Morning Brief

Russia and the West Eye Montenegro; Abe Resigns in Japan

Weekend elections in the small Balkan country could have far-reaching geopolitical consequences; Japan’s prime minister steps down for health reasons, triggering a leadership race within the ruling party.

People attend a church-led protest in front of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ's Resurrection.
People attend a church-led protest in front of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ's Resurrection in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Aug. 23. Savo Prelevic/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Decisive elections take place in Montenegro on Sunday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigns, and violence continues to sweep Colombia.

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Montenegro’s Future Hangs in the Balance 

Voters will head to the polls in Montenegro on Sunday to cast their ballots for the country’s 81-seat legislature in an election that could have significant geopolitical implications for the increasingly hostile tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

Longtime Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic and his ruling pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) will be fighting for their political lives. The country has been gripped in recent months by mass protests against Djukanovic’s rule, in large part due to the passage of a controversial religious law last year that Serbian Orthodox Church officials claim would transfer ownership of church properties to the state. But the presence of the national flag of Serbia—Montenegro’s former ruler and one of Russia’s closest allies in the region—has given the protests strong nationalist overtones. 

The Church cuts its political teeth. The Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious institution in the country, has taken the unusual step of intervening in domestic politics. Although it isn’t running any candidates of its own, it has helped organize the protests against Djukanovic and has firmly thrown its weight behind the opposition. “That is why we need to go to these elections—to vote against those who rule with false laws,” said leading Serbian Orthodox Bishop Amfilohije Radovic.

Accusations of meddling and fraud on both sides. The right-wing populist Democratic Front alliance, a coalition composed mainly of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian parties, leads the opposition and is poised to be the greatest beneficiary of anti-government sentiment. Opinion polls suggest it will make solid gains on Sunday. Djukanovic has accused Russia and Serbia of meddling in the election campaign to boost the opposition and prevent the country from moving closer to the West. Opposition parties, meanwhile, are already accusing the DPS of fraud and election rigging.

Looking to Brussels. Djukanovic is a strong supporter of his country’s accession to the European Union, and he has framed the current campaign as a battle between his pro-Western party and the Russia-aligned theocratic opposition. But his future—and the future of the country—looks increasingly precarious. Polls suggest his party will still be the largest in the legislature but without enough support to govern on its own. The resulting uncertainty could throw the country into a political crisis, which could put its EU membership bid in serious doubt.

Hitting back? It is unclear how Russia and Serbia would respond, but they could be willing to take extralegal action. Djukanovic’s government thwarted a coup attempt on the eve of the last parliamentary elections in 2016, which officials blamed on Russia and Serbia. Montenegro formally joined NATO shortly thereafter, a move Moscow strenuously opposed.

What We’re Following Today 

Abe resigns in Japan. Shinzo Abe—the country’s longest serving prime minister—announced his resignation for health reasons on Friday. Abe suffers from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, and rumors began to swirl after he made two recent visits to the hospital. Abe apologized to Japanese citizens for failing to complete his term in office, which was due to end in September 2021.

His departure will trigger a leadership battle within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the winner, once formally elected in parliament, will hold the post for the remainder of Abe’s term. Whoever wins the internal LDP race is likely to keep the outgoing leader’s “Abenomics” policies in place.

Trump accepts the Republican nomination. U.S. President Donald Trump accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for president on the last night of the Republican National Convention, as COVID-19 deaths continue to mount and the country faces a fresh wave of racial unrest. Trump cited the peace agreement with the Taliban, the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, and the recent Israeli-UAE peace deal as among his top foreign-policy achievements.

Although the party itself stands firmly behind him, Trump is facing a significant challenge from among Republican supporters. More than 100 former staffers of the late Republican Sen. John McCain endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden for U.S. president on Thursday, adding to a growing chorus of Republicans who are uniting behind Biden against Trump.

Russian military at the ready. Russian President Vladimir Putin turned up the heat in Belarus, saying in an interview that he has formed a special police unit and that he informed embattled Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko that he is prepared to send it to Belarus if the current crisis turns violent. Lukashenko has been facing massive protests against his 26-year presidency since claiming a landslide victory in the country’s presidential elections earlier this month amid widespread accusations of electoral fraud and irregularities.

Lukashenko had already previously hinted at Russian military intervention, telling reporters that Putin offered to give him military backing if he needed it, but the Kremlin dismissed that claim at the time.

Mali junta frees deposed president. On Thursday, Mali’s newly-formed junta released deposed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who had been ousted in a military coup last week along with the rest of the Malian government. Representatives of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were dispatched to Mali earlier this week to help find a way to return to civilian rule. They had demanded Keita’s release.

But ECOWAS members have already determined that Keita won’t form part of the transition back to civilian rule, and Keita himself is unlikely to seek a return to power. “If today, certain elements of our armed forces want this to end through their intervention, do I really have a choice?” he said after he announced his resignation.

Mediators from ECOWAS and the African Union have not made much headway toward the larger goal of restoring civilian rule. Part of the reason is that these organizations and their leaders lack credibility with average citizens, Adem K. Abebe argued in Foreign Policy earlier this week. That’s because they are seen as hypocritical for protecting unpopular incumbents who abuse power while denouncing military coups with widespread support. “The AU and ECOWAS have a credibility problem,” Abebe wrote. “They are not denouncing those who flout laws to hold on to power; they complain only when the military seizes it.”

Keep an Eye On

Military buildup in the eastern Mediterranean. The eastern Mediterranean dispute continues to worsen as EU foreign ministers meet in Berlin to find a way out of the crisis. On Thursday, Turkey announced it would hold military exercises in the region next week, matching joint exercises conducted by Greece and France this week and making a military confrontation increasingly likely. 

Greece and Turkey, both NATO allies but historic rivals, have overlapping maritime claims in the eastern Mediterranean, where large reserves of oil and gas were recently discovered. Michaël Tanchum recently wrote for Foreign Policy explaining how this local dispute developed into a major geopolitical standoff.

Violence in Colombia. At least 39 people have been killed in a wave of violence across Colombia, adding to growing concerns that the country has yet to move past its decades-long civil war despite the government reaching an historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. Despite the end of large-scale warfare, groups including dissident FARC factions, smaller left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and the Colombian military continue to fight over territory in some parts of the country. Colombia has seen 46 massacres so far this year, according to local watchdog Indepaz.

Some observers say the blame falls on President Iván Duque, who was always skeptical of the peace deal signed by his predecessor, saying he hasn’t done enough to implement its provisions.

Odds and Ends 

Mosquito remedy. Researchers in Indonesia have discovered that infecting mosquitoes with a naturally occurring bacteria could dramatically reduce their ability to transmit dengue, a mosquito-transmitted viral infection that has already infected 70,000 people and killed 500 since January. Conducting tests in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, researchers found that the presence of mosquitoes infected with the Wolbachia bacteria in parts of the city reduced the number of dengue infections by 77 percent compared to untreated areas.

Researchers are still uncertain why Wolbachia inhibits the transmission of dengue, but the results are astonishing and trials have already begun in other tropical and subtropical countries where dengue is common.

That’s it for today. 

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Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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