Constitutional Shadow-Boxing

Montenegrin and Serbian representatives have meet to discuss relations between the two republics. But the first round was only tactical sparring.

Constitutional Shadow-Boxing

Montenegrin and Serbian representatives have meet to discuss relations between the two republics. But the first round was only tactical sparring.

The first round of talks between Serbia and Montenegro ended inconclusively this week, as both sides made tactical proposals to strengthen their respective positions in the debate over the future of the Yugoslav federation.

The closed-door meeting was held July 14 in Belgrade, between representatives of the Socialist Party (SPS) of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic.

According to sources close to Djukanovic's party, both sides offered maximalist, but mutually unacceptable, proposals. While Podgorica went as far to suggest international recognition of both Serbia and Montenegro within a restructured confederation, Belgrade offered to allow Djukanovic's party to appoint the federal prime minister as well as other federal governmental posts - but no constitutional change.

The current federal prime minister is Momir Bulatovic of the Socialist National Party, Milosevic's protege, former president of Montenegro and a bitter rival of Djukanovic. The government in Podgorica has rejected the authority of the federal government because it was given no voice in selecting the ministers.

Belgrade's offer was rejected by Djukanovic party, which argued that it is no longer enough to change jobs within the status quo. The Montenegrin representatives insisted that it is now imperative to reform the constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Montenegrins' proposal envisions a Federal government with only three main functions - foreign policy, monetary policy and defence - and a process whereby all decisions would have to be reached by consensus. The Yugoslav Army, for example, would be under the joint control of the Serbian, Montenegrin and Yugoslav presidents, with all three having to agree on major decisions.

Zeljko Sturanovic, the chief Montenegrin negotiator, confirmed Friday that he had no illusions that Belgrade would accept such a proposal. Djukanovic himself expressed doubt that it will be possible to reach any agreement with Milosevic on a new status for the Yugoslav republics.

Despite the gap between the two sides, the talks marked that first time, after two years of conflict and broken communications, that representatives of the ruling parties of Serbia and Montenegro have sat around the same table.

The atmosphere is dramatic: not only has Belgrade been defeated in its war against NATO after committing serious crimes in Kosovo. The role of the federal state within Montenegro has been reduced to the circulation of the dinar, and the presence of the Yugoslav Army under Milosevic's control - a constant threat against Montenegrin institutions and civilians.

Thus the sudden decision by Djukanovic to initiate the talks provoked a storm of protest from the Social Democratic Party and the National Party, the other members of the ruling coalition in Podgorica. They criticised Djukanovic for failing to agree a common Montenegrin platform in advance of the talks and for refusing to include members of other parties within the delegation.

But the strongest criticism was for engaging in dialogue in the first place with a politician indicted for war crimes who has consistently sought to oust the elected government in Podgorica.

"No one can go to Belgrade without agreement at home," said Novak Kilibarda, leader of the National Party. "A new settlement with Serbia is not a party political question but a state question."

Threatening, along with the Social Democrats, to leave the coalition, he asserted, "The DPS is behaving like they are the only rulers. It is as if we are again in 1992 when [Milosevic's] Socialists and the DPS did not consult anyone in creating the new Yugoslavia."

Yet Djukanovic is playing at delicate tactics, internally and internationally, and cannot afford a hard-line rejectionist stance towards Belgrade.

Domestically he is preparing the ground to ensure that he will have strong arguments to put to the Montenegrin voters over a referendum on independence. He will have to show that he first tried to reform the federal constitution.

This is especially the case because of the role he played in the formation of the current Yugoslavia in 1992, when he was the republic's prime minister. He is effectively saying that if Serbia rejects his proposals, then Montenegro can go its own way.

>From this perspective, it is clear that he pushed hard to ensure that the proposals brought to Belgrade by his delegation could not be accepted by Milosevic. The Montenegrins offered three principles: equality between the two republics, democracy, and openness to the West and European and Atlantic integration. With the indictment from The Hague, acceptance of these principles would mean political death for Milosevic.

Internationally, Djukanovic must also persuade the international community that Yugoslavia as a common state is impossible. So far, Western countries still formally support the territorial integrity of the Yugoslav federation. They fear that if Montenegro leaves Yugoslavia it will only encourage the more ambitious plans of Kosovo Albanians.

Djukanovic would need their support in any independence referendum. His difficult task therefore is to convince Western leaders that he is not trying to change borders as such, but in effect only seeking to redefine the frontier between Montenegro and Serbia.

Djukanovic clearly understands that he cannot lose the West's support. Most Western leaders back him because they believe in the illusion that he could help in the democratisation of Serbia. In this context, the Belgrade talks were a tactical move offered to the West to show that he is trying his best.

But even if Djukanovic initiated the process, it remains possible that Milosevic could be the beneficiary.

At the meeting in Belgrade, despite the tense issues at stake, the mood was cordial. Even representatives of the Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj spoke about the need for tolerance and understanding. Everyone agreed that the Yugoslav state is in crisis, and both Milosevic's Socialists and the Radicals even gave lip-service to the idea that Serbia and Montenegro should be equal within a common state.

The implication is that Milosevic, a master at surviving internal crises, has understood and accepted Djukanovic's game. Negotiations with Montenegro can be used by Belgrade to buy time. He may also seek to refocus the rebellion within Serbia now from internal problems to the issue of Montenegro, and relations between the two republics.

Djukanovic has insisted that he wants an agreement to be reached soon, and that he will not allow Milosevic to engage in his usual delaying tactics. But no date has been set for the next meeting. And bizarrely, on the same day this week representatives of Bulatovic's party had parallel discussions with the Serbian delegation also on the issue of Serbian-Montenegrin relations.

The stakes, then, are high. As Zarko Rakcevic, leader of the Montenegrin Social Democrats, warns, "Djukanovic has fallen into a labyrinth of long negotiations with Serbia, and Montenegro could lose precious time." He argues that Montenegro had survived the broken relations with Serbia over the past two years and that it should put all its efforts in cultivating support internationally.

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

Serbia, Kosovo
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