bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
Decision time for Montenegro
by Janusz Bugajski

Janusz Bugajski

Decision time for Montenegro

Montenegro cannot afford to remain passive in regard to the developments in Belgrade. Delaying the decision on independence will simply turn the aspiring state into an irrelevant pawn on the Balkan chessboard. Montenegro faces two possible options: independence or confederation.

Confederation or independence

It is clear that confederation cannot be constructed from above by the present semi-legitimate government in Belgrade for which 75% of Montenegrins did not vote. A confederation, moreover, would require two independent states agreeing to share their sovereignty. This, however, begs the question of whether the present Yugoslav structure could be transformed into a genuine equal confederation. Most experts agree that a union based on equality between two such demographically unequal states would simply lead to domination by the larger member.

The other option is independence. For independence to be gained rather than given, however, there must be both public support and political commitment. Podgorica must be clear and unequivocal that independence is not just a substitute or second choice. The government must speak with one voice; otherwise there will be confusion and a perception abroad that calls for a referendum on independence are simply a device to extract concessions from Belgrade.

The truth is that the Djukanovic government appears much more fearful of international reaction to independence than the vote of its own people. Most recent credible opinion polls place support for independence at 55%, but this does not take account of citizens who are liable to be swayed by public relations campaigns on the advantages of independence. Some predict a pro-independence vote of around 70%, with an overwhelming majority of young voters favoring independence.

After being promoted as the darling of the Balkans for bravely resisting Miloševic, Montenegro now finds itself cast as a villain by short-sighted Western governments. Threats and pressures have been exerted on Podgorica especially by Washington that amount to an economic blackmail. The Montenegrin government is, however, unlikely to sacrifice independence for financial gain, given that aid is likely dry up anyway as the outside world focuses on Belgrade. No sane Western official, moreover, will want to see Montenegro destabilized through financial sanctions and political isolation only because Podgorica had decided to assert the same rights as all former Czechoslovak, Yugoslav and Soviet republics.

Three audiences

Montenegro must simultaneously address three audiences - domestic, Serbian, and international - and the message to each must be clear and practical. First, domestically, Podgorica must stress that political and economic benefits of independence outweigh the costs of remaining in a federation or constructing some new confederation without first becoming independent. Rather than engaging in interminable legal wrangles and disputes with Serbia, a clean break would enable the country to focus on crucial domestic reforms and the process of international integration. Montenegro should not be held hostage by unpredictable developments inside Serbia. The two countries’ political and economic processes are not in sync: indeed, Montenegro is at least two years ahead of Serbia. Does Montenegro want a ‘velvet divorce’ or another stormy marriage with expensive marriage councilors and lawyers?

Second, regarding the Serbian audience, Podgorica must emphasize that it wants to be a partner, hopefully a mutually beneficial business partner. Consensual separation would avoid complex and costly disputes over the devolution of powers, federal responsibilities, foreign policy, military alliances, economic policies and business investments. If, for example, Serbia wished to be close to Russia, why would it want Montenegro to interfere and why would Belgrade want Podgorica to be dragged unwillingly into some other bilateral or international alliance. Montenegro does not want to be equidistant between the West and Russia as some Serb leaders have advocated: its place is firmly in Europe.

Third, in dealing with the international audience, Montenegro needs to point out that two governments in the ex-Yugoslav space are better than three. It is simpler, less messy, less conflictual, and more efficient and economical to have two governments, two presidents and two parliaments without a federal appendage. Why maintain another intermediary tier of government that has never ultimately worked anywhere in Eastern Europe? Two governments will avoid embroilment in each other’s power struggles and internal disputes and can address the most important domestic reforms without federal blockages. Two separate governments can concentrate on direct integration with the international community without being slowed down by the performance of the other. Why should Serbia with its numerous unresolved internal problems obstruct Montenegro’s progress toward Europe? And why should the presence of war criminals in Serbia keep Montenegro back from international institutions?

Moreover, it is clearly easier and less destabilizing to separate now than before. Koštunica will presumably not start another war as Miloševic threatened to do. And if the international community is serious about democracy rather than a status quo in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosova, and Yugoslavia must be taken off the Serbian agenda. During the past ten years Serbian politics have been distracted and diverted by self-destructive and regionally destabilizing nationalist causes that allowed war criminals and economic criminals to prosper. This must not be allowed to happen again through the preservation of the federal half-state.

If Western diplomats want the two governments to achieve an equitable agreement they should not tie Montenegro’s hands by claiming that ‘unilateral independence’ is unacceptable. This means that Koštunica and company could prevaricate and oppose whatever Podgorica proposes, thus holding Montenegro hostage indefinitely. To escape this trap, the Montenegrin leadership must make a historic decision in the coming weeks.

3 November 2000


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