On 17 October, early in the morning, police forces broke up a peaceful protest in front of the Montenegrin parliament. They removed tents that had been blocking traffic through the main streets of Podgorica, after their permit had expired seven days earlier. The protests of the Democratic Front, the opposition coalition in Montenegro’s parliament, were announced as the only form of political battle against an unchanged government that has been in power for more than 20 years. Central requests of the three-week long protests were the resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and the formation of an interim government. Subsequently early parliamentary elections should be held, which would be the first free and fair elections ever held in the country, as pointed out by Nebojsa Medojevic of the Democratic Front. The basis for these requirements, according to the protest organizers, were the numerous corruption scandals and election irregularities that impaired the conditions for a fair political fight. Nevertheless, support for the protests dwindled as days went by. The situation looked grim for the organizers, both because of increasingly empty tents and because of the accusations of protesters using nationalistic language and symbols.
Photo credit: AP
However, the unexpected police raid, the arrest of participants, journalists and one of the leaders of the opposition and the use of tear gas provided the organizers and the protest itself with much-needed ‘wind in the sails.’ Until that moment the protests did not achieve any of their goals, but importantly raised questions of adequately articulating political demands and the wider social significance of protests in relation to centralized power structures. Yet, the use of force and mobilization of the police from all over the country sparked a joint response by citizens and intellectuals. The revolt was expressed through peaceful protest walks and a protest letter from citizens and intellectuals addressing the Government and the Ministry of Interior. In addition, violence and hampering of freedom of expression has been further illustrated during the arrest of journalists who were merely doing their job. The protesters expressed their own aggression by stoning the headquarters of the PINK television, seen as the most shameless regime propaganda tool. EU representatives and the diplomatic corps in Montenegro called upon institutions to shed light on the ongoing events.
The protests, as expected, stirred the Montenegrin public, in different ways. The National Security Council, chaired by the Prime Minister, has estimated that the activities of protesters have undermined the constitutional order, security and safety of citizens. The ruling DPS is portraying the protests as an attack on the country’s independence and an attempt to undermine its invitation for NATO membership. Oppositional political parties and prominent NGOs, on the other hand, called upon institutions (prosecution, internal control of the police, etc.) to conduct an impartial investigation into the police action and to examine whether unnecessary force was used.
It seems that the originally DF-led protests, could take on the characteristics of a civil revolt due to the perceived police brutality and what was seen as a violation of constitutional rights. The protesters have the same request/ultimatum: Djukanovic’s resignation until Saturday without a clear alternative what will happen if he does not resign. Also, it is unclear how the situation will develop considering that the organizers do not intend to register protests anymore while the Ministry of Interior announced that it would not allow further attacks on the police.
Further protests are scheduled for Saturday and will demonstrate whether the DF is able or willing to make a shift away from the struggle for political points to articulating discontent of the people into a general protest against the government. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the country, that is the most advanced of the Western Balkan countries in the process of negotiations for EU membership, really learned to use the system’s institutions for the benefit of citizens and in the service of democracy.