In south-eastern Europe, outsiders and career changers have repeatedly found their way into top political offices more than in almost any other region on the continent. They failed often enough – not many managed to establish themselves politically in the long term. An expression of how fragile the conditions in the countries of the region are, how great their need for change is, how many expectations and disappointed hopes the people there carry within themselves.
Montenegro, with a population of just over 600,000 the smallest country in the Western Balkans region, has also been experiencing the rise of an outsider to a central political figure for some time. We’re talking about Dritan Abazovic, recently a little-known young protest politician – who has been Prime Minister of his home country since the end of April 2022. He promises nothing less than to cleanse Montenegro of corruption, free the state from decades of organized crime’s grip, and swiftly lead his country into the EU.
At first glance, Dritan Abazovic’s career seems just another example of that meteoric rise in Southeast Europe. For a long time, the political scientist was chairman of an eco-liberal splinter party: the United Reform Action (URA). Almost two years ago, after a historic parliamentary election, he and his party had the chance to tip the scales politically. Abazovic used them skillfully and with a great deal of tactical power. This catapulted him to the top of his country.
Nevertheless, the only 36-year-old is an exception in Southeast Europe in one respect: he belongs to the Albanian minority in Montenegro. He is the first politician to head a Western Balkan country who belongs to an ethnic minority since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Montenegrin publicist and director of the newspaper Vijesti, Zeljko Ivanovic, therefore calls him “Montenegro’s Obama”.
Abazovic represents liberal, green and pro-European positions. Although he does not deny his ethnic origins, he makes a point of being a “civic politician” – someone who overcomes ethnic and national tensions by creating law, social justice and better living conditions, as he emphasizes in an interview with DW. “It’s very healthy for Montenegro and for the entire region that Abazovic, someone from a minority, is the first prime minister of a Balkan country,” publicist Zeljko Ivanovic told DW.
Guarantee for reforms
Minority rights of all kinds are important to Abazovic, Ivanovic said. At the same time, his civic concept is a thorn in the side of many in Montenegro. “None of the national and religious camps in Montenegro and in the region are happy with Abazovic as prime minister,” says Ivanovic. “The Orthodox Christians not because he is Albanian, and the Albanians not because he has left his ‘national nest’ and wants to be a civilian leader.”
After the parliamentary elections of August 2020, the electoral alliance Black on White (Crno na bijelo) led by Abazovic was able to establish itself as a small but decisive political force. That election was a historic one – for the first time in more than three decades, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of the autocratic long-term ruler and current President Milo Djukanovic had to relinquish power. A very heterogeneous coalition from almost all areas of the political spectrum came into office, in which Abazovic and his electoral alliance wanted to represent the guarantors of constitutional reforms and a pro-European foreign policy.
24 hour police protection
Abazovic himself became Deputy Prime Minister and was responsible for the fight against corruption. As such, he quickly gained a reputation for being a consistent fighter against organized crime, which has plagued Montenegro for decades. Since then, he has repeatedly received serious death threats from the country’s powerful drug mafia – and is therefore under strong police protection around the clock.
Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic (left) is dependent on the support of Head of State Milo Djukanovic (right).
But in the colorful anti-Djukanovic coalition that has been in office since the end of 2020, Abazovic was only able to assert himself to a very limited extent with his projects. Instead of pursuing reform policies, the coalition became embroiled in grueling disputes over relations with Serbia and the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. In early 2022, dissatisfaction with the lack of will to reform, but also fear of his own political attrition, gave Abazovic the illustrious idea of distrusting his own government and setting up a minority cabinet – with himself as prime minister and supported, of all people, by Milo Djukanovic’s DPS, the deeply corrupt one Party with which he had once excluded any cooperation.
Marketing or real commitment?
This cabinet, in office since the end of April 2022, is actually only supposed to prepare early parliamentary elections next spring. Nevertheless, Abazovic announces drastic anti-corruption measures and judicial reforms. Many observers doubt whether this can succeed. “I don’t think Dritan Abazovic will have much power because he constantly needs support from the DPS and other parties,” Vanja Calovic-Markovic, Montenegro’s best-known anti-corruption activist and chair of the civil rights organization MANS, told DW.
“The political survival of his government depends on structures that are deeply entangled in corruption and organized crime,” said Calovic-Markovic. “Abazovic compromised with the previous regime and brought corrupt structures back to power with virtually no elections. Therefore, I believe his statements on fighting corruption and organized crime are more political marketing than a real commitment to establishing the rule of law .”
The publicist Zeljko Ivanovic also expresses skepticism. “Abazovic is very courageous and determined to fight organized crime,” he says. “But he still doesn’t have a team for many projects, he acts like a one-man show. He’s also young and sometimes naive. So the question is how he’ll survive the dirty political games of Milo Djukanovic and the old parties want.”