Milo Djukanovic has been Prime Minister of Montenegro for most of the 17 years since 1991, with two interruptions: once he was President of the Republic, rather than Prime Minister; a second time – from September 2006 to February 2008 – he contented himself with being the leader of the governing party. In post-communist Europe, no other party has dominated the political life of a country as much as Montenegro's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its leader. Djukanovic recently resumed the premiership after the ruling party's incumbent resigned due to illness in February 2008.
After the first multi-party elections in 1990, Djukanovic became prime minister in early 1991. It was his 29th birthday, making him the youngest prime minister in Europe at the time. In fact, the Prime Minister's post was his first ever salaried job. At 1.90 meters – and formerly a basketball player – he was a towering figure in all senses of the word.
As an ally of Slobodan Milosevic at the time, Milo Djukanovic supported Montenegro's decision to remain part of the Yugoslav Federation with Serbia after Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina proclaimed their independence in 1991-92. It was under his premiership that Montenegrin forces within the Yugoslav army took part in the siege and bombardment of Croatia's historic port city of Dubrovnik, and in the devastation of its hinterland in 1991, the so called "War for Peace." In recent years he has apologized for this attack in Croatia.
In 1997 Milo Djukanovic broke with Slobodan Milosevic and narrowly defeated the pro-Milosevic incumbent, Momir Bulatovic, in Montenegro's presidential elections the same year. Slobodan Milosevic retaliated by encouraging Momir Bulatovic to instigate angry demonstrations during Djukanovic's swearing-in. Djukanovic retained control, however, not only of Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists and the state administration, but also of the republic's police. This helped him survive Milosevic’s challenge.
Milo Djukanovic also showed political courage two years later, in 1999. When the atrocities instigated by Milosevic in Kosovo led to NATO air strikes, Djukanovic declared that Montenegro was not a party to the conflict and proceeded to allow thousands of Kosovar-Albanian refugees into his country. His stance earned him support from the European Union and the United States. As Balkan commentator Misha Glenny noted:
"Not only did Djukanovic support Western policy (despite having suffered since 1992 under the UN's stringent sanctions), but he provided a safe haven for Milosevic's opponents, ensuring that dissent was not stifled. Milosevic bullied and threatened Djukanovic, but the Montenegrin held his nerve and that took guts."
Milo Djukanovic told us that given the risks, every move towards independence had to be carefully calculated:
"We risked a lot at the time, and in the following years, particularly in 1997, 1999 and 2000. I was aware that one had to take this risk but proceed carefully. That meant not taking even half a step too many and trying to avoid incurring Milosevic's revenge. With time, his power waned, so that the chances of saving Montenegro in case of an escalation improved. I was, however, always very conscious of the fact that, due to Montenegro's political split, war could lead to an enormous amount of victims.
For this reason my decisions were always governed by the knowledge that one could not take half a step too many, had to avoid violence, and might have to reach one’s goal more slowly in order to preserve peace, stability, human lives and Montenegro's material possessions. This was shown to be the right approach. Many criticized us for this. The Montenegrin public accused us of moving towards independence far slower than was necessary. My idea – of moving slowly, with the occasional sidestep, for example the Belgrade agreement, but with the assurance of avoiding conflict and Milosevic's aggressions and of moving towards our goal, independence, without human casualties – proved right."
After the Milosevic’s fall Djukanovic once again faced pressure from the West when he insisted on pursuing Montenegrin independence. EU High Representative Javier Solana pressed for an agreement for a continued joint state – the Belgrade agreement – in 2002. As a result, Montenegro agreed not to call a referendum on independence for three more years.
"Solania", as the State-Union came to be called, never really worked. In 2006, the Montenegrin government called a referendum. Given the threat of a boycott by the pro-Serbian opposition, the EU brokered a 55 percent threshold for a yes vote, a tough target as opinion on independence was rather evenly divided.
On 21 May 2006, 55.5 percent of Montenegrins – only some 2,000 votes above the threshold – voted in favour. The votes of the ethnic Albanian and Bosniak communities courted by Djukanovic proved critical for the "yes" vote. The Montenegrin Parliament declared the new country’s independence on 3 June 2006.
Independence celebrations - You Tube – Pre-referendum independence rally in Cetinje:
"We were able to prove what we had set out to achieve. We have attained our own independence while fulfilling the high European standards we were set and maintaining internal stability. In this way we have contributed to the strengthening of regional stability. In roughly one year Montenegro was able to prove that it is stable not only in the area of politics and security, but also macro-economically, and doing so attracted the interest of foreign investors.
I would therefore emphasize the strong interest in Montenegro on the part of foreign investors, as the most important result. Montenegro is first in the region in the ratio of foreign investment per capita, and third in Europe. This is, in my opinion, the crucial factor, and it guarantees Montenegrins a better life today and in the future. Naturally, this outcome – namely, a better life and a life in line with European standards – will result in Montenegro becoming a fully fledged member of the European Union and NATO in the near future."
Milo Djukanovic is proud of his country's religious tolerance and inter-ethnic relations:
"What is remarkable is the harmony between different religions and nationalities, which has endured for centuries. This harmony has withstood attempted invasions, preserved Montenegro's freedom and finally – today, in the last decade of the 20th century – meant immunity from all the religious and national conflicts that have raged all around us".