[BLOG] Montenegro: Lost in restrictions

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“In personal life, no one relishes a crisis, but in political life, many people pray for a crisis as drought-stricken farmers pray for rain”[1]Robert Higgs

By Rados Musovic

On 28th of February, the Government of Montenegro started implementing its first measure intended to combat the novel coronavirus epidemic by prohibiting flights from and to the north of Italy. From this day on, the Government will through the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NKT) publish a number of decisions that would amount to 83 measures and 19 recommendations usually adopted in late sittings of the now infamous body. However, as time has passed and as the danger from COVID-19 has been more worrying, so did the measures of NKT. In fact, the measures and the approach of NKT became more extreme and, according to many, more authoritarian. These new behaviors, show us how fragile the democratic system really is and should force us to create preventive mechanisms for misuse of it in any future crisis.

Montenegro, a country that holds the title of the EU integration leader, was at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis praised for being effective and transparent in dealing with the pandemic. Several hundred press releases and conferences, given visibility to experts, social media and SMS updates and a special website on corona issues next to preventive measures made Montenegro, for a while, the only country in Europe without COVID-19 cases.

First cases of infected citizens and the failure of the police to ensure that citizens that arrived from abroad commit to self-isolation, made the Government  to make an unprecedented move and publish the names of all citizens in self-isolation alongside with their addresses, date of entry in the country and other information. This rash decision caused an outpour of social media threats, leading to many people on the list stating that they felt threatened and worried about their safety.

Upon the reaction of CSOs, calling the move unlawful and unconstitutional Montenegrin Prime Minister in his public address stated that “(…) Understanding the reasons for the criticism, we made a conscious decision that our citizens’ lives were a priority. We assessed that the right to health and life was above the right to unconditional protection of personal data. We will discuss possible failures when all this is behind us. In order to be able to talk at all, we need to survive, so this is not the time for legal nuances, but for saving lives”[2].

However, when the system starts introducing these measures, in times of anxiety and frustrations individuals can see this as a sign to take matters in their own hands. Various citizens reported getting hate messages, and a smartphone application allowing you to through geotagging determine the location of the nearest person in self-isolation was soon published. Soon after, a list created in the main Health Centre of the Montenegrin capital, containing social security numbers and other private data of COVID-19 infected citizens was leaked. Even though the Government called on an independent investigation and the prosecutor identified the person that allegedly leaked the list, this became a systematic issue and not an individual case. When young democracies with not enough developed political cultures pursue such radical measures it is always a reason to worry. Culture of civil liberties in the Western Balkans has a short history and radical decisions made without the consultation of the public can foster a culture of mistrust, fear and retaliation which could be equally dangerous as the present health threat.

Soon after a number of citizens were detained for spreading false news which according to the authorities led to panic in general population. A case of a political activist being detained for re-sharing a fake news article published in a Serbian tabloid became a regional news story. Legality of the claim that one Facebook post caused panic is definitely questionable, but a pattern that has been created here shows a more systematic problem. This prompted European Commission to react repeating that : “Freedom of expression is a core value of the EU and a key element of Montenegro’s EU accession process”.[3]

In these times Robert Higgs’s theory on growth of power of governments during the time of crisis could be a useful tool for understanding the development of the post-COVID19 situation. Higgs claims that in the time of crisis the governments expand their reach even to the fields where their space for acting was previously limited. He stressed that this behavior does not stop after the crisis. The learned behavior and new powers accumulated during the crisis usually remain active and become a part of the normal state[4]. Interestingly enough, Matthew Palmer the US State Department’s Special Representative for the Western Balkans on the 15th of April stressed that actions and measures of the Government of Montenegro should be “measured and proportionate and can be abolished as soon as the epidemic is over”, while citizens should be well informed of the measures taken by the authorities[5]. This can be a sign that this pattern of behavior has been also noticed by interested parties who have invested many resources and energy in the democratization of Montenegro.

Many of individuals and civil society organizations are torn between trying to support people to follow reasonable measures and supporting the authorities in this on one side and trying to limit excessive restrictive measures and prevent further human rights breaches on the other side. However, the political context and the nature of systems that are introducing some of these measures, should be taken into account. In countries that show “state-capture” qualities, functional mechanisms of oversight and checks and balances are not always available, and their weaknesses are visible even during this crisis. Slow responses of Constitutional court in Montenegro or suspension of the Parliament’s sittings gives the executive branch too much space for maneuver.  Today we need functional Parliaments more than ever to question the decisions of the governments and as Tanja Fajon an MEP focusing on the WB region stated:” Suspension of democracy is not an option in these difficult times.”[6]

One of the main tasks during the crisis should be to focus on courses of actions that Higg’s recommends in order to prevent further power grabs. The first one entails working with general population and developing “public’s thinking about how the government ought to act during an emergency”, and the second more legal and political “on changing the machinery of government so that ill-considered or poorly justified measures cannot be adopted so easily.”[7]

Democracies in the WB region are young and fragile but remainders of the old patterns of behavior are old and strong as the political elites that still keep them alive. There should be no space for the cultivation of authoritarian behaviors during the COVID19 crisis and health measures should not be an excuse for breaches of basic rights of individuals in the region. COVID-19 crisis would eventually be solved, but will in the meantime allow populism and authoritarianism to show their “ugly face” once more, depends on the citizens of the region and Montenegro.

[1] The Political Economy of Crisis Opportunism | Mercatus Center.” https://www.mercatus.org/publications/regulatory-process-reform/political-economy-crisis-opportunism

[2] “PM Marković: We take measures to protect citizens, there will ….” 22 Mar. 2020, http://www.gov.me/en/News/223148/PM-Markovic-We-take-measures-to-protect-citizens-there-will-be-no-forgiveness-for-non-compliance-with-rules.html.

[3] “EU: Ispitati objavljivanje povjerljivih podataka pacijenata – Vijesti.” 14 Apr. 2020, https://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/drustvo/eu-ispitati-objavljivanje-povjerljivih-podataka-pacijenata..

[4] “The Political Economy of Crisis Opportunism | Mercatus Center.” https://www.mercatus.org/publications/regulatory-process-reform/political-economy-crisis-opportunism.

[5] Palmer: Crna Gora da se što prije vrati na ranije stanje … – Vijesti.” 15 Apr. 2020, https://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/drustvo/palmer-kmpanije-iz-sad-sve-vise-pomazu-crnoj-gori-oprezno-donositi-odluke-u-doba-krize

[6] https://twitter.com/tfajon/status/1250330075301437442

[7] https://www.mercatus.org/publications/regulatory-process-reform/political-economy-crisis-opportunism


Rados Musovic is ReThink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a coordinator at the Centre for Development of Non-Governmental Organisations in Montenegro. Rados additionally serves as the country consultant for the European Endowment for Democracy. He focuses on EU enlargement policies and democratization of the enlargement and neighborhood regions and development of civil society. His current research focus is civic engagement as a tool for the further democratization of Western Balkan societies. His academic background is in European politics.

Twitter : @RadoshM
E-mail : rados.mushovic@gmail.com

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