A foreign sojourn to the United States by the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazovic, has taken place yet again during a historic juncture. With the country bracing itself for the second round of the Presidential election, which according to the Prime Minister,”passed smoothly and without any hint of tensions,” Abazovic has taken upon himself to intensify the daunting task of combating organized crime.
In the plush confines of a hotel lobby in the nation’s capital, Washington DC, at the conclusion of his second diplomatic foray to the land of the free in under a year, Dritan Abazovic was positively beaming with satisfaction from all the meetings he had with American leaders at the State Department and on the Hill. The visit, Abazovic revealed, will “yield positive results” for Montenegro. “Our country’s objectives align with the stance of the Biden administration,” he shared.
During his meeting with Gabriel Escobar, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary and Blinken’s top diplomat for the Western Balkans, Abazovic covered a range of topics, from the US-Montenegro strategic partnership to Montenegro’s politics to the geopolitical situation in the Western Balkans and the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement, one of Biden’s top priorities for the region.
“As a nation that desires to witness our neighboring countries reach a satisfactory agreement, we are prepared to contribute and support the process of normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo,” noted Abazovic.
Asked about the specific ways in which his country could contribute to the Serbia-Kosovo process of normalization of relations, Abazovic said that “Montenegro plays a reconciliatory role” in the region. “We have excellent relationships with all of our neighboring countries, and we are eager to assist in any way we can, including logistical support,” he asserted.
The Prime Minister went on to disclose a novel development that emerged from his conversations with American counterparts.” Personally, I would like to extend my offer, if there are any new rounds of talks between Kosovo and Serbia, to host them in Montenegro,” he exclusively revealed to The Pavlovic Today.
Due to his excellent rapport with President Vucic and PM Kurti, Abazovic is regarded as an actor who can bring the perspective of two leaders closer together. “We are not part of the dialogue, but personally, I believe that the European proposal presents a good solution that is a win-win for both Serbia and Kosovo,” he stated. “That is the path the region should take. The path of normalization is the right one for the region as the first step, and ultimately, once all criteria are met, joining the European Union as the final goal for the entire region,” the Prime Minister reaffirmed.
Abazovic believes that “the most important thing” for the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement is to be implemented. “But in order for that to happen, they gotta get on the same page and stick to what they’ve agreed on. I am not a proponent of an idea where parties sign something without following through on implementation.That hasn’t worked out too well in the past. The most important part is making sure what they agree on gets put into practice,” Abazovic stated.
He emphasized the need for both Serbia and Kosovo to honor the specific provisions of the implementation annex, including those of Serbia not blocking Kosovo’s international organization admission and Kosovo implementing the Association of the Serb majority municipalities.
In light of his recent tête-à-tête with the leaders of Albania and Kosovo, there is no better person than Dritan Abazovic to consult on comprehending the stances of PM Edi Rama and PM Albin Kurti on the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement and its implications for the peace and stability of the Western Balkans.
“I talk with everyone in the region, although I have more frequent communication with Prime Minister Edi Rama. Recently, I met with Kurti in Skopje, and we discussed the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement,” he revealed. “We do not always see eye to eye, I have to be honest, but it’s our responsibility in the region to guide each other towards the right path. I cannot guarantee that this will lead to results, but I remain affirmative towards the agreement, and I have expressed this to both of them,” he added.
Abazovic disclosed that the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, “supports the agreement,” but ultimately, “neither Rama nor I are parties to the dialogue.” Drawing from his experience in political decision-making, Abazovic emphasized the importance of making tough decisions to “break the region free from the status quo.” He stressed that “getting out of the comfort zone and creating lasting impact requires the ability to make difficult choices.” Abazovic pointed out that “anything less amounts to clinging onto power without producing any significant results,” a problem that has plagued the Western Balkans for generations.
Invoking the Basic Agreement that he made during his tenure as Montenegro’s Prime Minister as an example, Abazovic urged Albin Kurti and Aleksandar Vucic to advance with implementation.
