Montenegro's new president says country firmly on EU path

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Montenegros President-elect Jakov Milatovic speaks during an interview to The Associated Press in Montenegro's capital Podgorica, Monday, April 3, 2023. Milatovic has promised to speed up the small country's bid for membership to the European Union and adhere to the blocs policy line toward Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. (AP Photo/Risto Bozovic)

PODGORICA – Montenegro’s president-elect Jakov Milatovic is pledging to speed up the small country’s bid for membership to the European Union and to adhere to the bloc’s policy line toward Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Milatovic says he will advocate for stronger ties with Serbia and other Balkan neighbors.

“One of the key foreign policy priorities for Montenegro, as well as myself as the new president of the country, will be to speed up the country’s EU accession so that Montenegro hopefully becomes the next EU member within the next five years of my mandate,” Milatovic told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday.

The president-elect's commitment to EU membership appears to belie widespread accusations by pro-Western groups in Montenegro and in Serbia that he is a puppet of the pro-Russian leadership in Belgrade.

Milatovic, a 36-year-old Western-educated economics expert, won the presidential runoff election in Montenegro on Sunday, defeating pro-Western incumbent Milo Djukanovic who has been in power for more than three decades in the small NATO member nation.

A political novice who was backed by Montenegro’s governing majority that included pro-Serb and pro-Russian groups, Milatovic won around 60% of votes in Sunday's poll, according to independent pollsters. Djukanovic has conceded defeat. Official results are expected later this week.

Milatovic said that the key reasons for Djukanovic’s defeat were his long-held grip on power along with allegations of rampant corruption throughout his rule. “This is why we like to say we defeated one of the last dictators in Europe,” Milatovic said. “This is why I truly believe that the victory yesterday in this tiny Balkan state is also a big European victory, a victory of European values.”

This was Djukanovic’s first loss in an election since he first entered politics in the former Yugoslav republic in the early 1990s. During his decades in power, the 61-year-old switched from a pro-Serbian communist to a pro-Western politician. He had served as the country’s president twice and as a prime minister seven times.

During his tenure, Djukanovic has often been accused of corruption and of pressuring the judiciary to ignore numerous cases involving graft. He has often denied illegally accumulating a large fortune for himself and his family.

Milatovic, speaking in English, said that his predecessor “is really a symbol of a regime that ruled the country using organized crime and corruption.”

“Those three things, a significant economic decline, organized crime and corruption, and really a very slow European integration are the symbols of (Djukanovic’s) regime,” he said.

Relations between Serbia and Montenegro have deteriorated since Djukanovic took the country out of its union with Serbia in 2006 and later into NATO in 2017. During the election campaign, Djukanovic said voters were choosing between membership in the EU, or joining the “Serbian World” – a facsimile of the “Russian World.”

Milatovic said he will try repair relations with Serbia as well as other neighboring Balkan states.

“I believe that the future of the all the Western Balkan countries is in the EU, and I think Montenegro can be for sure the first one to enter,” Milatovic said referring to neighboring Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania.

In terms of relations with Russia, Milatovic recalled that “Montenegro is strongly, 100% pursuing the foreign policy of the EU and this is going to stay.”

“So fully-fledged policy of the EU is the one Montenegro should pursue in the future, and it is particularly important now when it comes to the Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he said. “There is nobody in Europe, and in Montenegro obviously, who can support invasion of one country against another sovereign country.”

The EU on Tuesday congratulated Milatovic on his election and said it “looks forward to working with all political stakeholders to help Montenegro stay firmly on the EU strategic path.”

Although the presidency is largely a ceremonial position in Montenegro, it influences the political trends in the country.