Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The country held parliamentary elections on August 30. The elections were competitive and took place in an environment highly polarized over issues of religion and national identity. ODIHR stated the elections were overall transparent and efficient but highlighted that the ruling party gained an undue advantage through misuse of office and state resources and dominant media coverage. ODIHR also found the State Election Commission did not entirely fulfill its regulatory role, leaving many aspects related to voter registration unaddressed and failing to provide clear recommendations for protecting the health of voters and for facilitating mobile voting by voters in quarantine. ODIHR further noted the elections took place amid concerns about the government’s inconsistent adherence to the constitution, including: calling early elections without shortening parliament’s mandate; introducing pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings and rallies without parliament calling a state of emergency; and initiating criminal proceedings and arrests for several members of parliament without a prior waiver of their immunity by parliament.
The European Network of Election Monitoring Organization (ENEMO) and ODIHR observers noted that election day was calm and peaceful but identified a few cases of minor irregularities that did not affect the electoral process. Unlike the previous parliamentary elections in 2016, all parties accepted the election results. ODIHR found that the lack of independent campaign coverage by media further undermined the quality of information available to voters.
The country held presidential elections in 2018. The ODIHR observation mission to the elections noted in its final report that although the candidate nominated by the governing party held an institutional advantage, fundamental freedoms were respected. Candidates campaigned freely, and media provided the contestants with a platform to present their views. The technical aspects of the election were adequately managed, although observers noted the transparency and professionalism of the State Election Commission remained issues of concern. Election day proceeded in an orderly manner despite a few observed procedural irregularities.
After several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Appellate Court began a hearing on September 7 on the Podgorica High Court’s May 2019 conviction of 13 individuals for their role in plotting a failed coup to disrupt the country’s 2016 parliamentary elections. The persons convicted included two leaders of the opposition DF political alliance, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, and two alleged Russian intelligence officers. Appeals of the convictions were pending as of year’s end.
Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties were able to form and operate freely. The former ruling DPS and its government, however, often mixed official business and party prerogatives, and there were reports the government used the purchase of public advertising selectively to support media outlets offering favorable coverage. Election observers noted that extensive visits and inaugurations by the president, prime minister, and local DPS government officials during the campaign appeared to blur the line between the state and the ruling party, given that their media appearances were at times used to promote party accomplishments and visibility rather than to conduct strictly official matters. As in previous elections, independent observers found that the DPS gained an undue advantage through various forms of misuse of office and state resources, such as offering temporary employment in the public sector and distributing extraordinary welfare benefits to “vulnerable” groups based on unclear criteria. Official investigations were initiated in two cases, based on allegations of pressure to vote for the DPS. Nevertheless, in the August 30 election, opposition parties won a majority of the seats in parliament for the first time in 30 years.
The trial of Nebojsa Medojevic, a leader of the DF, along with 11 other DF members for alleged money laundering linked to DF financing during the 2016 elections, continued during the year. The DF accused the prosecutor’s office of acting under the influence of the former ruling party DPS and bringing false charges against it to reduce DF’s influence in the country as the strongest opposition group.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws formally limit the participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Although the law requires that at least 30 percent of a political party’s candidates be female, women held only 22 percent (18 of 81) of delegate seats in the parliament, down from 23 (28 percent) in the previous parliament. In the national government, women held four out of 17 ministerial seats. At the beginning of October, NGOs focusing on women’s rights expressed frustration not only with the lower representation of women in the new parliament, but also the absence of women from political negotiations on the composition of the new government thus far.
Traditionally, the largest minority groups in the country (i.e., Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, and Croats) had representatives in parliament; Roma, Ashkali, and Balkan-Egyptians remained unrepresented. In the August 30 parliamentary elections, the two Croatian electoral lists did not pass the election threshold needed to win seats in parliament. Although the law provides representation to minority-affiliated parties that win less than 3 percent of the vote or constitute less than 15 percent of the population, the law does not apply to the Romani community. At the end of 2019, the Democratic Roma Party became the first Romani political party established in the country. Mensur Shalaj, the leader of the party, was also a member of the Roma Council. The Democratic Roma Party did not participate in the August 30 parliamentary elections.
