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Montenegrin Eyes on Bush

The authorities in Podgorica hope the US government will not try to dissuade Montenegro from pursuing independence.
By Srdjan Darmanovic

Podgorica, like elsewhere in the world, is keeping an eye firmly fixed on Washington as United States President-elect George W Bush gets ready to move into the White House.


With Montenegro moving towards independence the position taken by the new US administration is of great importance, not least because Washington was Montenegro's main foreign ally during the republic's three-year-long resistance to the regime of ousted Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.


Despite all expectations, Milosevic's departure from office did not automatically resolve relations between Montenegro and Serbia within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY.


Since 1997, when Montenegro's new and reformist government turned against Milosevic, public support for independence has risen from 25 per cent to 57 per cent.


A majority of Montenegro's political elite is especially concerned with structural problems. Serbia is 17 times larger than Montenegro. Such a disparity renders it virtually impossible to devise a constitutional model which can ensure equal status for Montenegro in a federation with Serbia.


Added to this are fears of a future revival of Serbian imperial nationalism and Belgrade's historical tendencies towards domination over Montenegro. Such worries persist despite the defeat over the past decade of aggressive Serbian nationalism and the unlikelihood of it re-emerging in its violent Milosevic-era form.


The idea of independence has also received a boost from the removal of indirect security threats to the republic, which were ever present while Milosevic ruled in Belgrade.


It is unrealistic to expect the federation between Montenegro and Serbia to survive. It is increasingly likely that either through negotiation with Serbia or by referendum Montenegro will become an independent state.


The US government, although Montenegro's strongest supporter in its stand-off with Milosevic, never supported the idea of independence.


Over the past two years Montenegro has received $55 million in financial help per annum - the largest amount of per capita aid dispensed to a foreign country by Washington, with the exception of Israel. The aim was to help maintain the stability of President Milo Djukanovic's government and to raise the standard of living within the republic.


But US assistance took other forms as well. US experts contributed considerably to the reform of some key economic and political areas. And, although Washington never wanted to commit to direct security guarantees for Montenegro in case of attack by Milosevic, the US government did co-operate with Podgorica on security issues.


Despite such considerable support, however, the US avoided paternalism, something the Podgorica government also shied away from. On at least two important occasions the Djukanovic government acted against Washington's express wishes.


In November 1999, Podgorica dropped the Yugoslav dinar as the official currency, replacing it with the German mark. Then, last year Djukanovic called for a boycott of the September 24 Yugoslav federal elections in protest at illegal changes to the constitution forced through by Milosevic in July.


Nevertheless, the US continued to support Djukanovic, accepting the reasons given by the Montenegrin government as legitimate.


With Milosevic's departure, the republic's importance in the region has decreased considerably and several US policy priorities in the Balkans are at odds with Montenegro's move towards independence.


Washington's main objection to Montenegrin independence - the threat of war - disappeared with the collapse of the Milosevic regime. But another remains - the future status of Kosovo. In the complex nature of the region, Kosovo's future is directly connected to the question of Montenegrin secession.


Under the terms of United Nations resolution 1244, Kosovo is mentioned only as part of the FRY. Should Montenegro secure independence from the federation, then the FRY would cease to exist.


As none of the leading Western governments, including the US, have a clear solution for the Kosovo problem, their current policy is to prevent the disintegration of the FRY, in other words ensure Montenegro does not break loose.


Nevertheless, faced with a decision by the people of Montenegro in a democratic referendum, even if it goes in favour of independence, the US, and Montenegro's other Western allies, will accept the result. Washington is, after all, unlikely to resort to force to prevent such a move.


Economic pressure is also unlikely. If such leverage were an option, it would have been applied already.


Montenegrin independence would not cause any serious problems in the region or for its immediate neighbours. The republic is too small to pose any real threat to surrounding countries. Montenegro could not carry through any kind of imperial programme or aggressive policy.


The republic has no diaspora to fuel separatist tendencies within neighbouring countries, and there are no outstanding border disputes to speak of. Within Montenegro there are no difficulties with minorities - the most significant being the Albanian minority - since they are more or less integrated into the political system of the republic.


Although the population itself is divided on the question of independence, internal conflict over the issue looks very unlikely. Undoubtedly the political campaign prior to any referendum would be fierce, but with Milosevic and his military threat gone, it is unrealistic to expect a forceful reaction if Montenegrins vote for independence.


The new government in Belgrade would certainly not provoke any military confrontation. Rather, it would recognise, however reluctantly, the legitimate decision of the Montenegrin people. Without backing from Belgrade, internal opponents to independence would have neither the will nor the means to attempt to thwart a majority decision.


Montenegro neither provoked nor contributed towards the worsening of the problems in Kosovo. The republic is also not in a position to make a vital contribution towards the permanent settlement of Kosovo's status.


That Kosovo conundrum will be solved by either recognising the Albanian majority's desire to form their own state, or by prolonging the UN protectorate and postponing the whole issue for years.


Had the Democrats won the US presidential elections they would sooner or later have accepted these arguments.


But the new Republican government, it is realistic to expect, will accept them too. The Bush government has no reason to disown its allies in the region. Podgorica has for three years consistently shown itself to be pro-US. The new government in Belgrade, and especially Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, has by contrast often - and totally irrationally - shown signs of anti-US leanings in their foreign policy.


The international community is unlikely, therefore, to go against the will of the majority in Montenegro.


The US government will first insist Montenegro and Serbia seek a mutual solution. If that proves impossible then they will ask that any referendum be democratic and transparent.


Perhaps, more than anything, Washington will advance future economic aid to Montenegro on condition realistic and tangible progress is made in reforming the republic's economy and political system.


Srdjan Darmanovic is director of Cedem, the Centre for Democracy in Podgorica.


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