Igor Lukšić, the Prime Minister of Montenegro
Despite being at the helm of government for only two months, Igor Lukšić, the Prime Minister of Montenegro (www.predsjednik.gov.me/predsjednik
), talks in an exclusive interview with CorD about his first informal visit to Belgrade, and the relationship between the once close countries. The youngest prime minister in Europe also discusses the approximation of Montenegro toward the European Union, the country’s level of crime and the fulfilment of the seven EU criteria in order to commence Montenegro’s pre-accession negotiations.
You were appointed as Prime Minister only a couple of months ago. Did this position help you with having a clearer view of the situation in Montenegro than when you were the Finance Minister, and how different is your perception of Montenegro now as the Prime Minister compared to then?
Each job in public office has its peculiarities, but my perception of Montenegro has remained the same and has nothing to do with the job I was doing then or am doing now. I love and respect my country, with all its peculiarities, virtues and flaws and I try to contribute to its development through my line of work. I am quite aware of the responsibility that my position carries, and I need to look at social issues in a comprehensive way, which was not compulsory when I was the Finance Minister. Hence, every step forward that Montenegro takes I see in the light of my dedication to my profession, and this is how people of authority should feel, as well as every single Montenegrin citizen. Our goal should be to jointly provide a better regional and international position for Montenegro, and, by doing so, create a better living standard for our citizens. This might sound trite, but that is our true goal.
You have said, on several occasions, that the Montenegrin government’s official policy will mostly continue on what has been done in the past by Prime Minister Milo Đukanović. You have also said a couple of times that “you are not Đukanović’s extended hand”. How do you respond to the opposition parties who claim that Ðukanović is still a shadow ruler?
I have already said that I would never have accepted becoming the Prime Minister at such a difficult time for the country if I was not given the opportunity to make independent decisions. Of course, I am open to good advice. The government’s policy is geared towards accomplishing goals that were set during Mr. Đukanović’s time as the Prime Minister and these goals are – European and Euro-Atlantic integration, and the economic and social progress of the entire society. New people and new energy also means fresh ideas. It would not be good if the current and former government were the same. Changes are good and necessary, despite the general course being the same. I have said on quite a few occasions that it comes completely naturally to me to listen carefully to the advice given to me by Mr. Đukanović or any of my co-workers. Still, I am the one that is ultimately responsible for the decisions the government makes and I am in charge of the decision making process. This is nothing new. That is what management is all about.
What is the biggest challenge that Montenegro will face on its way to the EU?
I would not classify the European Union requirements as being any more or less challenging. They are all equally important to us and each task will be dealt with in the best possible way. This is how I see things. Everything is important to us. We don’t want to be a society that changes in only a few segments, but want to be a society that changes overall and adopts the European standards. Although the seven EU criteria that we need to fulfil do pose a challenge, we also have the economic and social agenda to deal with, i.e. to create good economic conditions for all our citizens.
German authorities have recently said that “organised crime poses a significant problem in Montenegro”. To what degree will the proposed amendments to the Constitution resolve this problem and do you share the EU’s opinion concerning organised crime in Montenegro?
You have probably noticed that most of these international reports, including those that cover Montenegro and the regional countries, talk about the progress being made in combating organised crime. Let me remind you of a recent Gallup poll according to which, of all the regional countries, Montenegrin citizens feel that their lives were least affected by organised crime. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2010 (www.transparency.org
), Montenegro is one of the two least corrupt countries in the region (along with Macedonia). The Fraser Institute from Canada ranked Montenegro 66th when it comes to economic freedoms. Regardless of these indicators, I can confirm that we are fighting organised crime through every means possible and are trying to stamp it out throughout state institutions which is quite visible in practice, you would agree. Organised crime is not an isolated deviation in just one society. Even developed countries have to deal with it.
As soon as you were appointed, you met with the NGO sector and said that this would become standard practice in the future. Your opponents commented that you were just promoting yourself, while NGOs welcomed the initiative. What was your goal when meeting with the NGOs - self-promotion or dialogue?
The government and I, as Prime Minister, don’t have any opponents in society’s sectors, but, as I said during the three-week-long consultations with representatives of all the segments, we have allies in accomplishing mutual goals – becoming an EU member and raising the quality of life in Montenegro. I am quite happy with the outcome of these talks, and I know that my interlocutors feel the same. At the meeting, we pinpointed certain problems, we agreed which problems we were going to work on, and what I am happy to report is that they are all willing to see Montenegro progressing on its way to the EU, to make the country a better place to live for every citizen and more competitive on the international scene. This is not propaganda. Following the consultations, I gave precise instructions to all ministries based on the requests and suggestions made by the NGOs during ’The Consultation Days’.
The EU remains Montenegro’s number one goal. What economic requirements does the government need to fulfil or at least begin to fulfil by the time its mandate expires?
