Op-ed: Ambassador Judy Rising Reinke

As 2019 comes to an end, I find myself reflecting on the past year’s accomplishments that have shaped the U.S.-Montenegrin relationship.  From our recent collaboration to defend against malicious cyber actors, to working together to contribute to the NATO alliance’s collective security, our cooperation has helped to spread peace, security, and prosperity.  These activities are further proof that the United States and Montenegro are truly friends, partners, and allies.  

Over the course of the past year, I have been humbled to meet hardworking Montenegrins from all walks of life, all committed to bettering their communities.  During my recent visit to Pljevlja, I was delighted to see such a vibrant, inclusive community.  From ensuring that those with disabilities are welcomed in everyday community activities, to hosting an international girls’ soccer tournament to promote friendship and mutual understanding, I saw proud, decent people giving their all to ensure a brighter future for their children.  Like many Montenegrins – and Americans – they are facing challenges, but they are banding together to address difficult situations and improve their lives.

This trip reminded me that while it’s easy to become consumed with day-to-day politics in Podgorica – or Washington, DC – regular citizens are doing the quiet work of helping their neighbors, volunteering their time, and building their communities.  Wherever they live, every one of them deserves to live a dignified life where they can contribute to society and provide for their children.  It is a universal desire.

Just as I have been inspired by ordinary Montenegrin citizens’ courage and dignity in seeking a brighter future, I am also concerned by obstacles that stand in their way.  In any society corruption and weak rule of law are obstacles that can place a secure and prosperous future out of reach, and it saddens me to see these factors at play in this beautiful country.  They have slowed Montenegro’s progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration, including EU membership, and they have created inequalities and barriers that impact individual citizens.

To be clear, the term “rule of law” is much more than words.  The laws themselves must meet the highest standards of transparency and fairness, and citizens – whether rich or poor, powerful or humble – must be treated equally under the law.  Indeed, every person in a position of authority must well and truly acknowledge that they are as fully subject to the laws of the country as every other citizen.

So, for Montenegro to claim its rightful place in the West, rule of law must exist in practice, and not only on paper.  Institutions should hold those who break the law accountable.  Everyone must be truly equal before the law.  Government officials must work tirelessly to better the lives of their constituents, and not exploit positions of power to further their own interests.  Since democratic processes must be robust and participatory in order to reflect the will of the people, it also means that all duly elected officials must fully participate in existing structures and institutions to ensure that next year’s parliamentary elections are as inclusive as possible.  And, while energetic debates about differences of opinion are a healthy part of any democratic political discourse, there is never any room for threats or acts of violence.

Rule of law also has another meaning – that every citizen in the country can succeed based on his or her own hard work and achievements.  Montenegro will only realize its full potential when merit and expertise determine one’s job prospects.  True professionals, and not just party loyalists or individuals with family connections, should be able to be hired on their merit, and should be confident that they can reach the head of important institutions or private companies.  The same applies to businesses, which should be able to succeed when they offer the best products, price and service.  Public procurement processes must be open and transparent, and companies must be able compete, and win, without personal connections or shady deal-making.

It is with this vision in mind that the United States is proud to work with Montenegro to enhance rule of law.  We continue to support efforts to increase institutional capacity to tackle corruption and to strengthen capabilities to fight organized crime, an effort in which we have invested over 17 million dollars since 2010.  We have brought leading experts to Montenegro to share the latest judicial and administrative law procedures with judges and prosecutors; we have outfitted courtrooms with technology that allows ordinary citizens to be informed of legal proceedings; and, we have trained law enforcement officials on the latest procedures for responding to domestic violence, trafficking in persons and other serious forms of crime.

We have also tried to be good friends to Montenegro by supporting those most in need. I’m proud that, since 2009, my government has committed over 13 million dollars to fund 51 projects that touch the lives of everyday Montenegrins, including the construction or renovation of schools, childcare centers, and health centers, throughout the country.  In just the past few months, I have visited several of our recently completed renovation projects – an elementary school in Bioče, the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit in Podgorica, and a day care center in Bijelo Polje which provides specialized care to children and youth with disabilities.  These are beautiful, bright, modern projects and I’ve been deeply moved to see first-hand how this kind of U.S. support has helped improve the quality of life for Montenegrins.

And, I am proud that my country funds projects that strengthen civil society, support high-quality journalism, and counter foreign disinformation.  Through educational exchanges, cultural programs, and our American Corners in Podgorica, Cetinje, and Pljevlja, we are further deepening our people-to-people relationships, and through our work with entrepreneurs we are sparking a whole new generation of creative risk-takers.  Finally, looking ahead, I’m excited that early next year we will welcome our first group of Peace Corps volunteers, who will be focused on supporting English language learning throughout the country, sharing their personal stories as Americans with the people in the villages where they will live.

The United States will do all that it can to help Montenegrins achieve your goals and aspirations, but the future of your country depends upon you, the citizens of Montenegro.  Societies in which everyone has a fair shot are the most successful, cohesive, and prosperous.  Rule of law, meritocracy, inclusion – these are Western values.  As we look to 2020 and beyond, these are the shared values which we must all work tirelessly to defend.