind of positive competition amongst them, they’re looking jealously on each other,” explained Johannes Hahn, European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner.
Judging by the number of feathers that this new competitive approach to EU accession has ruffled, this strategy seems to be working — though whether this will prompt reforms and Europeanization remains to be seen. Kosovo’s President has even gone so far as to suggest that identifying Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunners, while refusing to give any indication as to when the rest will be ready to join, borders on Islamophobic – this, because the former two countries are overwhelmingly Christian whereas the other four countries are home to large Muslim populations. Competition is fierce even between the two pacesetters, with Montenegro protesting about the tendency to refer to “Serbia and Montenegro” rather than “Montenegro and Serbia.” Bojan Šarkić, Montenegro’s ambassador to the EU, recently expressed Podgorica’s frustration over this matter, bitterly quipping: “We are in the process much longer than [Serbia] and we are nearly closing the [negotiating] chapters when they are just beginning”.
Petty grievances aside, Montenegro should be happy—Brussels has made it clear that it’s impressed by the Balkan country’s progress. According to Juncker, the tiny Adriatic nation deserves its designation as the leader of the Balkan pack thanks to its “devotion” to joining the EU. With 29 of the 35 accession chapters now open, Podgorica is indeed well on its way to becoming a member. This outward success conceals the fact that Montenegro is still very far from making the grade in a number of fundamental areas. Much, if not all, of the blame for Montenegro’s enduring shortcomings in these areas—especially rule of law and corruption— can be laid at the feet of its long-time leader Milo Djukanovic.
Throughout his almost 30 years at Montenegro’s helm, far from looking like an EU leader, Djukanovic has been associated with any number of dodgy deals and unsavoury characters. In 2012, just a month before the country formally began its accession talks with the EU, a joint investigation by the BBC and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project uncovered documents from a Price Waterhouse Coopers audit of Prva Bank, which was controlled by the Djukanovic family. The investigation uncovered the disturbing fact that most of the money deposited at the bank came from public funds, while two-thirds of the loans it made went to the Djukanovics and their close associates. Among these close associates using the bank like a ‘personal ATM’ was the international drug smuggler and chronic fugitive from the law Darko Saric.
These were by no means the first allegations linking Djukanovic to organised crime. In 2002, Italian prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest in relation to his alleged involvement in a massive cigarette smuggling operation in the 1990s that saw about a billion dollars’ worth of contraband tobacco move through Montenegro’s Adriatic ports to be distributed around Europe by the Italian mafia. With this kind of leadership, it’s hardly a surprise that Montenegro has come to be known as a “mafia state”. Further adding to this reputation for lawlessness is the apparent impunity with which crime gangs settle their bloody disputes on the streets of Montenegrin cities, with little reason to fear that they will ever be brought to justice.
Worryingly, Milo Djukanovic now looks set to re-enter the political scene after stepping down as prime minister last year after his nearly three-decade reign as either prime minister or president. Polls already show that if he declares his candidacy, Djukanovic will be a clear frontrunner, but Djukanovic’s success might just mean that Montenegro loses its own frontrunner status in the race to join the EU.