“My message to Kurti and Vucic, and I say that with good intentions as a friend, is to make tough decisions. Put an end to it and move forward,” he said. “In Montenegro, we did that with the Basic Agreement. These tough decisions that other people often did not want to make turned out later not to be that hard to make.”
Montenegro at the crossroads: Will Djukanovic accept defeat?
Montenegro eagerly anticipates the second round of Presidential elections. What does the possible departure of Djukanovic from power signify for Dritan’s generation, and what implications does it have for Montenegro at large?
“The departure of Djukanovic would represent the fulfillment of a great goal and promise we made in 2020. It would be a triumph of the politics that the people of Montenegro have wholeheartedly embraced,” the Prime Minister declared.
“My party, URA, has set a new standard for values that everyone now adheres to. Reconciliatory and good neighborly policies are now the norm, and the dangers of nationalism in politics are finally being recognized. Everyone supports the fight against corruption and organized crime. There is a newfound appreciation for the importance of civil society. We have made significant progress in embracing minorities, and our political agenda has come to fruition,” he said.
“What this politics now needs is for Djukanovic to be defeated in the next round of the Presidential election, which will finally end the three-decade-long era of his rule. This would open a new chapter in a new age of politics in Montenegro, where people will be able to elect their leaders without fear and foster innovation to function as a developed democracy,” the Prime Minister noted.
According to Abazovic, Djukanovic’s departure from power carries significant symbolic and substantive weight. “It is good for Djukanovic to personally experience defeat. It is good for his politics to be finally put to rest.”
However, one may wonder whether Djukanovic has come to terms with the end of his rule. “I believe that since he ran for office, he did not accept it. If he did, it would only make sense that he should have let someone else loose on his behalf,” Dritan explained. “However, the lust for power dominates the man, and that’s why I don’t think he accepted,” he added. “But the most important thing is that the citizens have accepted that Milo Djukanovic is no longer here. What’s most important is that the people have spoken, and they’ve made it clear that they’re ready to move on without Djukanovic. The people of Montenegro have accepted that they can, must, and should move forward without him.”
In the wake of events in Brazil, which have been compared to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, there may be concerns about whether Montenegro can expect a peaceful transfer of power if Djukanovic loses the election. However, Abazovic does not foresee any scenario which could undermine the integrity of the election.
“I expect the second round of the Presidential election to turn out as the first one. Everything we have done in the past two and a half years has made it clear that no one can interfere with the state of Montenegro. I do not envision any such scenario,” the Prime Minister stated unequivocally.
“The wheel of democracy cannot not be stopped,” declared Abazovic.
Commenting on the power configuration after the presidential and upcoming parliamentary election, Abazovic criticized Milo Djukanovic for making an “unconstitutional decision” to dismiss the Assembly and call for an early general election. Abazovic made it clear that Djukanovic’s motives were nothing more than “cheap political points.”
The ultimate arbiter of the constitutionality of Djukanovic’s call for a general election will be the court. As Abazovic underlined, “whatever legal judgment arises from this matter shall be followed.” The only thing left to determine, depending on the decision, is whether the election will take place in June or after the election of a new President, who shall then call for a general election “in strict accordance” with constitutional procedure.
“What I expect is pro-European forces to win at the next general election. By that, I mean several pro-Western political parties, and after that, we will form a stable, new government that will build on the work of the existing one,” noted the Prime Minister.
Does Abazovic see himself as the engine of the next pro-Western, pro-European government after the parliamentary election?
“We have cemented it,” quipped Abazovic.
He went on to explain, “Regardless of whether URA participates in the next government, we are that engine – we are the locomotive that pulled the country out of the canal.”
According to the Prime Minister, the country is now poised to move forward. “Everyone can now drive the country forward,” he said. Abazovic likened the country’s progress to a “Macadam road” that had been built, with all the tough decisions already made. “After the second round of the Presidential election, Montenegro will enter the paved road where even not that good of a driver will be able to serve the people,” he concluded.
Completing the Constitutional Court is one of the priorities for the functioning of the system in Montenegro, which international partners, including the United States, insist on. What is the issue, and why has there been a delay in the process?
