Wilson for the DFC: Divisions the biggest challenge of the new Government

NATO will have an eye on the people coming into the key positions in the security services, said Executive Vice President at Atlantic Council of the United States Damon Wilson in an interview for the DFC Magazine, stating that the biggest challenge of the new Government would be to overcome the divisions.

Commenting on the Agreement on the European Future, signed by the leaders of the three winning coalitions, Wilson says that he welcomes it but that actions are more important.

He thinks that the Serbian Orthodox Church has played an outsized role in this election, but warns that major political decisions should be taken in the political public arena and not behind closed doors of the religious institutions.

We talked to Wilson about the impact of disinformation campaigns on democratic processes and the biggest challenges for the new Government.

DFC: Montenegro has been exposed during the last couple of months to an unprecedented disinformation campaign led mostly by the Serbian, pro-Serbian and Russian media. To what extent could this media content, which culminated on August 30, have affected the result of the elections?

Damon WILSON: We in the United States have faced the Russian intervention in democratic elections. And we have seen this track record from Russia in previous elections in Montenegro. It was pretty clear that there was a considerate election campaign, some of that is normal in a heated democracy and heated election. But, we have also had real concerns about the source of financing for that. While I am a big believer that we need to defend our democracy against disinformation, we cannot just deflect everything to these outside interventions. We need to have democracies where the citizens of their country get to determine their own future, without distortion of the outside influence and I think we have seen that unfortunately not only in Montenegro.

DFC: Leaders of the three winning coalitions, that are in the process of forming the new government, have signed an agreement on the pro-European future, pledging that the new government would honor all current international commitments. On the other hand, the leader of the strongest coalition For the Future of Montenegro Zdravko Krivokapic announced a change in the relations of Montenegro with Russia and Serbia. How do you comment on that? Is this Agreement enough to guarantee that there will be no change to Montenegro’s foreign policy and is it possible to conduct diplomacy while sitting in two chairs?

Damon WILSON: It is important to come to this conversation with a starting point that Montenegro is an ally of the United States and NATO. We made a solemn commitment to stand by each other and defend each other. This is a pretty significant commitment and a part of what ensures Montenegro’s independence and sovereignty. The United States is going to stand with its allies and work with its allies. And we are going to expect the same of our friends. Obviously, there can be differences but what is important is that we have some common shared values. Words matter, actions are even more important. I welcome the statement that we have seen from the coalition leaders that recommits to Montenegro’s European future, to its commitments to NATO alliance. That is a positive development and we welcome it. But, it is not sufficient, we live and breathe our alliance every day. Everyday our soldiers serve together in operations, every day we sit around in North Atlantic Council and consult on sensitive political issues. I think that actions are going to speak louder than words. I think that any new government of Montenegro will have not just opportunity but the responsibility to show that they can be a responsible NATO ally and partner.

I welcome the statement that we have seen from the coalition leaders that recommits to Montenegro’s European future, to its commitments to NATO alliance

DFC: After the elections, you stated that you expect Montenegro to continue honoring all current international commitments, including those regarding NATO, but you also said that you are concerned. Could you explain the reason for your concern?

Damon WILSON: My concerns are that this is the government that is going to lead the country and there are some political actors within the coalition that perhaps do not even believe in an independent Montenegro. I think that is complicated, to say the least. I think that Montenegrins can be proud to have an independent, sovereign, democratic state. But, it is pretty rare that political actors who don’t believe in the state actually take to reins of the state. So, I think it is going to be challenging. Obviously, there can be a wide range of views across a political spectrum. I see that in lots of NATO allies and in my own country. But, I think that it is important that the leaders of NATO allies be clear-eyed that the countries like Germany, France, USA are allies and that counts for something. So you do not just balance between Russia and Germany, you are in the same family as Germany.

DFC: How do you see the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in this process? As a man who lives in a country where the borders between the church and state are well-known, do you find it normal that the parties constituting the new government are meeting in the Monastery with the clergymen one day before the constitutive session of the Parliament?

Damon WILSON: It is clear that the Serbian Orthodox Church has played an outsized role in this election. In part because of controversies around the Law on Property, but it is deeper than that. I am a man of faith and I believe that people can be guided by their spirituality and moral compass. But, at the same time I am a big believer in a separation of church and state and the ability of our institutions to operate without the influence directly from religious institutions. And, I think that it is something that Montenegro is going to have to deal with. The church became a force in this election process and I think the society is going to have to figure out what is the right role (of the church). I would be concerned to see the church overstep its role as a spiritual guide and play a political guide. We also have to understand that there is a history here – we have seen in Montenegro and other countries how the church-affiliated groups have sometimes been used by political actors and other countries to channel resources and their foreign influence. That has been a reality and a part of full story of understanding this in the Balkans. There needs to be a way to find respectful role for religion but to understand that major political decisions in the country should be taken in the political public arena and not behind closed doors of the religious institutions.

DFC: The strongest opposition group the Democratic Front is exceptionally pro-Russian. From the aspect of our allies, would it be risky if the representatives of this coalition took the key, or any positions in the security sector?

Damon WILSON: Montenegro’s international partners and allies will be watching very closely, who their interlocutors will be. I think that you are aware that this was actually a difficult issue, with the previous government led by the DPS, when Montenegro was joining NATO alliance. There were personalities that caused concern. But, it is not our decision to say who has what jobs in Montenegro, that is not how it works within alliance.  But, what we do commit is to certain minimum standards, to ensure that we can share classified information – that we have a trust. Here in the USA we have to go through security backgrounds to get approved for the security clearance, to make sure that we do not represent a vulnerability in the USA. Those are high standards that Montenegro is committed to meeting. It was hard for some of the previous nominees; they could not meet those standards. That is not an abnormal thing. I think that NATO will have an eye on the people coming into the key positions in the security services, people that can be counted on to be reliable partners and who can operate in a way that does not leave them vulnerable to a blackmail from our adversaries.