If a country has macro-economic stability then it has economic stability too. Hence, we have implemented many measures towards that goal. This is not an easy process since it has entailed cutting back on salaries, suspending bonuses, and changing and supplementing many laws that affected a substantial number of citizens. However, I am confident that the people did understand why we had to do it and that making any decisions was just an extension of a social dialogue. Our debut on the European capital market in 2010 is something that I am especially proud of. We designated 2010 as the year of economic stabilisation. In 2011, we have set the planned deficit at 2.62 percent of the national GDP, which is below the Maastricht criteria (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euro_convergence_criteria
). By implementing the concept of healthy finances, our plan is to generate a surplus by 2013, and thus reduce public debt which is currently moderate. However, long-term competitiveness cannot be improved if you don’t conduct structural reforms which are the most difficult to implement. Also, you need to carry out regulatory reforms and the so-called regulation guillotine in order to advance the business environment. The latter is one of our imperatives and we also need to continue with the restructuring process. We would like to see economic growth of 2.5 percent of the national GDP, with increased liquidity and competitiveness. In addition to conducting structural reforms and improving the business environment, we are going to help SMEs with their development, try to draw as much foreign capital into Montenegro as possible, create conditions for greenfield investments, and implement the policy of balanced regional development so that our long-term economic growth can be between four and five percent.
I have said on quite a few occasions that it comes completely naturally to me to listen carefully to the advice given to me by Mr. Đukanović or any of my co-workers
There are six new ministers in the Montenegrin government. Foreign observers in Montenegro say that the changes you instigated were more radical than expected. Are we in for more surprises when it comes to your staff?
I made staff changes that I considered necessary and brought in new people who are best equipped to deal with the tasks ahead. I don’t think that I will be unpleasantly surprised, but if it turns out that there is a weak link in the chain, I will find ways to overcome that, all with the aim of providing the smooth running of the country’s system and achieving overall progress.
You’ve been to Belgrade on several occasions for personal reasons, but while here you also met with the Serbian President Boris Tadić and Prime Minister Mirko Cvetković. Are these ‘informal visits of a formal nature’ a new model for improving relations between ‘official’ Belgrade and Podgorica?
I did come to Belgrade on a private matter and used my time there to meet with the Serbian authorities. I think that this is just good manners. What I would like to underline is that the relations between the two countries are now much better compared to the post-referendum period and the time immediately prior to the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. The topics that we discussed during my recent visit to Belgrade were primarily economic in nature and this also shows that relations have grown ‘warmer’ compared to before. Regardless of whether these meetings were of a formal or informal nature, I think that they serve the interests of regional cooperation and joint European goals, and should be more frequent.
Did you also discuss political issues? What about economic ones, such as the construction of the motorway? Did you also talk about the extradition of Veselin Vukotić to Montenegro?
I think that the topics we discussed were adequately presented to the general public. We used these short meetings to discuss how to strengthen cooperation, whether economic (in sectors like infrastructure and energy) or regional. We agreed that this was the key to the advancement of the West Balkan states. We also talked about the implementation of the concluded bilateral agreements and concluding new ones.
Prior to your inauguration, the departing Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, said that the relations between Serbia and Montenegro were burdened by the issues of Montenegro’s sovereignty and by the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. What is communication between the two countries like now and do you expect it to change?
Communication is satisfactory and I believe it will stay that way. There have always been ups and downs in bilateral relations, but I do think that there is way of improving relations between Montenegro and Serbia even further. This is an opportunity that we must use primarily when it comes to economic relations. We share the same goal of becoming an EU member, and good regional cooperation can push us in that direction.
You have said recently that Montenegro would not re-examine its decision to recognise Kosovo’s independence in the light of Dick Marty’s report on human organ trafficking. Are you going to reconsider this before you send your ambassador to Kosovo bearing in mind Marty’s accusations on account of the KLA and Hashim Thaci?
Montenegro will not change its stand and Dick Marty’s report (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Marty
) is an internal political issue for Kosovo which will be dealt with by international and domestic institutions, regardless of my personal view. Still, this will not affect our relations, and the dynamics of diplomatic ties will depend solely on our two countries’ agendas.
According to a 2010 survey, 41.6 percent of Montenegrin citizens surveyed said that Serbian was their mother tongue, while 38.2 percent said that it was Montenegrin. The official grammar and vocabulary of the Montenegrin language was adopted last year which the opposition parties claim was the beginning of the obliteration of the Serbian nation from Montenegro’s map. What is your take on this issue and which language do you consider your mother tongue?
Everybody has the right to be what they want to be and to speak whichever language they please. Montenegro is a democratic, multiethnic and multi-confessional state. I certainly don’t have the intention of ‘erasing’ any nation from Montenegro’s ethnic map. Serbs, Albanians, Croats, Bosniaks, Muslims, the Roma, Egyptians, as well as any other nationals living in Montenegro enjoy the same rights as Montenegrins and that is something that I will never question. Language is an important part of national identity and, regardless of somebody having a problem with that, I have been speaking and will continue to speak the Montenegrin language which is now formally accepted, although it has been in use for centuries.
You are the youngest prime minister in Europe. Do you think that this adds or detracts from your political credibility?
Each person has a choice – to do his or her job well, or not. I am always going to do my job to the best of my abilities and let the results speak of my credibility. Youth and professionalism can only increase or validate political and professional credibility, not take it away.