Montenegro: The Next Balkan Challenge, By Srdjan Darmanovic Center for Democracy and Human Rights Special to the Western Policy Center
Nov./Dec. 2000 - The ouster of Milosevic and the disappearance of the Serbian military threat to Montenegro were greeted with relief in the republic. They signaled the end of the three-year "black and white" struggle in which the democratically elected government of Montenegro, with substantial help from its Western supporters in the U.S. and the EU, had fought for survival against a dictatorship that caused four wars in the region. Since the electoral defeat of Milosevic, the international position of Montenegro and its internal political priorities have changed drastically.
From its position as the "darling" of the international community, Montenegro has suddenly become viewed as a potential regional troublemaker since it might hold a referendum on independence from the Yugoslav federation, an option that is opposed by the West.
The new government of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has been euphorically welcomed by the West, and Belgrade's rapid reintegration into key international organizations has begun. Now, the West's top priority in the region is stabilization and the consolidation of democracy in Serbia.
Though Montenegro is no longer the West's first concern in the region, Western countries that have been giving decisive support to Podgorica will continue to do so as long as the government continues its democratic and economic reforms.
If Montenegro holds an independence referendum that is democratically approved, the country that emerges, with its 650,000 inhabitants, will be too small to pose any threat to the region. Montenegro has no border disputes with its neighbors and does not have a large diaspora in the region that could be used to threaten the territorial integrity of another country. Ethnic minorities are well integrated into its domestic political system.
With democratic governments in Belgrade and Podgorica, the opportunity now exists for bilateral issues to be resolved through a democratic process involving negotiations and respect for the will of the people. With Serbia's military threat gone, pressure within Montenegro to resolve the issue of the republic's status through a significantly different arrangement with Serbia has rapidly increased. This factor will inevitably lead to negotiations between the two governments after the December 23 parliamentary elections in Serbia.
There are still major hurdles ahead. Almost immediately after taking office, Kostunica appointed Zoran Zizic, a member of the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party (SNP) of Montenegro, as the prime minister of Yugoslavia. Kostunica insisted on adhering to the constitutional provision stating that the federal prime minister should be from Montenegro if the president is from Serbia. His decision to name a member of the SNP for this position was based on the fact that it was the only party in Montenegro that participated in the federal elections.
The decision, made while a semi-revolutionary situation still existed in Serbia, was greeted with suspicion by the ruling coalition in Podgorica. In addition, Montenegro insists that it cannot recognize the federal government that emerged on the basis of constitutional amendments pushed through parliament by Milosevic in July. The Montenegrin government has announced that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia no longer exists and that a new arrangement between the two republics must be found.
Two of the three parties of Montenegro's ruling coalition, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), have announced their proposal for a new arrangement with Serbia. The proposal, an alliance of two independent, internationally recognized states, similar to the Commonwealth of Independent States negotiated in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is supported by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. The third member of the coalition, the People's Party (NS), proposes a loose union of Montenegro and Serbia, similar to a confederation. The union would be recognized internationally, while the two states would not.
These differences could provoke a split within the current Montenegrin government. It is likely, however, that the three parties will compromise by agreeing to hold an independence referendum within the first half of 2001, with the stipulation that all sides will accept the results.
The possibility that the holding of a referendum could result in political chaos is diminished by the fact that the pro-Milosevic SNP is attempting to use its new position in the federal government, in coalition with Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), to develop a more moderate image. In addition, with Milosevic out of power, the SNP will no longer be in a position to threaten to provoke violence between Serbia and Montenegro. If a referendum is called, it will be part of normal democratic procedures rather than a catalyst for new conflicts.
A poll conducted in Montenegro by the Podgorica-based, non-governmental organization, the Center for Democracy and Human Rights, 10 days after Milosevic's removal indicated that support for independence was slightly stronger than support for a union between Montenegro and Serbia. In the poll, 48.1 percent said they would vote for independence, while 38.9 percent said they would not. The poll was taken in the absence of a vigorous campaign in favor of independence. Support for breaking away from the Yugoslav federation could increase slightly if a pro-independence campaign preceded the referendum.
In the immediate future, the political process concerning Montenegro's status will be focused on negotiations between the governments of the two Yugoslav republics. Montenegro could try to reach a negotiated independence from Serbia, with some type of alliance still being a possibility. If Montenegrin independence were achieved this way, a tough political fight over the referendum issue in Montenegro would be avoided. Although a referendum would still be held to approve the negotiated independence, it would be more of a formality than a political issue.
The search for a compromise between Podgorica and Belgrade could also be affected by the political situation in Serbia after the December elections. The new government of Serbia could decide that, in a partnership with Montenegro, a federal government is simply not necessary. The fact that Serbia has not announced a date for its presidential election may indicate that Kostunica is aware of this possibility and may be eyeing the powerful position of Serbian president for himself.
It does not seem likely, however, that Serbian citizens would accept such a formula. Nationalists, though many are moderate, still play a very significant role in Serbian politics. This faction of the Serbian political elite believes that Montenegrin independence should be won only by referendum, increasing the probability that the Montenegrin statehood issue will have to be decided on the basis of a referendum rather than through negotiations between the two governments. Among Serbian nationalists, there is a strong belief that an independence referendum in Montenegro will be defeated.
It appears that, over the next year, the major issues remaining between Montenegro and Serbia will be resolved through political means and will not be shadowed by the threat of violence that has haunted Montenegro over the last three years. It is already clear that, at the end of this process, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will no longer exist in its present form, if it exists at all. Though Yugoslavia has just become a full member of the U.N., a move that will help significantly to stabilize and consolidate democratic changes in Serbia, the question of how the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro will be resolved remains unaddressed.
Srdjan Darmanovic is the director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Podgorica, Montenegro, and an assistant professor on the Law Faculty of the University of Montenegro.
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