- - Friday, February 23, 2018


As the saying goes, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There are no exceptions, from Pyongyang to Tehran.

Size doesn’t matter. Take the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, where Milo Đukanović has held power for decades, in various political positions, but always ultimately pulling the strings. Now in the ultimate coup de grace, and in the fitting end to a lifetime of treating Montenegro as the family fief, Đukanović is running for president on April 15 of this year.

The reason is obvious. As Barack Obama wanted Hillary Clinton to win in order to keep a lid on his corrupt administration’s shenanigans to avoid accountability, Đukanović wants the presidency to also avoid enduring the consequence of a corruption prosecution for criminal charges. Presidential immunity will provide that.

This is old as the hills: In ancient Rome a consul always wanted a friendly successor to avoid prosecution for corruption, so “consul” Milo is not an exception.

Montenegro has effectively had a one-party system since the collapse of the Yugoslav communist dictatorship in 1991-1992. Acting as the head of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro, originally the Montenegrin branch of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia - League of Communists of Montenegro, Đukanović has shuffled between the presidency and the prime minister’s office several times over the decades, all the while continuing to grow his clan’s wealth. “Đukanović has amassed a level of wealth that is hard to explain given his meager government salary over the years,” writes the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

“The political scientist Moises Naim, a former Venezuelan cabinet minister, has defined Montenegro as a “mafia state” in which government officials enrich themselves and their families and friends while exploiting the money, muscle, political influence, and global connections to criminal syndicates to cement and expand their own power,” writes the American Center for Democracy.

There is hardly anyone who believes that the current prime minister, Duško Marković, who was accused by the opposition of involvement in corruption scandals and of omission of information in the inquiry about the murder of an outspoken journalist in 2014, is more than Đukanović’s henchman who just fronts for the elder statesman.

With the country’s accession into NATO and its dreams of EU membership, Đukanović realizes the ability to strip-mine the country is fast coming to an end. Brussels will demand a battle against corruption, or at least a reduction in graft to a manageable level. The country needs to improve not just the perception of the rule of law, but the reality.

Someone needs to look into why and how the Đukanović family’s coffers are full. Now is not the time to protect their ability to enjoy the fruits of their alleged graft.

The fate of Ivo Sanader, the former prime minister of Croatia, who has been in and out of prison since 2010 —a year after that neighboring country joined NATO — on multiple corruption charges, is something which should make Milo worry. As recently as 2017, Ivo was sentenced to 4.5 more years in confinement. And Milo knows that his reputation is far from being impeccable to put it mildly.

He has been repeatedly accused of cigarette smuggling, bribery in the privatization of the nation’s telecom industry, being knee-deep in the Prva Banka scandal — which even now is regarded as the go-to bank for organized crime, and taking money from illegal arms trade and drugs.

Đukanović stepped down from the prime ministership last October. It is clear that winning a free and fair election for the presidency for Milo would be quite tricky, as the socialists failed to garner enough votes in the last election to form a government. However, Đukanović has a modus operandi for that. The usual tactic is to declare some type of national emergency, or seditious event, directed at his rule.

The infamous ‘Russian-backed coup’ which was staged in 2016 is the only thing that helped him stay in power. Those involved were accused of attempting to assassinate Đukanović and take over the government, only have to look so far for proof that the ‘coup’ was not real; most of the perpetrators have been released from confinement without charges.

This event was a least the third ‘attack on the state’ that transpired on ‘the eve of an election’ in Montenegro. In 1997, during a second round of presidential elections between Đukanović and a former political rival, Montenegrin security forces arrested 11 people that had “infiltrated from Belgrade and Novi Sad.” They were accused of preparing a terrorist attack. Đukanović won the runoff, but it would take five years for the Montenegrin Supreme Court to clear those arrested of any criminal responsibility.

Similarly, on the eve of parliamentary elections in September 2006, Montenegrin security services “uncovered” another budding terrorist plot code-named “Eagle’s Flight” that was allegedly planned by a group of seventeen ethnic Albanians. Pro-forma court proceedings resulted in the group being sentenced to a total of 51 years in prison. Several of the accused, however, went on to sue Montenegro before the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that while in custody they had been tortured and starved to extort their confessions.

So it comes as a shock that Sen. Ben Cardin, Maryland Democrat, lent his name to the regime’s election campaign by meeting with Ivan Brayovich, the speaker of a puppet parliament which is being boycotted by the opposition.

“I believe that elections will be held in a positive and democratic atmosphere and that we, all together, will prove why Montenegro is a leader in the region,” declared Brayovich after the date of the poll was announced. Fearing a corrupt coronation, and not a free and fair election, the opposition may boycott the election entirely.

To make the stakes even higher, the Montenegrin economy is collapsing. Foreign investors are leaving the country, sovereign debt is exploding, and unemployment is a major problem, with a large percentage of the population employed by the state. The people suffer as the politicians play a Balkan version of the “Game of Thrones”.

There is an epidemic of corruption sweeping the world, as the rule of law erodes in the West. The current FBI scandal in the United States, which has tarnished the reputation, perhaps irreparably, of the world’s foremost law enforcement agency is the latest example.

For some reason, in spite of the rampant corruption and oligarchic rule in Montenegro, we allowed the country to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Before Montenegro joins the European Union, we should make sure the corrupt political ruling family is pulled out of power by the roots, and made to face justice.

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