The international community condemns “Europe’s last dictator”, but its rhetoric rings hollow as another strengthens his grip on power.

Aleksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenko and Milo Đukanović (via glas-javnosti.rs)
Aleksandr Grigoryevich Lukashenko and Milo Đukanović (via glas-javnosti.rs)
Belarus’ Aleksandr Grigoriyevich Lukashenko and Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović (via glas-javnosti.rs)

Over the past few weeks, Western media outlets seem to have re-discovered the existence of Belarus. The country that is largely known for its plentiful harvests of potatoes and its proximity to the Russian Federation has suddenly been thrust on the front page of all major newspapers and websites — from the Guardian to the Washington Post. For the first time since he came to power in 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s firm rule over the country seems to be seriously challenged. What is more, his opponent is not akin to the scores of journalists and opposition politicians that have vanished mysteriously under his regime; this time, Belarus’ own population seems to be the nemesis of the man that is dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”. Indeed, in a country that sees all power concentrated in a single individual, where the state police is omnipresent, and in which institutionalized nepotism ensures the fealty of the common Belarusian, popular protests have grown to such a point that even Lukashenko’s state-owned media cannot ignore them. As these words are being typed, the country’s capital Minsk remains ablaze with protesters torches, holding vigils for the attainment of their aims.

The population’s discontent with its leader is neither surprising nor is it sudden, as any street interview on YouTube will confirm. In a region in which political leaders are obsessed with appearing all powerful and strong, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s image was firstly shaken by his botched response to the COVID-19 sanitary crisis. The President has also shown an incredible decree of callousness when discussing Belarusian victims of this modern-day plague. However, it is undoubtedly his comically large victory in last month’s presidential elections though that has ignited the fuse of popular protests. It is as though all of the issues with Belarus’ system of governance, the absence of democracy and free press, its functioning as a modern-day feudal system for Lukashenko and his family, and so many more, were compounded in the collective consciousness of the population and simply blew. There is cause for concern in Belarus as it is unlikely the President will step aside without a fight. Lukashenko knows that he will surely be indicted for a laundry list of crimes committed under his reign should he do so, which could lead to cruel and desperate measures. Could there be a massacre of protesters on Minsk’s main square? Will President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin of Russia send tanks into the streets in aid of his Western neighbour? These questions haunt every single geopolitical analyst as days go by.

Many in the West are wondering how it could be possible that they were unaware of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s existence up until last week. After all, it is strange that a leader should hold such a degree of power in his country for so long (in modern-day Europe of all places) and seemingly escape the scrutiny of mainstream media outlets. Yet, as Lukashenko and Putin’s strongmen politics are increasingly highlighted, a muteness of sorts regarding a similar breed of autocratic leaders in the Balkans seems to possess Western media outlets and politicians. Whether he stays or leaves, Aleksandr Lukashenko is in fact and sadly far from being Europe’s last dictator.

Out of all the countries that could be compared to Belarus, Montenegro stands among the least obvious. Belarus’ barren steppes, the monotonous brutalist architecture gracing Minsk’s streets, and the monotony of its countryside are worlds away from the golden sand on Montenegro’s beaches, the avant-garde design of the resorts on the island of Saint-Stefan or the oases of wilderness that are the National Parks of Mount Lovćen or Žabljak. Most people in the Western world only know about the small state on the Balkans because it was the setting for 2006’s Casino Royale or, most recently, because President Donald Trump shoved its Prime Minister during a meeting of the NATO alliance. And yet, either as President, Prime Minister or President of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), a single man has been at helm of Montenegro.

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A young Milo Đukanović and his political mentor meet with Serbian President Slobodan Milošević (via Reuters)

Like his Belarusian homologue, Milo Đukanović’s entry into politics was done through his country’s Communist Party. Rising quickly as a leader of the party’s youth wing in the Socialist Republic of Montenegro, he dutifully toed the party line dictated by the party’s dignitaries. Accordingly, when Yugoslavia was beset by a series of internecine wars, Đukanović sided with Belgrade. Rewarded with the title of Prime Minister in 1991 at the ripe age of 29, he embraced Serbian ultranationalism. By 1999, however, Milošević’s Serbia was a global pariah and Đukanović saw the writing on the wall. He became an adept of neoliberal economics and Euro-Atlantic political integration and it is thus that, in 2006, the once rabid Serbian nationalist successfully led a campaign to make Montenegro independent from Serbia.