“Because of the political games,” Dritan promptly responded. “Not all political actors align with the national interest and take responsibility,” he added. “I’m pleased, though, that we were able to fulfill my election goals and pledges made when I took office. One of those goals was to unblock the Constitutional Court, and we achieved it. Although some may argue it could have been done last summer, we managed to unblock the Constitutional Court in February of this year, and we were able to reach a broader consensus,” he said. “The only thing left is for one more judge to be elected, but having these three judges already allows the Constitutional Court to function. This was a significant task also related to European integration, and I believe we’ve delivered.”
Abazovic: What we had to go through, I wouldn’t wish on anyone
The battle against crime and corruption is a cornerstone of Dritan Abazovic’s political agenda and a strategic interest shared between Montenegro and the United States. The recent arrests of former and current officials in Montenegro’s national security apparatus connected to organized crime represent a critical moment in the country’s ongoing anti-corruption efforts. As I sat across Abazovic in Washington, DC, I couldn’t help but wonder how he views the situation from the vantage point in the US, especially given the immense challenges he has faced in his war against organized crime.
“What we had to go through, I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Looking back from the United States, it all seems like a horror movie, even more so, it feels like a science fiction movie,” he began. “We were up against a deeply entrenched system in organized crime and corruption, and even today, we have not completely eradicated it, though we have dealt them a significant blow. We were in a situation where the Kavacki clan effectively governed state institutions,” the Prime Minister explained.
When asked how this was possible, he responded, “It was very possible. First, these criminal clans did not just materialize out of thin air; they were formed and evolved over a long period. Second, they could not have held such power without political protection. And third, that political protection came from people at the highest levels of the DPS Party who, while not directly involved, were protecting those individuals within the system.”
He went on to assert that the presence of criminal clans within Montenegro’s system was the most significant obstacle to the country’s progress. “The dismantling of these criminal clans within the system strengthens our European perspective and eliminates fear from our citizens. Their existence over the last three decades has had the opposite effect: preserving the status quo so that cocaine and cigar smuggling could continue,” he added.
“In our latest actions against the Kavacki clan, we started in April 2021 when we first arrested 18 gang members, including one of their leaders Slobodan Kascelan. This group was active in a broader region and on the European continent, led by a notorious Radomir Zvicer. All these clan members who are arrested in our latest sting operation are part of his network,” he noted.
Montenegrin press recently released transcripts of conversations between Petar Lazovic, son of Zoran Lazovic, the former official of the Montenegrin Agency for National Security, and several individuals associated with criminal organizations. “Petar Lazovic is an executor, but ‘spiritus movens’ is his father, long-time employee and high-ranking official of the Montenegrin Agency for National Security. All very close people to Milo Djukanovic. People who have been part of the system for thirty years, his right-hand men,” said Abazovic.
“We targeted those people and exposed them in public, we took that responsibility on ourselves and these are the tasks that no one in this and the former government did not want to deal with. That is why this is the hardest part,” he said.
Abazovic acknowledges that the achievements of Montenegro in the fight against organized crime would not have been possible without the support of Europol, partners in the US, and other allied countries. He emphasized that these criminal groups “pose a threat not only to Montenegro’s national interests but also to the broader European and global levels,” affecting many other countries.
The Prime Minister reflected on his country’s strides in combating organized crime with a proud assessment. “Montenegro’s accomplishments in the fight against cocaine and cigarette smuggling over the past two years surpass those of any other European nation. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no state anywhere in the world has achieved such progress in such a short span of time.”
When it comes to the significance of gaining the trust of law enforcement agencies such as Europol, DEA, and FBI in sharing valuable intelligence, my query was straightforward: “How were you able to gain their trust?”
“People recognize the difference between those who have sincere intentions to fight for universal values and those who are insincere and want to protect organized crime within the state apparatus,” Abazovic responded.
