Belgrade Offers Federation Talks

After dangerously stoking up the campaign against Montenegro, Belgrade has suddenly offered to continue negotiations with the rebellious republic. It could be the last step before a referendum.

Belgrade Offers Federation Talks

After dangerously stoking up the campaign against Montenegro, Belgrade has suddenly offered to continue negotiations with the rebellious republic. It could be the last step before a referendum.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has accepted the surprise call for talks from Serbia's ruling Socialist Party of Slobodan Milosevic over the future of the Yugoslav federation.

The invitation comes two months after Podgorica tabled its latest offer for radically reconstructing the federation and making Montenegro a constitutional equal with Serbia.

Yet few observers in Podgorica expect new talks to result in anything more than another step in the continuing disintegration of the federation.

Only a few weeks ago, Vojislav Seselj, Serbian vice-president, was threatening Montenegro with force because of its "separatist" tendencies. Milosevic's Socialists were hardly enthusiastic about the Montenegrin's latest offer either, as evidenced by an intensified campaign in the state media against Djukanovic. The techniques recalled the beginnings of the wars against Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Belgrade has also intensified the economic conflict, destroying the last traces of a common market between the two republics. The free flow of goods has been restricted, and the export of agricultural goods from Serbia to Montenegro has been forbidden--forcing the smaller republic to look to Europe.

In recent weeks, hundreds of vehicles licensed in Montenegro--many Yugoslavs register cars there due to more liberal regulations on imports--have been confiscated in Serbia. Serbian police now patrol the border between the two republics.

Indeed, relations between the two republics have fallen so far as to risk real conflict. Hence the relief in Podgorica over Belgrade's sudden call for talks. Along with Milosevic's Socialists, members of Seselj's Radical Party also sent a cordial letter to Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), seeking to continue negotiations.

DPS officials initially reacted with caution, insisting that the talks be held in Montenegro. But this stipulation was quickly dropped.

"It is not important whether we negotiate in Montenegro or in Serbia. What matters is that, after all the threats, the first positive signals are coming from Belgrade," said Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic. He has, however, refused to meet in the federal Parliament in Belgrade, saying that that institution is "illegitimate and illegal."

According to DPS sources, a meeting could take place as early as October 26. The Montenegrin delegation is expected to include Djukanovic's closest associates.

Podgorica insists that talks must be based on its pending plan for constitutional reform, forwarded to Belgrade two months ago. "We don't wish to discuss other issues except our proposal," said Miodrag Vukovic, a Djukanovic adviser.

Notably, Belgrade's invitation to talks was extended only to the DPS, the leading partner in Montenegro's ruling coalition. When Djukanovic prepared to meet with Milosevic's representatives this summer, Novak Kilibarda, president of the National Party, threatened to resign from the coalition. The National Party and the Social Democratic Party have regularly taunted Djukanovic for his incrementalist tactics with Milosevic, insisting on more fiery fights and even total break-up with Belgrade.

But this time, the DPS's readiness to talk with Belgrade has not alarmed its governing partners. This is attributable in part to an expectation that the talks will not resolve the Serbian-Montenegrin conflict. "I don't believe the Yugoslav president wants to talk seriously," said Kilibarda.

It may also be due to growing trust among the coalition partners, as the steady slide towards greater independence from Belgrade continues.

Faced with domestic problems and international insistence on the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia, Djukanovic has charted a gradualist approach--step-by-step assuming control of various economic, border, customs and other competencies formally under federal responsibility. Preparations for a separate Montenegrin currency are well advanced--encouraged by the post-war inflation of the Yugoslav dinar.

Yet there is pressure within Montenegro for the president to pick up the pace towards independence. Long-promised economic reforms have been held up, in part because as a component of the Yugoslav federation Montenegro is excluded from assistance from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other bodies. Montenegrins are increasingly tired of paying the high price of isolation and sanctions because of Milosevic's policies.

Parliamentary president Svetozar Marovic cites polls suggesting that more than 50 per cent of the population favour an immediate referendum on independence. Around 70 per cent of the population support some kind of substantial constitutional change: either independence or the loose confederation demanded in the government's latest proposal to Belgrade.

Djukanovic may thus use fresh talks merely to send word to Belgrade that Montenegro is getting ready to go its own way. Meantime, he will seek to advertise his willingness to negotiate as yet another proof to the international community of his efforts to compromise.

Should talks collapse, as is widely expected in Podgorica, the Montenegrin president will then have perhaps the last argument needed for calling a referendum on independence, which Montenegrin leaders have said could be held by this spring.

Milka Tadic is editor of the weekly magazine Monitor in Podgorica.

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