Montenegro at a crossroads

TK Vogel
18 May 2006

When the citizens of Montenegro vote in a referendum on independence on Sunday 21 May 2006, they will be deciding on one of the last pieces of business left unfinished in the wake of the demise of Yugoslavia, a process which has now been going on for a good fifteen years.

But in a different sense, they will be pronouncing on a non-issue: the very entity of which their tiny republic of some 650,000 people (against Serbia's 7.4 million) is currently part. This is the "state union of Serbia and Montenegro": a construct as awkward as its name, created as recently as February 2003 on the insistence of a European Union wary of yet another independent country emerging in the region (many locals satirised the new creature as "Solania", in reference to its main architect, European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana).

Serbia-Montenegro (as it is routinely called) was a precarious compromise from the very beginning, never likely to stumble on much beyond the three-year grace period set down in its charter during which no independence referendum could be held. It never really worked as a proper state, its federal government was such in name only, and its leading functionaries – from Svetozar Marovic (president) and Vuk Draskovic (foreign minister) downwards – derived their authority from their power-base in the two constituent republics rather than from their exalted office. This is so much the case that Marovic even favours the dissolution of the state union he presides over.

TK Vogel is a Balkans editor with Transitions Online and a senior fellow of the Democratisation Policy Council, a transatlantic initiative for accountability in democracy promotion.

A list of TK Vogel's writings and a link to his blog is here

In these circumstances, it might have been expected that the state's final deathblow would be a formality and that the referendum was unlikely to rouse much interest among the Montenegrin electorate or their fellow-citizens in Serbia. This has not been borne out by a closely-fought campaign now in its final stage with rallies on both sides and claims from Montenegro's leader of sixteen years, Milo Djukanovic, that the country was on the brink of independence.

The current situation in both republics explains why, after all, the referendum is receiving more attention than it perhaps warrants. On the Serbian side, the referendum comes at an extremely difficult moment. The European Union is finally getting serious on the issue of the war-crimes indictees it wants Belgrade to yield up, foremost among them fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic (who is thought to be under the protection of segments of Serbia's sprawling security apparatus).

After Belgrade missed yet another deadline (30 April) for the general's arrest and transfer to The Hague, the European Commission suspended talks on a "stabilisation and association agreement" (SAA) with Serbia-Montenegro – a first step toward membership of the union. This reinforces the fairly widespread sentiment among Serbs that they are unfairly being punished for the 1992-95 war in neighbouring Bosnia & Herzegovina, which happened before the democratic government came to power in a bloodless revolution against the late president Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, and for which the current authorities cannot therefore be held responsible.

The suspension of SAA talks has implications for Montenegro by suggesting to the Podgorica government and its allies that the republic would be better off if it were freed from the millstone of Serbia, its problematic wartime record and its refusal to come to terms with it. This would also, so the argument runs, put Montenegro on a faster course toward EU membership (even though the European Commission itself is opposed to Montenegro's independence).

This viewpoint is unlikely to sway many pro-unionists in Montenegro but may convince a few undecided voters, perhaps even in sufficient number to overcome the stringent voting thresholds imposed by Brussels (the European Union will recognise independence only if turnout exceeds 50%, and if more than 55% of actual votes are cast in favour of the move). In that sense, the SAA suspension could not have come at a worse moment for the Serbian government, which will be accused by the ultra-nationalists of the Srpska radikalna stranka (Serbian Radical Party / SRS) of having "lost" Montenegro just as it is losing Kosovo.

The Kosovo factor

The fate of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that has been under international administration since Nato's 1999 air war, is the dominant issue in the Balkans today. Serbia is dead-set against independence, saying (not entirely unreasonably) that it would endanger the remaining ethnic Serb communities inside Kosovo and constitute an assault on Serbia's sovereignty and its borders.

Kosovo's overwhelming ethnic Albanian majority, by contrast, will be extremely unhappy about anything short of outright independence, and not shy about showing that unhappiness. The international mediators who are currently running technical talks on the future constitutional status of Kosovo in Vienna are leaning towards some sort of conditional or qualified independence – albeit alongside increasing awareness that this may require a degree of compulsion on the recalcitrant Serbs, perhaps with some sort of special status for the province's northern parts and a de facto ethnic partition.

