No other politician in the Balkans has been in power longer than Milo Djukanovic. Currently serving his fourth term as prime minister, the 53-year-old led the small Adriatic country to independence from Serbia nearly nine years ago. But now he’s struggling to keep his countrymen at home in the economically depressed country. Many see a brighter future in Germany, Europe’s largest economy.
Mr. Djukanovic has asked the European Parliament to classify Montenegro as a safe state of origin, in a move to halt the flow. Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa has made a similar request.
A new law that came into effect in Germany on November 6, 2014, defined Serbia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as safe states of origin, a classification that all but refuses asylum. Those countries were singled out by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees due to the high numbers of people coming from there, who are then denied asylum.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Prime Minister, is Montenegro a safe state of origin?
Milo Djukanovic: I am absolutely convinced that Montenegro is a safe state of origin and that it meets all the requirements to be classified as such under German law.
What criteria has Montenegro already fulfilled to be called a safe state of origin?
Today, we are on the doorstep of NATO and at the same time on an active path toward membership in the European Union. Each of these processes requires meeting the highest criteria, and the reform of the system to make it legal and in all other respects secure. But the fact is that the latest wave of asylum seekers also includes Montenegro and we are therefore determined to solve this problem in accordance with our integration efforts.
What are you doing about the emigration from your country?
With regard to the increasing emigration from the region, and in some cases also from Montenegro, which was instigated by a campaign of disinformation propaganda, the government is relying on the creation of conditions for faster and more balanced development throughout the country as well as increased contact with the local administrations and citizens from the northern region, the area with the largest number of asylum seekers.
Can you give concrete examples?
In May, we began building the largest and most important infrastructure project, the high-priority section of the Bar-Boljare motorway, which will cost more than €800 million ($911 million). Positive effects from the project are already being felt throughout the north. In the energy sector there, preparations have already begun for construction of a second group of geothermal power plants, an investment of more than €300 million. So we are talking about more than €1 billion in investments in just those two projects. It should be noted that Montenegro has a total population of 620,000 inhabitants.
In terms of legal stability and media freedom, the situation in Montenegro is unclear. Is there political persecution in Montenegro?
When it comes to freedom of the media, I am confident that Montenegro’s progress on the path to membership in NATO and the E.U. is evidence of the improvements in this area. Furthermore, I am convinced there are no political reasons that could constitute the basis for an asylum application of a Montenegrin citizen in a European or any other country.
In Germany, there are politicians who are calling for the end of liberal visa policies for the Western Balkans. What do you think about that?
Stopping policies of visa liberalization would be a setback not only for the region, but also for the E.U. enlargement policy as a whole. The visa-free relationship between Montenegro and the Schengen zone countries works and is consistent with the expectations and commitments between all parties. Montenegro will continue to ensure, in consultation with its partners, that the previously established irregularities are reduced to an even smaller extent.
Is Germany not paying enough attention to the Western Balkans?
What’s missing is a coherent and consistent E.U. policy toward the Western Balkans. It is only when there are problems, for example with refugee or security issues, that the Western Balkans receive more attention.
What is needed in the Balkans to handle problems such as the high numbers of asylum seekers?
We need a long-term E.U. strategy to continue to develop the Western Balkans. This is a logical solution to the problems we are dealing with.
What does this mean for Montenegro’s hopes of becoming an E.U. member? Or for other Western Balkan nations?
Given the history of the region, and the lingering problems in the area, we will need a lot of time before there will be a full integration of southeast Europe into the E.U.
That sounds pessimistic.
No. There have been quite a few encouraging steps toward a closer relationship with the E.U., which were accelerated at the West Balkan Conference last year by Chancellor Merkel. And as a result, there were serious activities at the European Commission level. For us, the Western Balkans conference, which continues this week in Vienna, is a great opportunity to continue down the path toward membership.
What role does Germany play for Montenegro?
I am grateful for the support provided by Germany. The Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (the German government-owned development bank) alone has helped us with more than €300 million in loans over the past 15 years. This support has allowed us to eliminate a number of the worst shortcomings in our infrastructure and thus unleash our economic potential. In the field of the pharmaceutical and telecommunications industries, we have German investors whom we appreciate. We intend to attract more German companies to Montenegro. There are many promising discussions, for example, with medium-sized companies in Baden-Württemberg.
What do you expect from Berlin?
Germany is a true advocate for the integration of the Western Balkans in Europe, and we are all very grateful for that. The German government knows the region very well, and we hope that it continues to actively support our road to the E.U. and NATO. We want to expand the political and economic cooperation between our two governments in order to accelerate and deepen our reforms. We want to be much more attractive for German companies.
Video: Donald Tusk meets Milo Djukanovic.