The Centre for Civic Education (CCE) published a report Montenegro and the coronavirus – the state of the nation in the first six weeks, which assesses institutional framework and practice, respect for human rights, position of the opposition, media and civil society, with a brief overview of certain issues related to independent institutions during the COVID-19 epidemic.
The CCE’s research team used publicly available sources, and for the qualitative insight, due to the inability to organize focus group during the pandemic, 10 interviews were conducted with representatives of non-governmental organizations, media, judiciary and health system. Views from those interviews were included in the report, with anonymizing interlocutors but with indication to which area of work s/he belongs.
The report notes rather good results in the area of public health protection, thanks to certain parts of the system that have demonstrated solid capacity to successfully manage this health crisis, as well as to accountability and discipline of Montenegrin citizens in respecting measures and complying with accompanying recommendations.
The report emphasizes that respect for democratic principles and human rights and freedoms, on the one hand, and public health protection, on the other hand, cannot and should not be opposed concepts. The facts, perceptions and experiential experiences of different stakeholders raise concerns that in the complex Montenegrin socio-political milieu, which is also characterized by institutions with weak democratic capacity, some things that can return in the form of serious problems are easily overlooked.
In the context of emergency without declared state of emergency, there is a particular reference on crisis management marked by formal shortcomings and political choices, as evidenced in mysteries about the basis for the formation, competencies and operating mode of the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCT) as well as internal accountability within the entire system. Additionally, this was accompanied by decisions of political party in which independent experts were marginalized. The measures taken by the NCT, as well as the manner of communication to different publics, were analysed.
Amongst the positive but insufficiently media-communicated aspects, the work of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the process of returning Montenegrin citizens during the pandemic to Montenegro is highlighted. Also, it is noted that the educational system was promptly transformed in order to have pupils and students studying at home, which was accompanied by a great effort, enthusiasm and dedication in that system, as well as additional engagement of the parents themselves and different children’s approach.
In Montenegro, even under regular circumstances, there is neither necessary checks and balances, nor the independence of those institutions which are formally and legally positioned as such. This imbalance was even more heightened in the first six weeks of the pandemic. It is assessed that the Parliament was practically breathing on mechanical ventilation, without plenary session until few days ago, but also without the initiative to actively participate in solving the problem and to exercise its control function over the Government. The Government sent to the Parliament a report on activities in dealing with COVID-19 without any indication that there were any omissions or difficulties in the work of governmental bodies, in a laudatory tone, masterly avoiding all ‘inconvenient’ aspects.
Lack of transparency marks the work of the Government. There are no data on dates and content of seven sessions from 19 March to 24 April 2020, nor available integral materials from those sessions as it has been the practice so far. Throughout the period, only few statements were published, from which we find out that ‘the Government of Montenegro adopted series of decisions without holding a session, based on the consent of the majority of its members’, and amongst these were decisions on issues that were not urgent. Neither of these decisions was to effectuate proposals of the critically oriented NGOs that participated in the dialogue through the Alliance for Europe initiative.
When it comes to donation issues, it is not clarified exactly how much money businessmen donated, especially those whom the Prime Minister called directly and expressed special thank (such as Statis, Shinawatra, Phua, etc.), as well as which entrepreneurs in this situation may have made profit. However, reports on the manner of spending funds from the account of the NCT have been published periodically and in aggregate in recent weeks.
There were no serious complaints about the work of the police, inspections, Army, and other bodies that took care about the implementation of measures and orders, but it is too early to conclude that they have worked in accordance with laws and regulations all this time. Interestingly, no publicly expressed dissonant official position from the judiciary and independent institutions regarding the decisions and measures of the Government has been noted. Although it has stopped many important processes, the coronavirus pandemic has not affected the continued systematic ‘conquering’ of institutions defined by the legal framework as independent – such as the Agency for Prevention of Corruption and the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to information.
The issue of employment in the public sector is usually the focus of opposition, media and NGOs. During the pandemic, many missed the dozens of public calls announced by schools, the Department of Public Revenues, the Ministry of Defence, etc.
The systematic violation of human rights was especially elaborated through the case of publishing the list of persons in self-isolation, then the application of contraversial Article 398 of the Criminal Code related to the spread of panic and public disorder, as well as measures that include a restriction on movement and ban on the gathering of citizens, which were enacted without conducting constitutional procedures for adopting such measures. Institutions in Montenegro have ‘stayed at home’ and remained silent vis-à-vis human rights violations. Concerning the application of measures and orders, the practice of sanctions has been inconsistent.
The prevailing impression is that the opposition was mainly in (self)isolation, with slightly stronger reactions after the release of the Government’s economic measures. The opposition proposed series of measures, amongst which there were serious and valuable, but also populist proposals. The Government has largely ignored everything that came from the opposition. The elections in Tivat were postponed due to the pandemic, not the law, the report said and elaborates on the illegality of the president’s decision to postpone these elections, which was not a subject of interest of either the opposition or the NGOs that monitor the elections.
The non-governmental sector operated with reduced intensity and changed mode of operation, which affected coverage of issues and beneficiaries. NGOs’ reactions to human rights violations, issues related to the draft Law on Free Access to Information, and the election of the director of the Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to information, as well as those issues related to marginalized groups (Roma, persons with disabilities, women), are noted. The report highlights that civic activism has also come to the fore thanks to numerous individuals who have demonstrated solidarity and willingness to help by volunteering on their own initiative or through some organizational forms.
The media, for the most part, proven to be immune with the therapy that the Government was giving them, as illustrated by the fact that only in Montenegro, no media and media organization found anything disputable in the press conferences of the National Coordination Body for Communicable Diseases (NCT) without press. However, not all have ‘dulled the edge’ equally, and it seems that the issues that are not dictated by the authorities are opening up in recent days.
Pointing to deficiencies in the application of democratic principles and respect for human rights at a time when public health is being prioritized is not popular, but it is necessary and curative precisely for the health of society during and after the pandemic, the report assesses. It would be valuable to use the lessons learned for the expected uncertainties – from those related to adaptation to new living conditions that will for some time be determined by the fear of the coronavirus return, as well as for facing existential and economic issues, but also unpacking the suitcases of old and long-lasting problems. And in order to conduct it successfully, it is necessary to build trust through more sense and actions of authorities towards the public interest, openness to different opinions, inclusivity and liberation of institutions. Hence, especially in times of pandemic, the imperative is consistent application of the law and strengthening of democratic institutions and practices, the report concludes.
Damir SULJEVIC, Project Assistant