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COMMENTARY OF THE CIVIL ALLIANCE ON THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION REPORT ON THE PROGRESS OF MONTENEGRO IN 2022

Bearing in mind the overall social and political situation in the country, the poor rating that Montenegro received from the EC was not surprising at all, unfortunately. The Civic Alliance has repeatedly warned political elites that their work should include activities and reforms that the EU set as priorities in the accession process. As this was not the case in the previous period, we missed the chance to elect new members of the Judicial Council, judges of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme State Prosecutor, as well as the President of the Supreme Court.

As we have stated on several occasions so far, changes in the Prosecutorial Council are the beginning of reforms in the judiciary, which continued with the election of the Special State Prosecutor. Results in this area are visible, but we must respect the presumption of innocence and wait for the epilogue of the proceedings initiated against the former and current holders of the highest judicial positions, as well as the former management of a state enterprise. It is necessary to continue with reforms in the judiciary as soon as possible, and above all, it is necessary to elect judges of the Constitutional Court of Montenegro, members of the Judicial Council, the Supreme State Prosecutor and the President of the Supreme Court of Montenegro. Electoral reform must also be at the top of the agenda of decision-makers in Montenegro, as pointed out by the Civic Alliance on several occasions in the previous period. This time too, the Committee for European Integration of the Parliament of Montenegro failed to implement a more active approach, as it held only three sessions in 2022. This is not good and the Committee must take a more active control role, at least by organizing thematic sessions to identify the level of realization of the recommendations specified by the EC in its reports.

Another year has passed without adequate results in solving domestic war crimes cases, primarily in terms of determining command responsibility. Year after year, the European Commission has been criticizing inadequate actions of the competent authorities in these procedures, but our judicial authorities fail to respond to continuous criticism of inadequate processing, specifically the failure to establish command responsibility and to punish those responsible for aiding, abetting and inciting. This year, the UN office in Podgorica also emphasized the importance of dealing with the past, which should be an additional incentive for Montenegro to strengthen its efforts in the field of solving war crimes. All of this was foreseen in the Strategy for the Investigation of War Crimes from 2015, which provided for the re-examination of old war crimes cases that ended with a final verdict, with the aim of identifying new suspects. However, we have not been witness to the effective implementation of this Strategy, while we certainly commend the visits by Montenegrin ministers to the war crimes sites. It is necessary to examine the responsibility of prosecutors who were in charge of these cases, but also to train the current prosecutors in the Special State Prosecutor’s Office who are in charge of implementing the goals of the said Strategy.

Controlling hate speech in public space is also something we must pay serious attention to. We welcome the adequate and professional reaction of the Agency for Electronic Media in this matter. Spreading hate speech through internet portals and social networks – where state officials have also been accused of hate speech – is a separate problem. The Law on Media envisages the obligation of internet portals to delete comments that contain elements of hate speech; however, we are yet to see the effects of this legal solution in practice.

The repeated positive assessment of RTCG (Radio and Television of Montenegro) for producing “politically balanced and diverse content” is encouraging and indicates that this public broadcaster should continue heading in the same direction. RTCG – which serves as an example of media professionalism – should continue its work in terms of freeing journalists from any pressure; this will also lead to the strengthening of investigative journalism, which is currently at a low level in Montenegro. This will result in further increase in citizens’ trust in the public service, which will thus achieve its purpose.

As far as the media scene in general is concerned, emphasis is still put on unresolved cases of attacks on journalists, although we have recorded progress in terms of legislation, more precisely, in terms of amending the Criminal Code in the area of protection of journalists and media workers. In addition, in line with the new Rulebook on the internal organization and systematization of the Ministry of the Interior/Police Directorate, an organizational unit was formed responsible for suppressing attacks on journalists and media representatives and solving the so-called “cold” cases. On the other hand, the latest report of the Government’s Commission for monitoring the actions of competent authorities in connection with the investigations of threats and violence against journalists, murders of journalists and attacks on media property has not contributed significantly to clarifying the cases of attacks. This is mostly because there is no concrete response from the Supreme State Prosecutor’s Office and the Police Directorate to its recommendations. These institutions must take the Commission’s recommendations more seriously and provide clear and tangible results regarding their conclusions and recommendations.

When it comes to the areas of migration and asylum, we welcome the positive developments compared to last year, which concern the expression of intention to apply for international protection. However, the Law on International and Temporary Protection is still not fully implemented. Inspectors for foreigners are not fully familiar with this procedure at times, so they send people who come to the police regional unit in Podgorica to express their intention to the camp in Božaj, although according to the law they have the right to express their intention in the municipality where they are located.

Most of the legal provisions concerning the procedure before the Directorate for Asylum have been implemented. When it comes to the length of the procedure, progress has been made compared to the previous period. However, there is still room for improvement, because now first-instance procedures generally last shorter, but efforts should be made to end first-instance procedures within the legal deadlines as well as to keep the length of the procedures under six months. The changes would be achieved by hiring additional staff, because the officers that are currently employed are overburdened, especially considering that more than 100 foreigners applied for asylum. In so doing, decisions would be made more expeditiously already in the first instance. The expediency of the procedure for obtaining asylum at the first instance is prescribed by international standards in order to enable timely access to the asylum system for persons seeking international protection.

We agree with the statements in the report that Roma and Egyptians – as members of the minority group – are still vulnerable and discriminated against, especially when it comes to the procedure for determining statelessness. In this context, it is necessary to apply the procedure for determining the status of stateless persons more comprehensively, and in accordance with this, capacity strengthening, i.e. training of the Ministry of the Interior employees who are in charge of these cases, is needed.

We welcome the adequate response of the Government to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, especially in the first wave. In addition, the decision of the Ministry of the Interior to enable free relocation of Ukrainians to Montenegro and to provide free accommodation for a total of 230 persons in Nikšić and Sutomore, is very significant. However, the issue of access to rights, such as the right to education, remain to be resolved. It is also necessary to continue working on improving access to health care, housing issues and improving the environment for employment through cooperation with employers.

It is high time to determine the priorities of the legislative and executive authorities in the coming period, if we sincerely want to join the EU. Reforms in the judiciary, the unblocking of institutions, effective investigations by competent institutions, a more thorough fight against corruption and organized crime, electoral reforms and the like, simply must be at the top of the priorities of the Montenegrin political elites.

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