The Thin Line Between the Party and the State in Montenegro

In Montenegro, the governing party, the DPS, has been able to remain in power for two and a half decades. This permanent rule has led to the close entwinement of party and state on all administrative levels; the party uses state resources to mobilize voters, turns a blind eye to corrupt local authorities and protects officials from being held accountable. Yet electoral support for the DPS remains high.

Montenegro is the only Western Balkan country that has not experienced a democratic change of government, changed by elections. Continuity of the same ruling elite, which has been untouchable for more than a quarter of a century, has affected the line separating the leading Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) from the public administration. In such circumstances, the abuse of power, use of public resources for party purposes and excessive employment within the public administration are common. Although the legislation is constantly improving, in practice, under the influence of political leadership, norms and standards are adapted and interpreted differently while accountability (for misdemeanours, both criminal and political) is lacking.

The decades of state control by the DPS have caused a lack of democracy in at least three respects:[1] adopted standards and norms[2] do not achieve the desired achievements and progress in practice, as they are not implemented consistently; free expression of one’s will at elections is questionable due to the fact that all the previous elections have been followed by scandals, irregularities and misuse of state resources for party purposes; institutions and procedures, although reformed, still function in a frozen political context and remain under strong political influence, not functioning according to the standards required by contemporary advanced democracies.

There are many examples of such abuses but three are particularly illustrative and have gained the greatest attention both at home and abroad.

The Audio Recordings Affair

Although the government of Montenegro is elected by democratic procedure, no election has been held without a doubts concerning its regularity and abuse of state resources for party purposes. Concrete evidence of such manipulations is provided by the “audio recordings affair” that was documented by the European Commission’s progress report and the GRECO’s[3] annual assessment, but had no proper epilogue.

Transcripts of leaked audiotapes from the meeting of the leading Democratic Party of Socialist’s Council were published by the independent daily newspaper DAN in 2012 and made clear to the public some of the electoral manipulations. The transcripts suggest the strategy of “buying” voters with a variety of benefits, but primarily with jobs in the public administration. The transcripts also revealed alleged efforts by the party leaders to mobilize voters in the state-owned enterprises and public bodies to vote for the DPS, even criticizing the leniency of certain directors towards opposition. Parliamentary inquiry was initiated but only resulted in the adoption of a technical report. None of the persons involved has been deemed politically accountable.. The prosecution failed to react promptly and ex officio. Under the European Commission’s pressure and demand for measurable results, the State Prosecutor’s office started an investigation but did not consider anything about the above-mentioned activities to constitute an offense and concluded that there were no legal grounds for pursuing criminal charges. However, as a method of political action, numerous offenses were indeed committed in this affair: violation of equality and especially equality in employment, abuse of official positions and power.

The DPS is using the state structure and the public administration for the purpose of obtaining voters. Hence, the state is the main employer and the public administration is cumbersome[4] with a large number of redundant employees, while at the same time the unemployment rate in the country is high at 17.32%.[5] This is the main reason why the public administration reform is not taking place as envisaged. The document on the internal reorganization and rationalization of the public sector prepared three years ago has remained “dead”, since the number of employees was not reduced. Data shows that in the period from 2013 to 2015 the number of employees at the local level even increased. During the last year the Ministry of Finance declared a confidential document on the state of local finances, which also contains information on the number of employees at local level. In Montenegro, therefore, information on the number of employees is protected and is not public.

Budva: Metropolis of Montenegrin tourism

Budva municipality is an example of a failure to uphold regulations, corruption and illegal construction damaging the municipal budget and property. Although the matter was long the topic of speculation, the prosecution first took action in 2011. This coincided with the call from the European Commission to demonstrate measurable results in combating corruption in order to start negotiations for full membership of the EU. However, while the construction of certain facilities was presented from the very outset as abuse of office, four years later and shortly after taking office, the Special State Prosecutor classified it as the action of an organized criminal group which had used the municipality for personal gain. He continued on-going trials and filed several criminal charges against several persons including two former mayors, secretaries of the Secretariat, and other employees in the local administration and public enterprises, the total number of crimes and cases runnig to over 30. In two cases (TQ Plaza and Jaz beach), the damage is estimated to be over €10 million. The Special Prosecutor marked the former DPS’s Vice President and political director of the ruling party as the head of the criminal group, although he did not hold any positions in Budva. The prosecution accepted plea bargains from most of the defendants but such practices have opened up new controversy on whether certain fines and prison sentences are sufficient in relation to the harm it has caused the budget.

Budva is an illustrative case study which reflects well the long-term violation of the laws and procedures and abuse of power. All crimes in Budva took place in the context of silent approval on the part of the DPS for a number of years.

The “Limenka” case

The “Limenka” case concerns the Security Centre building in Podgorica, which cost 15 million euros and was built without prior public tender. Under the contract agreed with the construction company, the police were committed to transfer part of the land as compensation for work performed. Such a provision was disputed by the Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office on the grounds that state property couldn’t be used for compensation. The land was sold later on through public competition to the Montenegrin prime minister’s brother for 3 million euros. However, the police administration has failed to fulfill contractual obligations and didn’t move officers out of the building until 2010. Djukanovic sued the state in 2012 and won the case. Under the High Court’s decision, confirmed by the Supreme Court, the state is required to pay 10.5 million euros from the budget and the taxpayers’ money. The reactions of the state authorities that followed were not well coordinated and were frivolous. The Ministry of Finance declared its insistence on determining responsibility. Via an official statement, the Ministry of the Interior “encouraged” the authorities to do the same.[6] The parliamentary anti-corruption committee conducted a control hearing of the Minister of the Interior, the Supreme State Prosecutor and the Director of Public Procurement Administration, but all maintained their initial positions that there was no concrete evidence as to whether any illegal actions had taken place and thus political responsibility could not be established. Only after great public pressure did the Special Public Prosecutor initiated the investigations – in February 2016. However, the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office has, reportedly, determined that the former police director did not misuse his position and, therefore, did not cause damage to the state budget and property. It is unknown whether the other proceedings have been launched.

The case highlights constant and usual practices: the frequent violations of Public Procurement Law;[7] the denial and transfer of responsibility between state authorities; the lack of impact of the parliamentary control mechanisms. The Special Prosecutor’s reaction was late as usual and did not determine personal accountability.

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Support for the DPS is still substantial and prior to the October elections stands around 40%. Opposition lists still cannot achieve significant support, which leads us to the conclusion that citizens believe in the “democracy forms” by the DPS. Alternatively, citizens are still deciding to vote for the DPS under pressure or because of certain benefits. In both cases, the ruling party has huge room for manoeuvre.

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[1] There are also other forms, such as pressures on free media and censorship, but will not be covered by this text.

[2] Primarily adopted norms of the acquis since as a candidate country for EU membership Montenegro is obliged to fully harmonize legislation with it.

[3] Group of states against corruption.

[4] Almost every third citizen of Montenegro works for a public authority or company.

[5]“Montenegro Unemployment Rate 2002–2016,” Trading Economics, accessed 15 September 2016. See: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/montenegro/unemployment-rate

[6] The Ministry of the Interior’s reaction: http://www.gov.me/naslovna/vijesti-iz-ministarstava/156849/Utvrdivanje-odgovornosti-za-slucaj-Limenka-je-zakonska-ali-i-moralna-obaveza-prema-gradanima.html

[7]In this case the law was broken, since there was no public tender for work worth several millions.



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