“And they recognized this in your government?” I asked. “I would say so, as otherwise, they would have ignored us like they did with previous governments in the past. Perhaps they had a deep understanding of the type of people that were in power and did not want to share intelligence with them. Now they recognized that a fresh set of actors had entered the arena, individuals who were unafraid to take on criminal elements and were dedicated to serving their nation. It was this recognition that enabled the unlocking of fruitful cooperation,” said Abazovic.
Assistant Director of the Police Directorate for the Fight against Organized Crime, Dejan Knezevic, was arrested on allegations of involvement with a group recently accused by the Special State Prosecutor’s Office (SDT) of creating a criminal organization and drug trafficking. Knezevic assumed office in March 2021 on the recommendation of the police director and led an operation in April, resulting in the arrest of eighteen members of the Kavacki clan. It remains unclear how he managed to hold such a position of power for an extended period without detection.
“Whether this was the subject of some agreement, whether it was the result of certain circumstances, whether it was an internal showdown or internal power struggles, or an earnest endeavor to carry out professional duties, I cannot ascertain at this time,” noted Dritan Abazovic. “However, all individuals in question were apprehended because the Sky application was opened, and enough evidence was found on the app that they had communication with either criminals or criminal ring leaders,” he shared.
The Prime Minister emphasized that those arrested must explain their actions and the level of their involvement in criminal activities. “What was the level of their involvement, whether it was just sharing some information about preparations for arrests so that people could escape or if there was something else involved, that is up to the prosecution to determine. It is not a matter for the Prime Minister. I do not want to go into details, even though I think I know the situation,” he said. “No one is elected or given a mandate to do unlawful things.”
Abazovic: Decriminalization vital for economic prosperity
The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazovic, firmly believes that the “decriminalization of Montenegro is a vital component for achieving economic prosperity.”
Organized crime groups in Montenegro, he disclosed, “have been injecting black money into the economy, stifling entrepreneurs and businesses that operate fairly and cannot compete with those who resort to illicit means to grow their businesses.” Abazovic pointed out that the key to Montenegro’s recent economic progress is the result of the fight against corruption. Abazovic emphasized the “importance of discipline” and the “eradication of corruption within the public administration” as critical steps toward achieving economic success.
Montenegro’s GDP recently surpassed $5 billion, an “unprecedented achievement in the country’s history,” according to Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic. The country also received over $1 billion in foreign direct investment.” With all the activities against illicit activities and corruption, I believe we are creating an environment that is attractive for business and investments.”
During his trip to the US, Abazovic met with American investors interested in directing funds toward the cybersecurity and renewable energy sectors. Among the companies he spoke with were Boeing, UGT Renewables, Palo Alto Networks, Bechtel, and Oshkosh Defense.
“I had an interesting meeting with US business. UGT Renewables has already started business in Montenegro to build a solar power plant, and they have the full support of the Montenegrin government to make that happen. We are discussing important infrastructure projects with several American companies regarding Luka Bar, where we would like to see the G-terminal built,” he revealed.
“We talked to Bechtel about their potential involvement in building the highway in Montenegro,” he added. “Due to the cyberattack we experienced last year, there is also interest in cybersecurity, which has now come to the forefront. We are currently working on establishing a Cybersecurity Agency and acquiring the know-how we will need from leaders in the industry.” Abazovic, who grew up on the Adriatic coast, would like to see Montenegro become the next go-to tourist destination, speaking of his vision for the country.
Payer breakfast on the Hill
On the Hill, Prime Minister Abazovic was invited for a breakfast prayer with Congressmen. There, he expressed his desire to reinvigorate the Montenegro Caucus in the United States House of Representatives. “I am satisfied with the meetings I had and the number of congressmen who are ready to be part of the new Montenegro Caucus. We had one in the past, when Montenegro gained independence and was preparing to join NATO, the caucus was active, but due to changes on Capitol Hill, it wound down. My mission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Montenegro Embassy in the US is to include as many congressmen as possible in the Montenegro Caucus and I believe we are on an excellent path to do this.”
