bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
Serbia-Montenegro: the growing divide
by Branko Vojicic

Branko Vojicic

Serbia-Montenegro: the growing divide

The breakup of Yugoslavia did not lead to Montenegro becoming an independent state. Its government, installed after the January coup of 1991, instead obeyed Miloševic’s dictum that ‘Yugoslavia would become a modern federation or it would cease to exist’. Faced with the choice between a confederation, offered by Slovenia and Croatia, and the Bosnian-Macedonian compromise of an asymmetric federation, Montenegro opted instead for a ‘modern [i.e. highly centralised] federation’. This model, put forward in the so-called ‘Belgrade initiative’, was adopted by its new government without reservation.

Slovenia and Croatia at that time were advocating a Yugoslavia organised as a union of independent states, to be constituted once the areas of common interest were defined. Izetbegovic and Gligorov offered a compromise solution: a graduated model according to which, once a minimum of common functions had been agreed upon, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro would form a somewhat closer association, with a still closer one to be established between Serbia and Montenegro. They had warned that to insist on a Yugoslav federation that would not be based on full sovereignty of the constituent republics would lead to Yugoslavia’s irreversible break-up. The only way to avoid this, they argued, was for Yugoslavia to be organised as a community of sovereign republics. Thanks to the insistence of Serbia and Montenegro that Yugoslavia could survive only as a ‘modern federation’, however, no agreement could be reached. And the reorganisation of the country began by recourse to war: first in Slovenia, then in Croatia, finally in Bosnia.

The Hague Conference on Yugoslavia and its aftermath

The Conference on Yugoslavia convened in The Hague provided the framework for creation of the European Community Arbitration Commission, which established in due course that the process of dissolution of Yugoslavia (SFRY) had been completed, as a result of which the country had ceased to exist. Momir Bulatovic, who was then president of Montenegro, surprised everyone by supporting the global formula for resolution of the Yugoslav crisis formulated by EC representative Lord Carrington, which envisaged the creation of a union of sovereign states made up of the former Yugoslav republics.

Although the Montenegrin national assembly approved Bulatovic’s ‘new turn’, Montenegro’s retreat from the ‘Belgrade initiative’ was denounced by Great Serb circles in Serbia and Montenegro as ‘treachery’. Bulatovic defended his stand in the Montenegrin assembly: ‘If the proof of a good government in Montenegro is its abject loyalty to, and absolute identification with, whatever Belgrade wants, then the Montenegrin people do not need a government of their own. The nation then does not need to conduct elections or have an organised political life.’ Under pressure from Belgrade and from pro-Serbian forces in Montenegro itself, however, Bulatovic was forced to withdraw his support for the plan agreed in The Hague. On 30 October 1991 he joined Miloševic in presenting an amendment that annulled Montenegrin support for the union of sovereign states. That, and the events which took place in October and November 1991, led to Montenegro becoming part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY).

Under Belgrade pressure the Montenegrin assembly, on 23 December 1991, rejected the Declaration of the EC Council on Yugoslavia, on the grounds that Montenegro did not have to seek international recognition of its sovereignty and independence since - as the official ideologue Svetozar Marovic stated at the time - it had transferred its international subjectivity, confirmed by the 1878 Congress of Berlin, ‘to the Yugoslav state created by the unification of 1918'; meaning that ‘in the event of the break-up or disappearance of Yugoslavia, Montenegro is fully capable, in accordance with the logic of law and affiliation, of accepting full responsibility for its sovereignty and independence.’

The meeting between Miloševic and Bulatovic in Belgrade on 18 January 1992 sealed Montenegro’s fate. The two presidents declared that ‘Serbia and Montenegro had agreed to preserve Yugoslavia as a federation of equal nations.’ Their view was that ‘Yugoslavia’s fate can be settled only by those nations which created Yugoslavia in the first place.’ Miloševic and Bulatovic also agreed that ‘the existing administrative borders between the Yugoslav republics are unacceptable as state borders, since they never embraced the totality of individual Yugoslav nations.’ This was, in essence, a declaration of war.

