On 1 September 2021, inside the Festsaal of the Vienna School of International Studies, a conference on the European Values on the Road to the Balkans was held. The event had a special guest – the current Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro Dritan Abazović – and was moderated by the Director of the institution, Ambassador Emil Brix, who gave a short introduction in which he called the guest ‘a symbol of hope for Montenegro, but also for the integration of the Western Balkan countries’.
The main topic of the discussion was the possibility of Montenegro’s membership in the European Union which, in the words of the Deputy PM, should happen as soon as possible. Montenegro finally changed its government after thirty years; Dritan Abazović and his colleagues from the new coalition represent this change, so he considers it his duty to make it happen. The politician sees in EU membership a first step towards improvement, as it would give Montenegrins hope that the situation in the country will not remain the same, and that improvement is possible. Other very important points stressed by the speaker were ‘open border Europe’ and the fight against corruption, organized crime, and drug smuggling in Montenegro in order to encourage the young people who have left the country to return. All the aforementioned issues make citizens feel unsafe, as the state seems to be unjust and unable to protect them.
One important distinction pointed out by the guest was that the country needs new people, not young people, as it is not the age that makes difference in this sense, but the ideals of a person. In summary, the most important factor in this sense is the readiness of embracing democracy and ‘crushing the autocratic system’. To do so it is crucial to work with personnel who have not been contaminated by the corrupt politics of the 1990s. Nevertheless, the Deputy Prime Minister is highly optimistic and convinced that the process of building a new political elite in his country has already started and is going quite well at the moment, even if there are still some problems to be solved. The vision promoted by his party in the government is directly linked to more liberal politics, sustainable environment, and a more cosmopolitan Europe without borders.
After the talk with the Deputy Prime Minister began the discussion. The first question had to do with the ambitions of his party, which currently has only 5% of the people’s votes, and how he wants to increase this percentage. He claims that the goal is not to expand the range of the supporters, but to convince the people that change is possible, as the Montenegrin population have lost faith in politics. He believes that even 5% may be enough to show the other 50% that change is possible, that there is an alternative, and that there is still hope.
The second question regarded the position of the government on the inauguration of the new bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, to happen on Sunday 5th September. This situation worries the international community so much that Serbian human rights activist Sonja Biserko appealed, together with 120 other important public activists, against the increasing influence that the Serbian Orthodox Church continues to exercise in Montenegro. In his answer Abazović expressed his concern about the inauguration, yet he highlighted the fact that as a member of the government he must assure the right of free expression to all the religious communities in the country, guaranteed them by the constitution; the same right which gives the opposition the freedom to protest against it. This specific issue has roots in a 100-year-old schism between the Montenegrin and the Serbian Orthodox churches and cannot be solved immediately by the new government. The problem with this is linked to the will of some people to use the church as a tool for political advantage.
The third question touched upon the unwillingness of some EU countries (e.g. France) to accept Montenegro’s EU membership and how the country will balance its relations with Russia after joining the union. The answer mentioned that the unwillingness of some is not a general refusal, that a positive result is still palpable, and that skepticism in these cases it is a common thing. As to Russia, the politician remarked the fact that Montenegro must maintain its sovereign decision to follow its foreign policy path of becoming an EU member, and that there cannot possibly be anything personal in it; Montenegro is not a global superpower whose aim should be to balance the peace in the world.
Then there were two last questions about the slow progress of reforms inside the Montenegrin political system and the lack of meritocracy, and about how the state will be able to repay the Chinese loan for the construction of highways in Montenegro without renouncing its sovereignty. In the first case the Deputy PM replied by acknowledging the existence of those two issues, and that although there are already some notable changes, the process requires more time, as the country is still at the beginning of its rebuilding process. The Chinese question is directly linked to the lack of infrastructure in Montenegro, which urges representatives to look abroad for investments. Once the news about the Chinese loan was mentioned by Abazović himself in Brussels, the Montenegrin financial problems became clear to the EU and highlighted the issue, so many European banks started to contact Montenegrin representatives to offer their help. The Chinese deal was an extremely bad one for Montenegro, for the highway law that the government passed to manage this specific project gave too many privileges to the investors and meant too large debts for the country, which in case of nonrepayment must give China control over a certain non-specified part of its territory. The responsibility for any kind of problem will lie in a Beijing court. The Deputy is convinced, though, that his country will be able to repay the loan.
The conference is ended by director Brix, reassuring Abazović of the support from the Austrian side in its aim to become a member of the EU and wishing him all the best.