Montenegro aspires to be a respected member of the Euro-Atlantic community. Unfortunately, the blatant kleptocracy of Montenegro’s leadership calls into question its suitability as a NATO ally and fitness to join the European Union.

President Milo Djukanovic has been running Montenegro  – either as Prime Minister or President — for the past 30 years. His record of venality and corruption rivals that of any autocrat. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project awarded Djukanovic its “Person of the Year Award” in 2015, in recognition of “his work in creating an oppressive political atmosphere and an economy choked by corruption and money laundering.” 

“Nobody outside of Putin has run a state that relies so heavily on corruption, organized crime and dirty politics,” the OCCRP wrote. “It is truly and thoroughly rotten to the core.”

In 2020, Freedom House downgraded its ranking of Montenegro from "a new democracy" to a “hybrid authoritarian regime," based on a sterling record of judicial interference, violations of religious freedom, attacks against the press and abuses of power. Assaults on journalists and the silencing of the opposition have become accepted practice. 

Today’s Montenegro is drowning in Chinese debt, and Djukanovic has run out of money to feed the hungry mouths of his state apparatus. Which explains his latest shakedown: the Serbian Orthodox Church. 

Late last year, the Government of Montenegro passed a “Law on Religious Freedom,” which in reality is a thinly disguised land-grab. The law not only requires all religious groups to register with state authorities but also to prove ownership of property built before 1918. If they cannot do this to the government ’ s land registry satisfaction, the property becomes state-owned. Should the church contest land seizures or contentious claims, they must do so before the same Djukanovic-controlled body responsible for adjudicating the legal validity of their land ownership documents. Once a decision has been made, there is no right to appeal.

This is a full-frontal assault on the  Serbian Orthodox Church — the 800-year-old branch of Christian Orthodoxy that is the faith of more than 80% of Montenegrin citizens. The state authorities have made separate legal agreements with Montenegro ’s small Muslim and Jewish communities that exempt their properties. It should come as no surprise therefore that the law only passed in Parliament because Djukanovic’sgovernment detained opposing MPs, along with dozens of priests, monks and even a bishop. Tens of thousands of Montenegrins took to the streets in protest.

The preamble to the NATO Treaty calls on Member “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Under the rule of President Djukanovic, Montenegro is clearly violating both the letter and spirit of this commitment. The people of Montenegro deserve NATO’s protection, even though the nation's military provides little more than one thousand soldiers and a handful of obsolete, Cold War-era planes. That does not mean, however, that the alliance should provide cover for a renegade head of state and his government.

Ambassador Adam Ereli is a former State Department spokesman for Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice