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Djukanovic Seeks Another Chance

President Djukanovic's electoral pledge to transform the economy fails to excite voters.
By Senko Cabarkapa

Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic will find it hard to deliver on promises of an economic revival if his team wins parliamentary elections on Sunday.


Djukanovic's coalition, The Democratic List for a European Montenegro, has pledged to pursue reforms aimed at reviving the economy and alleviating economic hardships.


Speaking in the western town of Niksic this week, Djukanovic, the leader of the ruling Democratic Socialist Party, DPS, said he would create "the proper conditions for Montenegro to find its rightful place in a united Europe" within a 10-year time frame.


Observers give such promises little credence and believe further reforms will be difficult to implement in a society as impoverished as Montenegro, where the average monthly salary is only 100 euros.


The golden age of Djukanovic's 12-year hold on power began five years ago, when he publicly challenged and confronted the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade.


Seeking to bolster anti-Milosevic forces in Yugoslavia, the West inundated Montenegro with financial and material aid, amounting to 55 million euros at one point - one-third of the republic's budget.


With a population of 600,000, Montenegro was briefly the world's largest per capita recipient of American aid after Israel.


But after Milosevic fell from power in October 2000, Western interest in Montenegro declined and aid dried up. European countries became suspicious of the president's push for independence from the Yugoslav federation.


Recent polls suggest Djukanovic's coalition is level-pegging with the opposition following the defection of the Liberal Alliance, LS, to the pro-Yugoslav opposition bloc.


The Liberals may well end up holding the balance of power. Staunch advocates of independence, they turned their backs on Djukanovic after the president signed the Belgrade Agreement in March, which pledged Podgorica's continuing adherence to a joint state with Serbia for at least three years.


The LS then joined the pro-Yugoslav opposition and has been working with them to remove Djukanovic from power.


Meanwhile, the country is in deep financial trouble and people's patience is evaporating just as fast as the support of the international community. A World Bank poverty report suggested living standards for over 80 per cent of Montenegrins had fallen to subsistence level. More than half the population is now eligible for welfare benefits while a fifth live below the poverty line.


Popular discontent is growing. Milan Ivanovic, an electrician from Podgorica, said he had voted for Djukanovic, but added, "Never again. His former coalition was called 'For a Better Life', but my life is getting worse and worse".


Tourism is the mainstay of the economy but results this year failed to meet expectations. Despite promises that the number of visitors would grow by 20 per cent, statistics suggest their numbers actually dropped by 8.8 per cent.


The republic's export trade relies on a single factory, the Podgorica aluminium plant, which generates around 90 per cent of the revenue gained through exports. Given the unstable stock-market prices for the metal and the high cost of production, the future of the indebted plant looks shaky.


There are some signs that an economy shattered by the wars in former Yugoslavia and international sanctions is slowly recovering, but most Montenegrin companies still incur losses which is why an injection of foreign capital is essential for full recovery.


This is unlikely to occur while the country remains plagued by political instability generated by internal strife over the issue of independence versus continued union with Serbia.


Cash-strapped commercial banks rarely grant loans for the development of small- and medium-sized enterprises. If they do provide credits, the interest rates are too high, which is another indicator of a general lack of confidence in the economy.


The government is trying to compensate for the lack of available credit by selling off state companies. Through this it has managed to provide some credits for self-employment programmes, but not enough to satisfy most citizens.


But most of the bigger privatisation projects have failed. That of the Trebjesa brewery triggered a four-month strike by workers. Production resumed in early October after sustaining heavy losses.


The Slovenian company Hit bought the Montenegrin hotel Maestral in what was described as a government triumph in the field of privatisation. But Hit abandoned plans to purchase more hotels, citing larger than expected investment costs. The sale of the state telecommunications company Telekom Crna Gora also failed; there were no buyers.


Djukanovic insists accelerated economic development is the most reliable entry ticket into the European mainstream, but it is unlikely such a goal can be achieved in the current circumstances.


On a campaign tour in the impoverished Montenegrin north, Djukanovic hammered home the need for regions to concentrate on developing their own economic resources. This means northern Montenegro must concentrate on agriculture and the highlands on tourism.


The message meets a mixed reaction from ordinary citizens. "Djukanovic tells a different story each year," said Blazo Crvenica, a student from Podgorica. "Ever since he's been in power, nothing has changed for the better. I don't believe he's the one to take us to Europe."


Sreten Gacevic, a student from Niksic, described the election as a choice between two evils. "The opposition is incompetent and old-fashioned while the government is more capable but corrupt and crime-ridden," he said.


Despite a chorus of complaints, the president's tottering coalition still enjoys strong support from a significant part of the population, which is why it still hopes for absolute victory at the polls.


"There is no alternative to the DPS because everything they've done is obvious," said Manojlo Markovic, a worker from Pljevlja. "The success of the opposition is best illustrated by the discontent and grave poverty in the cities and towns where they are in power."


Senko Cabarkapa is an IWPR contributor from Montenegro.


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