Picula: Increasingly frequent soloings by pro-Russian and Vučić forces in Montenegro are raising eyebrows and concern

"In the case of denying the genocide in Srebrenica, I would add that they also cause outrage," said the rapporteur of the European Parliament for Montenegro.

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Picula, Photo: N1/Youtube
Picula, Photo: N1/Youtube
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

The West is not giving up on the concept of defending stability at all costs and the "don't make waves" approach in the Balkans in the context of instability in the region and geopolitical tensions, says Member of the European Parliament Tonino Picula.

Elected to the European Parliament during the previous three mandates, Picula has been the European Parliament's permanent rapporteur for Montenegro since October 2019 and head of the working group for the Western Balkans since January 2020.

Speaking to Radio Free Europe about regional relations, Picula assesses that Serbia wants to compensate for the loss of Kosovo by increasing its influence in neighboring countries, primarily in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has influenced hyper-polarization in recent years.

Although the polls show the strengthening of the right, he expects that in the June elections for the European Parliament, the majority that would "easily find a common language on enlargement" will win the most votes.

RSE: How do you evaluate the foreign policy of the Government of Montenegro, which is still formally aligned with the policy of Brussels, even though a good part of the government fundamentally does not share those values ​​(attitude towards Kosovo, Srebrenica, Russia)? Could that be the problem?

Picula: I would say that these increasingly frequent soloings by certain politicians who openly belong to or are primarily influenced by pro-Russian and Vučić forces in Montenegro, cause eyebrows to be raised and concern. In the case of denial of the genocide in Srebrenica, I would add that they also cause outrage.

Such actions can become a more serious problem for Podgorica if they develop into a dominant matrix of Montenegro's foreign policy activities.

I hope that the current government will not deviate in that direction, because it could have serious, perhaps unforeseeable consequences, both for the Euro-Atlantic reputation of Montenegro, and certainly for the pace of the EU accession process.

RSE: You have often spoken about Serbia's influence on political events in Montenegro. In what direction can things go if we take into account the composition of the new government there and the increasingly clear foreign policy priorities, but also the increase of its influence in recent years on Montenegro?

Picula: Governments in Serbia can change more often than before, but the only one who determines the direction and rhythm is Aleksandar Vučić, and he is practically irreplaceable, since he and his party have grown into every pore of public, economic and media life in Serbia.

Generally speaking, Serbia wants to compensate for the loss of Kosovo by increasing its influence in some other neighboring countries, primarily Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In this regard, there has been a continuous increase in Belgrade's influence in Montenegro over the past few years, especially immediately before and after the event that, let's say, indicated tectonic changes, namely the parliamentary elections in August 2020.

And unfortunately, precisely because of the phenomenon of foreign interference, we are witnessing major political disturbances, tensions, let's say it openly - hyper polarization in the past few years.

All this, of course, had the effect of slowing down the Montenegrin path towards EU membership.

RSE: In an interview, when talking about Montenegro, you used the definition "politicized church and clericalized politics." Is this an essential problem in Montenegro, given that the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) is constantly increasing, not only in politics, but also in education, culture, and the media?

Picula: Today, the influence of the SPC in Montenegro can definitely be analyzed and viewed more through its political role than through its religious mission.

It is enough to recall the arrangement of the first coalition government after the electoral defeat of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

I would therefore say that the SPC, with the active support of the Serbian state, has significantly increased its already great influence in recent years, and does not give up promoting its political agenda, to the detriment of Montenegrin statehood and Podgorica's pro-Atlantic partnerships.

RSE: Through the SPC, Serbia and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian entity Republika Srpska comes Russian influence, which has its own proxies in the Montenegrin government. Prime Minister Milojko Spajić said at the Foreign Policy Committee of the European Parliament in mid-April that "Russian influence in Montenegro is at a historic low" and that "no one has a megaphone in parliament with a pro-Russian agenda." Does the Government underestimate Russian influence in Montenegro?

Picula: I believe that those statements, constructed primarily for an international audience and scene, do not reflect the true state of affairs.

The international community is not naive either, so I believe that those statements were understood more as an attempt to present a more desirable situation than the one that objectively exists.

The situation is definitely not rosy, in the EU they are aware of the influence of both media - disinformation and political - actors who systematically promote the Russian narrative.

There we have everything, from anti-Ukrainian to anti-NATO sentiments, to undermining the trust of citizens across the EU in democratic institutions.

The protagonists of that misinformation scene in the EU, let's be clear, are not only some opposition fringes, but there are also power holders in certain member states.

RFE/RL: From Brussels, including the USA, there are more praises than criticisms for the Government in Montenegro. How do you rate that relationship?

Picula: The West is not giving up on the concept of defending stability at any cost. That's why I like to call that part of the officials and parts of the Brussels administration "the clergy of the stabilocracy".

But the same thing happened during the former DPS rule. Many critics from the progressive and pro-Montenegro side said even then that the EU and the USA were protecting the government at all costs.

It seems that this continues even today, because their "don't make waves" approach in the Balkans is a definite priority in this context of the unstable situation in the region and geopolitical tensions on the world stage.

This is precisely why, for example, they tolerate the outbursts of the Chetnik voivode at the head of the Montenegrin Assembly, as well as the denialist escapades surrounding the resolution on Srebrenica, or the vote on Kosovo in the Council of Europe.

RSE: The authorities in Montenegro expect that in June the country will receive a positive IBAR (assessment of the fulfillment of temporary benchmarks in chapters 23 and 24 - which concern the rule of law). How much did the unstable regional and global events influence the EU's criteria to be lenient, and for Montenegro to receive it despite the fact that it did not meet all the stipulated conditions?

Picula: I wouldn't say that there has been any significant relaxation of the criteria, but I think that a momentum has been created that every candidate country must use wisely in the context of obtaining IBAR.

It would be bad if Montenegro stopped there, any positive step must be a motivation for further work on reforms, without which the key step towards joining the EU cannot be made.

RSE: To what extent is the current government committed to meeting the standards for the emancipation of society, and how much to gaining access to Brussels financial funds?

Picula: First of all, this question should be seen and analyzed in the context of the priorities of the current government.

Is the priority to enter the EU as a community of democratic values ​​or exclusively to join a community that generously grants large financial resources.

It must not be forgotten that the EU is not only a common market, but also a community of values, but also the sharing of some risks.

Nevertheless, a good number of countries insist on respecting the so-called foundations, because the majority in the EU do not aim to spread illiberal concepts and an autocratic way of ruling within the community.

And I think that every candidate for membership must, first of all, take care to send the right message, to emancipate pro-European social forces in the accession process, and not to strengthen autocratic tendencies. RSE: Elections for the European Parliament are coming soon. If there is a strengthening of the right in those elections, how would that affect not only Montenegro, but also the region, with all its political instability?

Picula: In my opinion, the fundamental question is whether the renewal of interest in the enlargement policy will better connect the EU in times of geopolitical realignment or whether it will perhaps deepen or even cause some new divisions among the member states.

The second question is very important and directly related to what you are interested in now - which ideologies will stamp the future functioning of the EU, and thus profile the enlargement policy itself.

I believe that the new enlargement should not increase the number of semi-democratic or non-democratic EU member states.

And I think that, despite polls showing the strengthening of the right, it is undeniable, as well as the results of some elections in the member states, I think that the coalition of the European People's Party, Socialists and Democrats, and Liberals with the support of the Greens, will still continue to form that pro-European majority in the European parliament and the EU.

And I believe that this majority will be able to find a common language more easily around the need for EU enlargement, than perhaps around some other more complex issues. At least judging by this, practically already completed, mandate in the EU.

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