Montenegro’s new Prime Minister Milojko Spajić is introducing anti-corruption courts to speed up hoped-for European Union accession.
A stumbling block may be that his minority government depends on a Serb nationalist, Russia-friendly bloc, said to be eager to tilt to Moscow instead.
At 36, Spajić is the world’s youngest elected head of government. He told the country’s parliament on October 30 that he views Montenegro “as the Switzerland of the Balkans and the Singapore of Europe”.
His alliance, though, only commands 33 votes in an 81-seat assembly.
That is just one vote more than the opposition – based around the Democratic Party of Socialists, which controlled Montenegro until 2020. It is the successor of the country’s Communist Party.
To enable him to pursue his pro-Western goals, Spajić’s majority depends on support from 13 deputies in Andrija Mandic’s For the Future of Montenegro party – which is alleged to be pro-Russia.
They agreed to back Spajić’s government in exchange for Mandic becoming the parliament’s speaker and four ministerial spots in a 2025 reshuffle. The new leader has also won support from three independents.
The new parliament’s ex-Communist opposition, who take a Montenegrin nationalist stance, have called for a boycott of an upcoming national census. It was originally due to begin on November 1 but Spajić has postponed it for a month.
The ex-Communists argue the census will inflate the number of Serbs, while also alleging Serbian security services may attempt to doctor the results.
The country’s last census, in 2011, found 45 per cent of citizens identified as ethnic Montenegrins, with 29 per cent as Serbs. The distinction between the two appears more political than cultural.
Supporting EU integration and Montenegro’s support for Ukraine would require a delicate diplomatic dance for Mandic. He has already posed for photographs with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who reportedly referred to Mandic as his “hero”.
Helped perhaps by the promise of power, Mandic has signalled a willingness to depart from some of these previous positions. He said recently he was prepared to “send some new messages”.
Mandic’s pro-Serb orientation – he holds a Serbian passport, while Spajić is in the process of renouncing his own – will likely prove a point of attack from the former Communists in the opposition.
The fragility of the new government, combined with its pro-Brussels orientation, won an early visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
She appeared alongside Spajić on October 31, while praising Montenegro in saying it has “long been one of the most advanced Western Balkan countries on the EU path”.
Spajic’s political success will rely on quickly unlocking public and private investment – drawing both on the EU’s keenness to support a pro-Western government and on his own personal connections.
“He’s bringing in all these international connections he made from Goldman Sachs, when he was in Singapore [where he ran a venture capital fund], his time in Japan, his connections to the global movers and shakers,” said John Cumbers, a San Francisco tech founder whose work takes him to Montenegro.
“In Silicon Valley, I’m now chatting with people saying, ‘I’m going to Montenegro, I’m investing there,’” he said, whereas before, “nobody could point to Montenegro on a map, let alone [say] they’d been there”.
Montenegro’s business community praised what most regard as a return to stability, however fragile.
“I’m feeling quite optimistic because having a stable government is of paramount importance,” said Sanja Milosavljevic, a start-up founder in Montenegro.
“All these political manoeuvres and negotiations leave us entrepreneurs and small businesses in a state of confusion, unsure of who we’re dealing with and what the country’s strategy is,” she added.