The law also provides for positive discrimination in the allocation of electoral seats at the municipal level for minorities constituting 1.5 to 15 percent of the population. There were no political representatives of Roma, Ashkali, or Balkan-Egyptians at the municipal level.
Rape and Domestic Violence: These acts are illegal, and authorities generally enforced the law. In most cases the penalty provided by law for rape, including spousal rape, is one to 10 years in prison, although the law permits lower sentences in cases where there are exceptionally extenuating circumstances or a significant lack of evidence. Actual sentences were generally lenient, averaging three years. Judges often used questionable methods, including forcing confrontations between victims and perpetrators, to assess the credibility of victims. NGOs expressed concern about the security of the courtrooms where victims were often forced to meet with abusers. In one case a convicted perpetrator assaulted a domestic violence survivor in front of a judge while being escorted into the courtroom by prison staff. Despite that incident and the testimony of several experts, including NGO representatives and the victim’s lawyer, the perpetrator was acquitted by the judge. Domestic violence is generally punishable by a fine or a one-year prison sentence. According to NGO reports, domestic violence survivors continued to experience difficulties having their cases prosecuted in the judicial system, promoting an atmosphere of impunity for abusers. This problem was further compounded by the additional constraints put on prosecutors and the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases police were quick to dismiss allegations of domestic violence, particularly for young couples, noting that the problems would be resolved over time. Even when their cases were tried in court and they received a judgment in their favor, survivors noted the sentences imposed on perpetrators were lenient and dominated by suspended sentences and fines. Lengthy trials, economic dependency, societal norms, and a lack of alternative housing often forced survivors and perpetrators to continue to live together.
Domestic violence is generally punishable by a fine or a one-year prison sentence. According to NGO reports, domestic violence survivors continued to experience difficulties having their cases prosecuted in the judicial system, promoting an atmosphere of impunity for abusers. This problem was further compounded by the additional constraints put on prosecutors and the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases police were quick to dismiss allegations of domestic violence, particularly for young couples, noting that the problems would be resolved over time. Even when their cases were tried in court and they received a judgment in their favor, survivors noted the sentences imposed on perpetrators were lenient and dominated by suspended sentences and fines. Lengthy trials, economic dependency, societal norms, and a lack of alternative housing often forced survivors and perpetrators to continue to live together.
Police response to domestic violence was also reported to be substandard, with officers often counseling women to “forgive” their attackers or to “not harm their (the attackers) job prospects.” Cases involving perpetrators who were also public officials remained problematic. The trial against a police officer who attacked and injured a woman in a nightclub in 2019 was still ongoing 15 months after the incident and a year since the start of the trial. Other institutions’ responses were also problematic. According to NGOs, social centers have increasingly taken actions to keep victims and abusers together in order to preserve the family structure or pay one-time assistance for rent, rather than accommodating victims in licensed shelters and providing other needed support to them, including psychological and legal support.
The country aligned its legislation with the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, but domestic violence remained a persistent and common problem. The law permits survivors to obtain restraining orders against abusers. When the abuser and survivor live together, authorities may remove the abuser from the property, regardless of ownership rights. In practice this was rarely done, and NGOs reported that, as a result of the Ministry of Health’s COVID-19 restrictive measures, women were actually spending more time with abusers. Domestic violence was a serious problem in all communities.
According to NGOs and the ombudsman, female survivors of domestic violence often complained that government-run social welfare centers did not respond adequately to their appeals for help. NGOs reported that state institutions did not provide physical protection for survivors.