A confederal minimum

The Montenegrin president yet again surprised the republic’s domestic public and parliament alike by presenting the latter, in January 1992, with a confederal model for the forthcoming union of Serbia and Montenegro. He stated that the ‘common state’ would have a single market, currency and monetary policy, as well as a common foreign policy which, however, would allow the two republics to establish their own consular representation abroad, thus permitting a degree of independence in foreign relations. It would also have a common defence system and a common supreme command, but with the republics retaining their autonomy in the ‘building and development’ of their armed forces. Protection of human, national and ethnic-minority rights would remain the exclusive prerogative of the republics. A single federal assembly was envisaged, based on complete parity. The functions of the joint head of state were limited to mere representation, with the post being filled by the two republican presidents in rotation, each holding it for six months at a time.

Momir Bulatovic informed the assembly that this was ‘an absolute minimum so far as Montenegro was concerned’; yet this model was radically changed after two meetings he held with the Serbian president. The ensuing Decision on the Conduct of the Referendum [on whether Montenegro should seek union with Serbia] omitted those parts of the original draft version that had referred to the principle of parity, as formulated by Bulatoviƒ and adopted by the Montenegrin parliament.

An ambiguous referendum

The Serbian-Montenegrin federation was created following a referendum held in Montenegro - but not in Serbia. The citizens voted in favour of ‘continued participation, on the basis of full equality, of the sovereign republic of Montenegro in the common state - Yugoslavia - together with other republics which so desired.’ Only one week passed between the adoption of the Decision and its implementation, which meant that the parliamentary opposition was prevented from mounting a campaign advocating alternative options. As a result Montenegro’s fate was decided by 280,000 Montenegrins out of 11 million future FRY citizens - or, according to the official statement, by 65% of those who had voted. The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights protested that the referendum had violated articles 19, 20 and 21 of the General Declaration on Human Rights, and that it therefore had no legal validity. In its letter to Branko Kostic, at the time vice-president of the in fact defunct SFRY presidency, it stated its readiness to defend its views before all the international bodies to which it was accredited, including the UN and EC.

Zabljak Yugoslavia

The public was allowed only ten days to discuss the draft of the proposed FRY constitution, which had been cobbled together in a hurry in Zabljak (Montenegro), and only three days - which included Easter holidays - to consider the governmental proposal that followed from it. In one single day, 27 April 1992, the Federal Council of SFRY [which, by the way, no longer existed] debated the draft constitution, approved the proposal, and adopted the new or FRY Constitution. It was passed by only 73 out of a nominal 230 deputies.

As stated by Serbian legal expert Kosta Cavoški: ‘the procedure established by the [current SFRY] 1974 constitution for changing the constitution was not respected, while the body that took the decision did not have a valid quorum or enjoy legal validity. Its members had been elected in 1986 and their mandate had run out in 1990. That mandate was twice extended, the second time in contravention of the constitution. On 27 April 1992, when the constitution of the so-called Third Yugoslavia was adopted and announced, only 73 out of 230 deputies in the Federal Council voted for it. From the point of view of continuity with the previous constitutional order, the newly adopted constitution is both null and void.’

By entering into federation with Serbia, Montenegro also accepted the burden of international economic sanctions.

The Platform’s minimum

In mid 1999 the Montenegrin public was informed that it now could choose between two options: a Platform on Re-organisation of Relations between Montenegro and Serbia, drafted by their government, and a referendum on independence. The key provisions of the Platform are as follows. The common state would be renamed Union of Montenegro and Serbia, and a single assembly would be created on the basis of parity. All important state functions would be subject to the principle of parity. The Union’s president would be elected by the common assembly, but the latter’s choice would have to be approved separately by the assemblies of Montenegro and Serbia. There would be a council of ministers, with six ministries at most. There would be separate ministries of defence for Serbia and Montenegro, which by turns would carry out for two years the functions of the joint defence ministry. The existing supreme defence council would remain, but army commanders active on their respective territories would be appointed by, respectively, the presidents of Montenegro and Serbia. Conscripts from Montenegro would do their military service only in Montenegro. The Federal ministry of foreign affairs would be dissolved and replaced by individual Montenegrin and Serbian ministries, with each taking its turn every two years as coordinator. The question of a common or separate currency was left open.

The latest news is that the Platform is subject to re-negotiation.


This article has been translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 13 October 2000


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