The author speaking to Zdravko Krivokapić (photo: Stuart Mitchell)
Artillery Row

An interview with the Prime Minister of Montenegro

The bullish but beleaguered PM has more enemies at home than he does abroad

Zdravko Krivokapić, the beleaguered Prime Minister of Montenegro’s small suite is at the end of a long beige corridor on the fifth floor of the Hotel Intercontinental on Park Lane. Opposite in their own curtained, darkened room, surrounding a table, garnished with half-drunk and empty bottles of coke and time ringed coffee cups sat a few Special Branch officers. In earlier days — when the room was decorated perhaps, one would imagine overflowing ashtrays.

Mr Krivokapic, who has many more enemies at home than he does abroad, is in London to have a whirlwind series of meetings. They started with Lord Bilmoria at the CBI, via the MoD and Home Office, ending with a face to face with Boris Johnson.

They want to increase inward investment, hoping to wean themselves of a disastrous relationship with China, they want to increase confidence that they are reliable partners when it comes to their recent NATO membership. They want to work alongside the UK when it comes to fighting international crime syndicates, involved in people and drug smuggling, and looking at their parlous economy, they want to get their sliver of sea, mountains and Adriatic sunlight onto the UK’s ‘Green List’ as soon as possible. Tourism makes up for up to a third of the economy and it has taken a massive Covid hit. I asked Krivokapić’s office what the UK could get in return for inward investment and the rest. The response was simple and charming, “To be good hosts” followed by the explanation, “we are a small country”.

But not an unimportant one, with a strategic position in the South Adriatic, with deep water anchorages, and with historic relationships with Russia and a growing, if completely unbalanced, with China through the Belt and Road initiative.

Montenegro is the sum of, and in many ways a prisoner of, its history.  It has fierce pride, but economic insignificance. The one place in the region that managed to fight off the Ottomans, it also managed to come through the post Yugoslav civil war unscathed, though it took direct NATO hits in 1999. Krivokapic is the inheritor of a country and economy that is riddled with cronyism and corruption and has societal fissures that run deep and are strongly delineated. He was an internationally respected Professor of Mechanical Engineering with 16 books and 250 published scholarly articles to his name. Then early last year he entered politics. This was due to his very public professed faith. He is a member of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which he felt was under attack from the previous regime, led by the long term strongman (and still President) Milo Dukanovic. Krivokapic’s support for the church and his clean political skin meant that when a coalition was formed to fight the incumbents, he became the untainted leader of that coalition.

He was up-tempo, happily bullish and looking forward to his meetings with Boris

However, his position in pushing Montenegro towards an increasingly secular and positively anti-clerical European Union must cause him personal and moral disquiet.

He asked me, “Is one of the prerequisites of being a politician not to be a religious person? I was taught as a child to pray in the morning, and in the evening, but now, given all the problems I have to face, I pray all day long,” he said, paraphrasing Obama.

“When a person loses faith when they are seriously ill, they turn to God. If you have faith you will seek and you will find what you are looking for”. The country might need some of that was the suggestion.  “After 75 years as a communist country it is unusual for a public figure to declare their faith, but I am just exercising my human freedom. But I am in favour of a multi-ethnic and religious approach, and I work with figures from other religions.”

Indeed, his coalition includes parties from the Muslim minority, which at the time of the election were fearful of orthodox reprisals. But his faith has been criticised both at home and abroad, particularly when he was reported as suggesting that having communion would protect someone from the virus. This was done in defence of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s cavalier approach to the lockdown. It was also extremely controversial as the virus had scythed through the upper echelons of the Church last year. In October 2020 the Church’s senior bishop in Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije, died after contracting coronavirus. Then the overall leader of the church, Patriarch Irinej, died after presiding over Amfilohije’s funeral. Another Bishop who took part in the service, Bishop David of Krusevac, contracted coronavirus for the second time. Then Amfilohije’s successor in Montenegro, Bishop Joanikije, was also stuck down and was unable initially to take up the mantle.

Despite his historic opposition to the existence of the country he leads, he made it very clear the debate, like Brexit, is over

The Prime Minister’s response to this was maybe not expected, saying at the time that, “if you have faith, you don’t have any problems, you won’t get infected through communion”.

Krivokapic is unrepentant, “I will not renounce my religion because I am Prime Minister, no matter what reproaches come. I was a man of faith before my politics and will remain so after I finish in politics. It is just perhaps that a Christian approach today might help Montenegro”. Meanwhile the country’s drive to EU membership has meant the legalisation of LGBT civil partnerships, against the wishes of the Church and the Muslim minority parties. The conflict within Montenegrin society is very real, 71%, in a recent poll regarded homosexuality as an illness, and half would like the state to act against it.

He is however comfortable with Montenegrin history, despite having opposed independence during the 2006 referendum about leaving the rump Yugoslavia. He regards himself as a Montenegrin, but sees no difference between that and a Serb, this approach has scared many in the country. To deflect this, he commented that:

The relation between politics and history are crucial, but I believe that we should leave history to historians and politics to politicians. Everybody in Montenegro is a historian by their birth, but after that they become entitled to become politicians. According to scientists there is a generic personality in Montenegro, we like to talk so much, and we like to compete while talking, we get so tired through the talking we end up doing nothing. There is a saying, “When in Bosnia, never sing: in Serbia, never dance, and in Montenegro, don’t argue.”

Despite his own historic opposition to the very existence of the country he now leads, he made it very clear, “only troublemakers still even talk about it, it is like Brexit, it is done, it is over. People seek to create artificial divisions, but that belongs to the past. There is no question of revisiting it”.

He was up-tempo, happily bullish and looking forward to his meetings with Boris. Clouds do gather though. I looked at the news reports from his home as I left the meeting, I saw that the largest group in his governing coalition is calling for his resignation and that of the speaker of the Podgorica Parliament. He may be politically clean, and personally Godly, but his grasp on power is shaky and he will need all the help that the UK can give him if he is to survive another couple of months, let alone take on the corruption and vested interests that still retain so much power in his country.

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