At the prayer breakfast, Abazovic shared that he learned that “congressmen respect and value Montenegro, perhaps even more so than we do ourselves.” Appreciating what he has seen, “We have to harness that,” he added. “I think I was able to clear up some of the dilemmas they might have had and also explain the great potential of Montenegro.” Abazovic expressed his desire for the Congressional delegation to visit Montenegro, hoping to strengthen the relationship between the two nations.
When asked about his vision for building stronger ties with the Montenegrin diaspora in the US, Abazovic emphasized that he believes “many of them were subject to manipulation during previous political periods.” However, he made it clear that “my government has no intention of exploiting anyone and instead aims to forge a true partnership, expand opportunities, and help the community feel even greater pride in their Montenegrin heritage.”
Confronting the disappointment in people: Abazovic’s lessons in leadership
On a Thursday evening, after a full day of meetings on the Hill, Abazovic found himself in the company of others at a convivial gathering in Georgetown that he graciously hosted for his team and the Montenegro Embassy staff. As they sipped on Coca-Cola and relished the flavor of tacos, an astute observer of his interpersonal dynamics would easily note that Dritan Abazovic’s leadership style highlights the power of collaboration. The maverick Prime Minister keeps his inner circle close, yet he extends his cordiality to all who cross his path, treating each with the utmost respect and warmth.
With his security detail in tow, Abazovic effortlessly interacted with others, seeking to dispel any hint of formality that his high-ranking position might engender and promote an atmosphere where all could feel at ease.
The evening prior, Abazovic attended an NBA game featuring the Washington Wizards and Denver Nuggets, with Deni Avdija and Nikola Jokic playing for opposing teams. Following the game, the Prime Minister was spotted conversing with basketball icon Zufer Avdija, as well as his esteemed son Deni Avdija and MVP Nikola Jokic on the court floor.
I asked Abazovic about the advantages and sacrifices of being a young politician. During his meeting with President Biden at a dinner for UNGA leaders last year, the US President remarked, “It’s great to see a young Prime Minister.”
When Abazovic took office, he was the third youngest political leader in the world. “The advantage of being a young leader is that I approach issues with much more energy and vigor and can address big things and problems in a short time. In politics, timing is everything and momentum is crucial. It took a long time for Montenegro to have someone willing to make tough decisions. That is the cross my colleagues and I carry, and it’s not something to shy away from. It came at the right moment and will pass when the time is right.”
As we delved into his leadership style, I inquired about the process of making difficult decisions. “I strive for rationality,” Abazovic began, “but the main thing is to liberate oneself from fear.”
Curious, I asked further, “Fear of what, exactly?”
“We, all the people, have lots of fears that are socially acquired. That is what paralyzes one from making decisions. I try to eliminate those fears,” he revealed.
“And how do you manage to do that?” I inquired.
Abazovic paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “It’s simple,” he replied.
“When someone attempts to instill fear in me by insinuating that a decision I want to make will benefit Serbia, or a greater Albania, Russia, or the US, I remind myself that the decision I make must be because I believe it to be the right one. I refuse to let fear contaminate my judgment,” he said. “I follow my ethical principles. I am a justice seeker. I believe I am truthful.”
As one who has borne witness to a multitude of arduous moments in the realm of politics, Abazovic’s greatest trials of the human condition, he revealed, lay in his confrontation with the “disappointment in people,” which so frequently besets us all.
“If I told you that the lesson I learned from it was to be less open and trusting, I would not be telling the truth. Such is not my nature,” he intoned with a momentary pause.
“Yet, if there is one lesson to be gleaned from the hard moments, it is this: that with each recurrence, the hard decisions become easier to make.”
As Abazovic’s words reverberated throughout the room, a fleeting glimpse into the human aspect of high power came into clear focus. But just as quickly as the moment arrived, his security detail made their entrance, signaling a return to the daily demands of leadership. Abazovic acknowledged his team with a nod, a silent cue to move on. As he slid into the sleek, black SUV, he waved at the onlookers capturing the motorcade on their phones. Inside his vehicle, he set his sights firmly on the future that lay ahead.
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