Comment: Rebuilding the Federation

Montenegro has no choice but to start talks with Serbia on rebuilding the Yugoslav federation.

Comment: Rebuilding the Federation

Montenegro has no choice but to start talks with Serbia on rebuilding the Yugoslav federation.

Wednesday, 20 February, 2002

These days the powers holding the Serbian-Montenegrin federation together lie outside the country. It is the European Union and the United States that most oppose the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Belgrade expresses only a limited interest in its survival, effectively leaving the decision to Montenegro. In the meantime, defying international protests, the Djukanovic government presses on towards secession.

The reasons for Europe's hostility are not hard to discern. They want to prevent the creation of new international borders. An independent Montenegro would set an obvious and unwelcome precedent for Kosovo, Bosnia and the Bosnian Serb statelet, Republika Srpska.

If deeply divided Montenegrins were allowed to full independence on the basis of a very narrow majority voting in favour, who could stand in the way of the Kosovo Albanians, among whom independence enjoys overwhelming support? What could stop the Bosnian Serbs from following suit?

The Montenegrin separatists reply that it is unjust to expect them to sacrifice themselves because of others. But the real question is what are the country's best interests - and it is clear that secession is not. The country cannot survive solely on a diet of opposition to a brand of domineering Serbian nationalism that no longer exists.

With Milosevic's fall in October 2000, Belgrade no longer poses a threat to Podgorica. Almost all key politicians there say Montenegro can decide for itself what it wants. In fact, the Serbian connection is more important to Montenegrins than to most Serbs, as many have extensive family and business ties in Serbia.

For years the West, especially Washington, supported Djukanovic as he cautiously and gradually distanced Montenegro from Belgrade. When he moved into open conflict with Milosevic, the West treated Podgorica leaders as a Serbian opposition party. It received a great deal of international assistance; the donations were the largest in the region.

Podgorica soon realised the stand-off with Belgrade was paying dividends and that it was the small and impoverished republic's best export item.

After Milosevic fell, it was logical to expect tension between the two republics to decline and Podgorica and Belgrade to get closer. Instead, Montenegro continued to accuse Serbia's new government of Milosevic's sins, hoping to cash in on these accusations for some time to come.

Once released, the independence idea turned out to be a genie that would not go back in the bottle. Djukanovic became hostage to his own promise of Montenegrin independence. Although he realised international support was lacking, it was too late to retract. His political survival might be in jeopardy if he gave in.

As a result, he proclaimed that independence was the precondition of Montenegro's freedom and prosperity. Despite mounting Western opposition and the overthrow of Milosevic, he has continued to demand independence, even though he knows the issue has split the republic into two more or less equal camps.

He still insists on a referendum, though he knows he may lose the vote and at best will win only by a small majority. It could all lead to serious instability, and even violence.

The secession issue has revived a century-old feud in Montenegro over independence. The divisions it reveals are not solely connected to current politics. Nor are they based on national identity. For many Montenegrins, it is a question of family tradition and of upholding their forefathers' views.

However, the divide between the two blocks is not absolute. Many Montenegrins who do not want to cut ties to Serbia support Djukanovic's pro-European orientation. Many who wish to remain in the federation call themselves Montenegrins, not Serbs, even though the difference between the two ethnic groups is minimal.

Independence would be counter-productive for Montenegro and might lead to unnecessary internal strife. Djukanovic should abandon his referendum. He discussed dropping the idea in recent talks with Xavier Solana, EU foreign policy chief. Whether he could survive this about-turn politically is questionable, although he could explain it away as a result of Western pressure.

If he reneged on a referendum, his shaky coalition might lose the backing of pro-independence die-hards, the Socialist Democratic Party and the Liberal Party, resulting in the fall of the government.

If he sticks to a plebiscite, he might lose the support of the moderate wing of his own Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, who in the past have not been so insistent on separation. And they might try to replace him with Svetozar Marovic, DPS deputy president, who recommended that Djukanovic accept Solana's proposal.

Whatever the outcome, it is high time for Podgorica to find a formula to rebuild the federation with Serbia and it is in their own interest to start the process as soon as possible.

Stojan Cerovic is a commentator at the Belgrade weekly Vreme.

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