The United States just announced a new (and much larger) embassy in Podgorica. Ambassador Rising Reinke joined Podgorica Mayor Ivan Vukovic and MFA State Secretary Ljubomir Misurovic at the start of the construction. As Defense Minister you traveled multiple times to the US. In your opinion, how can the US government, civil society and business community engage more and different everyday Montenegrins?
Montenegro is very grateful for the help it has received from its key foreign policy ally since the restoration of independence. The United States played a major role in Montenegro’s membership in NATO, and it also provided significant assistance in improving the rule of law and the civil sector that we received during that period. Not to mention help we received in modernization of our army. I believe that the citizens of Montenegro recognize and appreciate that. What I think is still missing is a larger inflow of foreign direct investment from American investors that would create new jobs, stimulate the economy but also set new business standards in Montenegro. Nevertheless, regardless of the current political situation, which is discouraging, but which will come to an end soon, I believe that our country, by advancing in the rule of law and legal security on the one hand and improving the business environment on the other, is a good business location that American investors will soon recognize that.
The UN General Assembly just occurred in New York. On the sidelines, officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro met. As you look at the year ahead, what is your assessment of relations with Sarajevo and Pristina?
Montenegro has traditionally good relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Republic of Kosovo. I will remind you that Montenegro recognized the independence of Kosovo in 2008 and that diplomatic relations were established soon after. So, I look forward to continuing such relationships in the future. Still, I can’t help but express concern about some recent events. I am glad that, through Mr. Lajcak’s mediation, the conflict on the border in northern Kosovo has de-escalated. However, now and then in BiH we have the opportunity to hear certain separatist tones from Mr. Dodik, and any unilateral declaration of independence would cause serious instability in Bosnia, and thus in the region. I believe that a proactive approach by the international community, directed against nationalism and large-scale projects, would be curative for calming tensions in the region and continuing the countries’ European path.
Montenegro’s GDP grew 19% year on year in the second quarter. This was a welcome surprise after the economic distress caused by the pandemic. Much has been written about the fragile nature of the coalition government. Granted you are in the opposition, but to what extent is the economic destiny of Montenegro tied to the government versus in spite of government action?
The economic destiny of each state is more or less tied to the current government. Unfortunately, in Montenegro, I would say that it is tied to a significant extent. I say this primarily because the current government has made numerous moves in the past year that will have far-reaching negative consequences for the Montenegrin economy. Let me remind you that the national airline was shut down, that we have 13,000 fewer employees than in the same period last year, that the most optimistic forecasts say that we will achieve a maximum of 60% of tourism revenues from 2019, and the Minister of Finance openly brags about non-transparency and by how he made the two most important contracts, secretly. To this day, the terms of the indebtedness of 750 million euros from the end of last year are not known, and it is completely unknown how the loan for the highway was hedged. Also, Aman has initiated arbitration against Montenegro and is leaving the business in our country. So much for the government’s economic policy.
The violent protests a month ago in Cetinje attracted international news. Dozens were injured. You were very outspoken at the time. With hindsight of the last month, what lessons can the international community take away from the protests?
I would say that the main message to the international community is, in fact, a broader context and that these events must be the last call for the international community to curb the rampage of Greater Serbian nationalism until it is too late. We have been warning for a long time that the ”Serbian World” is a great-power project that was open from the highest state addresses, promoted to Serbia. Should we be reminded of how all similar projects ended up in the 1990s? Therefore we have on the scene the same policy that we had then and which must inevitably end up defeated. The timely engagement of the international community would enable the defeat of great-power nationalism in a peaceful manner. If, however, there is no reaction, this project will be defeated, unfortunately, just like in the 1990s, with a great tragedy for the entire region, which will be a fundamental defeat of Europe and European values. Unfortunately, the Church of Serbia has become an instrument of Greater Serbian nationalism, as the only cross-border entity that still functions and exists. The events in Cetinje proved that.