DFC: What do you consider the greatest challenge for the future executive power and how do you see the cohabitation of the future Government and the President of Montenegro?

Damon WILSON: The biggest of a challenge for this new Government is to be able to advance a positive agenda for the people of the country, to overcome the partisan divisions, to overcome the disparate political views, so that it does not just become the issue of who controls what, and what spoils do you get to claim, and which businesses do you influence. So, the biggest challenge is that a very disparate political set of actors across the country – one in this coalition, two in the cohabitation, that it does not lead to dysfunctionality. We ae in pretty serious time right now. We are in the midst to the global pandemic that is hitting hard; it is crippling our economic growth that is overshadowed by political polarization and dysfunction in many democracies dealing with populus backlashes. And, in a world in which we have seen erosion of democracy and arise of authoritarian state-led corrupt capitalist models pushing forward. This is why Montenegro joined NATO. This why Montenegro is aspiring to the European Union. So the biggest challenge of this Government is that it can overcome that division, that lack of trust, its disparate political forces, and the short-term incentives of what do I personally gain, what is my party gain. They should try to do something that the Montenegrin people will want. And that is to lay out a plan for a country that could recover from this pandemic, keep its people safe, develop stronger ties with its neighbors that keep things peaceful and calm, that help attract investment, that promote the rule of law both at home and in the economic space, and that can fuel Montenegro’s accession towards the European Union. All of that is in play and all of that will be on the shoulders of the new Government to see if they can look beyond on the political paralysis and division of today to focus on what is the best interest for the people of Montenegro.

The biggest challenge of this Government is that is can overcome that division, that lack of trust, its disparate political forces

DFC: You said that the biggest challenge would be to overcome the divisions. How we expect that when we know that majority of the supporter of the new government celebrated the victory in front of the Church in Podgorica mostly by displaying the flag of another state?

Damon WILSON: I think that leadership is often reaching out to those with how we disagree, to understand that you have to govern everybody and not just your electorate. Our democratic systems are not about majority rule. Your system is going to be the one of cohabitation, which will be test on Montenegro. Can it show that it has an independent judiciary? Can the cohabitation work with the powers of the President, powers of the Government? Is the Parliament capable of playing a role of oversight? Are our minority voices in patties respected in this new democracy? This has been one of the incredible success stories that Montenegro has provided to the region and to the world, where it avoided the conflict and blood shed that this region suffered decades ago. It has been able to model itself as a multiethnic state that has been able to deliver democracy for its people. That is in question, that will be the challenge and that is what people want ot see coming from our political leaders. But, the other thing I would say as well is that I do not want Serbia and Russia together. Unfortunately, Russia today is really controlled by Putin and the intelligence services and the strong power structure that is really doing ill service to Russian people who deserve so much better. But I think  we se in Serbia a really interesting things happening. We can see a really interesting relationship even between the United States and Serbia. We see a chance for Serbia to be able to think about its own reforms – its relationship with Kosovo, the role that it wants to play in the region. Can Serbia be at the place of stability rather than instability, that can attract economic investment and growth across the region and that can have incredible viable pathway to the European Union? So, I think it is important to understand that this game is not black and white. It is complex. And there are forces in Serbia that are pushing forward more vibrant democracy, more open economy, a closer relationships with the United States and the European Union. That kind of turnaround in Serbia can have really outsized consequences because, ultimately, what we need to see is that Montenegro and Serbia can have constructive, normal relations, political ties, respectful political ties of each others’ sovereignty and independence, and yet recognizing how close they can be economically and shared some common interest.  Serbia and Montenegro should be two countries that want to work together to accelerate the trajectory of ths region towards the European Union. I am not naïve. I understand the challenges. I understand that there are very negative nefarious forces well-funded with disruptive agendas that are looking to tear us apart and undermine un independent Montenegro. But I am also confident that there are those Montenegrins, American and Serbs that believe in different kind of future, can rally, can organize, can speak up and can really play a role in flexing their political muscles to achieve that kind of vision. Democracy is messy, look at my own country. So, there is a lot at stake, there is room for concern, but let us all do our part. And as an American, I want to extend a hand to the audience of Montenegro and say that the United States are going to stand by a democratic, sovereign Montenegro through ups and downs. We are in this for the long haul, and as you continue to reform, I hope we can see stronger alliance and partnership between our countries. It will be tested, but I also have confidence in its strength.

This has been one of the incredible success stories that Montenegro has provided to the region and to the world, where it avoided the conflict and blood shed that this region suffered decades ago

DFC: Since your country has considerable experience in the combat against disinformation and fake news, what do you believe are the key preconditions that Montenegro needs to undertake to efficiently combat these phenomena?

Damon WILSON: I thank that one of the most important functions in awareness that there is a more educated public that understands how they are consuming their information and who to understand the trustworthy sources. I remember, on the verge of the French elections we saw some nasty Russian tricks with big disinformation portfolio coming out. And, it was a matter of collective yawn in France, in part because French people had watched the United States being torn apart with this disinformation in our previous election circle. So, do not fall on these traps, do not be manipulated. Understand that some of these sources are not about helping you, not being your friends. It is about manipulation. So, be skeptical, understand where information is coming forth, and ask for the tough question. And then, there is an organization like your own that can take a step further and really expose, not just help people become more resilient to disinformation. Digital resilience is something that the Atlantic Council is passionate about promoting, so that people have their tool to make their own mind up. That is what happens in democracies. But I think that organizations like yours and partnership with others can help expose clear disinformation and point where the money is coming from, and show how things have been manipulated so that people do not fall a victim to this kind of manipulation.