The government, in cooperation with an NGO, operated a free hotline for victims of family violence. As a part of COVID-19 measures, the government imposed a curfew barring citizens from leaving their homes between the hours of 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. the following morning, which was accompanied by an increase in the number of reported domestic violence cases. The government promoted use of the NGO SOS Hotline in Niksic and the UNDP developed the mobile application “Be safe” as tools for domestic violence victims to call for help. NGOs continued to report that, despite some progress, particularly in the law, government agencies responded inadequately to prevent domestic violence and help survivors recover. According to NGOs, because of the restrictive COVID-19 measures, authorities failed to address domestic violence in a timely manner, leaving survivors with limited support. The NGO Women’s Rights Center stated that perpetrators often confiscated victims’ phones and not all victims were able to use digital tools, which limited reporting.
In March, NGOs reported that police in Niksic refused to accept the complaint and call for help of a Romani survivor of domestic violence seeking safe refuge at a police station, despite being accompanied by a caseworker from the NGO Center for Roma Initiatives who was there to support the survivor and help her find safe accommodations. The survivor, who was from Kosovo and primarily spoke Albanian and had only a limited knowledge of the Montenegrin language, was a trafficking victim who entered Montenegro illegally in December 2019 after escaping a forced marriage in Kosovo. In Montenegro, she was initially forced into a marriage with a man in Bar and then to a man in Herceg Novi.
During her first marriage in Kosovo, the survivor first became the victim of domestic violence from her husband’s family. Her second marriage to a man in Montenegro was equally abusive, with her husband taking her personal documents to keep her under control. She then fled her second husband’s family home to Niksic to stay with an acquaintance’s family, although she once again encountered domestic violence. While she was not subject to physical violence from either of the families she stayed with in Montenegro, the survivor claimed that she endured mental and emotional abuse. A male friend of the acquaintance’s family in Niksic, who offered to provide her with a ride and help the survivor escape, turned on her and attempted to rape her. While in Niksic, the survivor came into contact with the Center for Roma Initiatives and she was advised to file a complaint for forced marriage and trafficking, domestic violence, and attempted rape with the police. Because the survivor was from Kosovo, the police refused to act without first receiving permission from a health-sanitary inspector due to COVID-19 restrictions, even though she had been living in Montenegro since December 2019. Under the government’s preventative health measures, health-sanitary inspectors worked with the police and oversaw decisions pertaining to quarantine and self-isolation for individuals seeking to enter Montenegro during the pandemic. The health-sanitary inspector required the victim and the NGO caseworker who followed her to self-isolate for 14 days, a period later extended to 28 days. Homeless and unable to find accommodation due to the requirement that she self-isolate for 14 days, the survivor spent the night in front of the police station with her eight-month-old baby after which she returned to her abuser, as she risked facing criminal charges for violating public health measures. The Center for Roma Initiatives remained in touch with the survivor and continued to advocate on her behalf with police, who finally agreed to allow her to be accommodated at the shelter run by the NGO SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence Niksic in mid-April. Shortly thereafter, the Department for Combatting Trafficking in Persons at the Ministry of Interior took up the survivor’s case, and in June she was transferred to the Shelter for Victims of Trafficking in Persons.
The Center for Roma Initiatives claimed that the harsh treatment of the survivor and the NGO caseworker at the hands of the police and the health-sanitary inspector was due to discrimination based on their Romani ethnicity. Their unwillingness to accept the survivor’s complaint caused her considerable anguish as she feared for her life, both from her second husband’s family and from the man who tried to rape her, who she often saw passing by the house where she lived. After her return to the home of her second husband’s family, she faced renewed mental and emotional abuse and significant pressure to leave the house as soon as possible. The case was under investigation, and NGOs continued to monitor it closely.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Child marriage continued to be a problem in Romani communities (see Child, Early, and Forced Marriage subsection under Children, below). Although illegal, in many Romani communities, the practice of paying a traditional “bride price” of several hundred to several thousand euros for girls and women to be sold into or purchased from families across the border in Kosovo or Albania led to concerns about trafficking in persons. The potential to be “remarried” existed, with some girls being sent back to their families, being resold, and the money then given to the former spouse’s family. These practices were rarely reported, and police rarely intervened, viewing the practices as “traditional.” These practices led to girls withdrawing from school at a rate much higher than boys, limiting their literacy and ability to provide for themselves and their families, essentially trapping them in these situations. At the end of 2019, the government established a team for the formal identification of victims of trafficking. Since the beginning of the year, the team identified two victims of forced child marriage, and it continued to evaluate additional potential cases of forced child marriages. In June, police filed criminal charges for human trafficking against a 43-year-old individual from Podgorica who allegedly arranged an illicit marriage for his 17-years-old daughter in exchange for 5,000 euros ($6,000). The multi-institutional Human Trafficking Task Force initiated several cases in which police intervened and the girls and women were given status as victims of trafficking in persons.