This in turn raises the problem that most Serbs in Kosovo do not live in the area that might in principle be left under the control of Belgrade (that is, part of the town of Mitrovica and the region to its north and east). Even if Belgrade's primary concern may never have been the welfare of Kosovo's Serbs, it cannot abandon entirely some responsibility for their condition. In any case, independence for Kosovo – in whole or in part, and in whatever guise it may arrive – would mean that the minority government of Vojislav Kostunica in Belgrade, currently relying on the tacit support of Milosevic's socialists and the hardline SRS, is unlikely to survive.

This raises a further parallel with Montenegro. It is curious that the European Union should appear willing to recognise an independent Kosovo (from which tens of thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians have been "ethnically cleansed" since 1999) over the strenuous objections of the – admittedly small – minorities remaining inside the province, while it imposes strict conditions on Montenegro's independence. After all, no serious observer expects Milo Djukanovic's pro-independence government to try to expel ethnic Serbs or pro-Belgrade Montenegrins from the country should a “yes” to independence emerge from the referendum.

More on Serbia and ex-Yugoslavia in the openDemocracy debate "Reimagining Yugoslvia":

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory"
(August 2002)

Ivan Krastev, "The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire? " (June 2005)

Andrew Wachtel, "The western Balkan outlook: beyond 2007" (November 2005)

Dusan Velickovic, "Milosevic and I"
(March 2006)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (March 2006)

The Montenegro solution

So apart from Brussels, what might hold back the Montenegrins? For one thing, the citizens of the country don't seem to be too sure about the idea of independence. Most observers, drawing on opinion-poll data, expect the pro-separation vote to be a few percentage points above the 55% required by the EU; though it is quite possible that in a charged political climate, many respondents would give inaccurate answers to inquisitive pollsters. It is clear, however, that Montenegro's demographic situation will require many more than the 43% who identified as "Montenegrin" in the 2003 census to vote for independence: this includes 32% who identified as Serbs, around 8% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 5% ethnic Albanians, and 4% non-Albanian, non-Bosniak Muslims.

The fact that the country is split on the question was presumably the reason why the European Union imposed requirements that it deemed unnecessary in the case of Kosovo, where the overwhelming Albanian majority favours independence. But the fear in Podgorica now is what will happen if the pro-independence vote is above 50% but less than 55% – a scenario that is quite possible. This would be seen by the government as a mandate for the continuation of its pro-independence course, but it would at the same time be a defeat of sorts and create considerable political uncertainty in both republics.

Meanwhile, a defeat of the pro-independence cause through an ambiguous verdict at the ballot-box would remove a major issue from Serbia's list of troubles, though Montenegro doesn't arouse the same passion in Serbia as Kosovo or the war-crimes question do. But at this point, the Kostunica government, which has been reduced by the domestic balance of power to managing paralysis, would not be terribly unhappy about continued stalemate and uncertainty over Montenegro and the future of the state union.

One way in which Belgrade is working towards this scenario is by refusing to engage in any sort of negotiation, or even to provide declarations of intent, about what would happen on a number of practical issues that are of direct concern to Montenegrins and Serbs alike. Would Montenegrin students at Serbian universities – more than 20,000, according to Transitions Online – be eligible for domestic enrollment fees? What about Montenegrin patients seeking treatment in Serbian hospitals?

Most importantly, though largely beyond the reach of either government, is the question whether Montenegro's lucrative tourism industry would suffer. Visitors from Serbia still make up the bulk of tourists on Montenegro's beaches and in its picturesque coastal towns; though geographical proximity and the fact that Serbs have been priced out of most other seaside destinations, or need a visa to go there, could well mean that this is less of an issue than many fear.

Whatever Sunday's vote may bring, the Balkans are never going to look quite the same again. Montenegro was the last former Yugoslav republic that voluntarily remained in Belgrade's orbit; with Montenegro gone, the last remnants of Yugoslavia will have been liquidated. Whether that helps realise the promise of a better future for the population of Montenegro remains to be seen.

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