With time, Đukanović became known for a series of controversies seemingly highlighting his ties with transnational organized crime. In 2003, he was indicted by an Italian court as an accomplice in a cigarette smuggling ring organized by the Camorra, a Neapolitan criminal syndicate. His government downplayed the indictment, branding it a xenophobic attempt to sanction Montenegro on the global stage. What is certain is that were it not for his diplomatic immunity from prosecution as a head of state, he would have had to stand trial. In 2015, WikiLeaks revealed that Montenegro’s second largest bank, Prva Banka, held and laundered illicitly acquired funds for a number of drug kingpins across the world. The bank’s president was Aleksandar Đukanović, the President’s younger brother, who was made its owner after the state had privatized it. Only last year, footage featuring a high-level governmental official taking bribes worth hundreds of thousands of euros from businessmen. The footage’s actors stated that the funds were to directly reach the President.

As scandalous as these allegations may be, they remain allegations as Đukanović was never convicted in a court of law. While common in dictatorships, they also do not prove him to be a dictator. His brand of authoritarianism is much more convoluted and complex than those of Putin and Lukashenko in that violent repression is not his first instinct. Many Montenegrins do in fact vote for the DPS because they might lose their jobs if they fail to do so, are promised new roads in their respective villages or are outright coerced into doing so. Complementing that with ballot stuffing has ensured Đukanović’s monopoly on power in Montenegro. In only two instances has the Montenegrin President resorted to violent, state-backed repression of the population. They are both revealing of the true colours of the political chameleon that is Milo Đukanović.

After the Prva Banka scandal, Đukanović received the dubious award of being the Organized Crime and Corruption Project’s Person of the Year. It cited his continued involvement in human, tobacco, and arms trafficking, Montenegro becoming a safe haven for criminals and its coast side becoming a much sought after investment for a variety of other dictators, and state-run media being used to slander journalists investigating the government. For the first time in almost two decades, widespread protests were forming and activists swarmed the parks and squares of the capital of Podgorica. As Đukanović’s obscene wealth was revealed, in a country afflicted by rampant poverty and in which favela-like slums were spreading like wildfire, the citizenry seemingly had enough of Montenegro’s eternal ruler. The demonstrations eventually came to an underwhelming end, crushed by the jackboots of anti-riot policemen and blinded by the copious amounts of tear gas clouding the streets of Podgorica.

But as his regime defended itself from allegations of corruption with armoured vehicles and rubber batons, little condemnation came from Western Europe. The EU, whose very foundation was to promote peace within the continent and the furthering of man’s inalienable rights, had Đukanović as a speaker in its parliament in 2018. He portrayed Montenegro as a progressive state and affirmed his government’s commitment to social justice.

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Milo Đukanović addresses the European Parliament (via EuroPress)

In spite of the countless structural problems still plaguing Montenegro, the country became NATO’s most recent member-state in 2017. Those mourning the days when Republicans and Democrats worked together will be happy to hear that they did in this case. Montenegro’s accession process began under the presidency of Barack Obama and was completed by Donald Trump’s administration. The Western world was also silent in 2019, as violence in Montenegrin cities rose to an unprecedented level, when popular protests were triggered once more by a corruption affair. The investigative journalist that published the incriminating document’s house was shot at by assailants that remain unknown to this day. While many policemen resigned in protest of the government’s draconian repressive measures, many more brutally arrested and brutalized countless students, activists, and priests. Save for an article in the New York Times and Politico, little attention was given to the protests in Montenegro amongst mainstream media.

While Vladimir Putin and, especially lately, Aleksandr Lukashenko are cited as examples of modern-day authoritarianism. Milo Đukanović has ruled longer than both of them and uses the same thuggish and dishonest methods to stay in power. In the fraternity of autocratic and repressive leaders in Eastern Europe, Đukanović stands as the dean because of his political longevity and ruthlessness. His students include President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia, Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Boyko Borissov of Bulgaria, all of which faithfully imitate his methods. As long as Đukanović stays in power, he is a symbol for the West’s toleration of autocratic leaders that use extralegal means to stay in power and treat the country they are meant to rule as a personal savings accounts. This comes at the expense of the quality of life of the citizenry, a constant trampling of their human rights, and their reduction to quasi-serfs serving their feudal lords. Lukashenko may well fall, but politicians such as Đukanović are another breed of more sophisticated, less boisterous rulers. If these media outlets and politicians fail to put such leaders under further scrutiny, this state of affairs will continue and will tarnish the reputation of the international community and destroy the lives of countless people. On Sunday August 30th, there will be parliamentary elections in Montenegro and Đukanović is sure to win again — which is precisely the issue to be tackled and that will survive any single leader. That includes Aleksandr Lukashenko.

Undergraduate student in Political Science at the University of Ottawa. I write about Eastern European political issues and culture.

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