In June, police filed criminal charges for human trafficking against a 43-year-old individual from Podgorica who allegedly arranged an illicit marriage for his 17-years-old daughter in exchange for 5,000 euros ($6,000). The multi-institutional Human Trafficking Task Force initiated several cases in which police intervened and the girls and women were given status as victims of trafficking in persons.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is not defined as a crime under the law. According to the Center for Women’s Rights, sexual harassment, including street harassment, of women occurred often, but few women reported it. Public awareness of the problem remained low. Victims hesitated to report harassment in the workplace due to fears of employer reprisals and a lack of information about legal remedies. Stalking or predatory behavior with physical intimidation is punishable by law with a fine or up to three years’ imprisonment.
Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the right of most couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children; to manage their reproductive health; and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. In the case of transgender individuals, the country continues to require sterilization before their gender identity is legally recognized.
Free health care was available to all citizens; however, health-care costs acted as a barrier for noncitizens and those lacking identification documents to access regular prenatal care. Due to poor education and living conditions, Romani and Egyptian women seldom visited gynecologists, obstetricians, or any other doctors and had the least access to family planning counseling and gynecological services. Romani and Egyptian women able to access these services often reported discriminatory treatment, including verbal harassment Women outside these communities also reported verbal harassment when accessing reproductive health services. NGOs noted that such harassment was often unreported due to inadequate victim support mechanisms. Depending on the location, there was one gynecologist per 5,000 to 8,000 women, which affected women’s access to routine health services during pregnancy and childbirth.
There were no legal barriers to contraception; however, a 2020 UNFPA report indicated the country had enacted only 37 percent of legislation and regulations necessary to ensure full and equal access to contraceptive services. According to NGOs, there was a lack of publicly available information and appropriate educational programs, and economic status and restrictions by partners were barriers preventing women from using contraception.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. NGOs stated that these services were often not tailored to those experiencing sexual violence and that persons performing examinations sometimes lacked the necessary expertise to prepare a valid forensic report.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men. All property acquired during marriage is joint property. The government enforced these laws somewhat effectively. The NGO SOS noted, however, that women often experienced difficulty in defending their property rights in divorce proceedings due to the widespread public belief that property belongs to the man. Sometimes women ceded their inherited property and inheritance rights to male relatives due to tradition and pressure from their families. Men consequently tended to be favored in the distribution of property ownership, sometimes limiting a woman’s options in the cases of domestic violence or divorce. Women continued to experience discrimination in salaries and access to pension benefits (see section 7.d.).
The Department for Gender Equality worked to inform women of their rights, and parliament has a committee on gender equality. The government has a 2017-21 strategy on gender equality. In January the government published the Gender Equality Index for Montenegro, one of a series of indices that measure inequalities in EU member states and countries in the EU accession process. The index measured labor, money, knowledge, time, power, health, and violence. The index value for Montenegro was 55 (out of 100 points). The largest inequality between men and women was noted in the category of power (35.1), followed by time (52.7), knowledge (55.1), money (59.7), and work (65.2). The highest equality was reported in health (86.9).
According to Romani rights NGOs, one-half of Romani women between the ages of 15 and 24 were illiterate. Romani women often faced double discrimination based on their gender and ethnicity.
Gender-biased Sex Selection: Although illegal, medical professionals noted that gender-biased sex selection took place, resulting in a boy-to-girl ratio at birth of 110 to 100. The government did not actively address the problem.