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Montenegro And Croatia Move Closer

Montenegro's apology for its bombardment of Croatia has underpinned a rapprochement between the two countries.
By Dragutin Hedl

The recent meeting between the presidents of Croatia and Montenegro is the culmination of a recent thaw in relations between two countries who fought a bitter war less than a decade ago.


Federal troops from Montenegro, Serbia's partner in the Yugoslav federation, bombarded Dubrovnik and other Dalmatian coastal towns in 1991 at the height of the Croatian war, killing many civilians and inflicting a huge amount of material damage.


Croatian President, Stipe Mesic, and his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanovic met at the Adriatic resort of Cavtat, just south of Dubrovnik, on June 24, provoking a storm of opposition anger in Podgorica and Zagreb


The meeting - thought to have been facilitated by the international community, which is anxious to see relations between the republics improve - succeeded in sidestepping the countries' main bone of contention - a territorial dispute over the uninhabited Prevlaka peninsula.


After the meeting, Djukanovic apologised for Montenegro's role in 1991-1995 Croatian conflict. A senior source close to Mesic's government told Reuters the gesture was a precondition for an improvement in bi-lateral relations. Apologies of this kind, however, are never easy. Former German Chancellor Willie Brandt's celebrated show of remorse for the Holocaust came over two decades after the end of World War Two.


"On my own behalf and on behalf of the citizens of Montenegro, I want to apologise to the citizens of Croatia, particularly in the Dubrovnik area for all the pain and material damage inflicted by Montenegrin people," Djukanovic was quoted as saying on Croatian radio.


In a subsequent interview with the Croatian newspaper Nacional, Djukanovic went even further, saying, "If the circumstances of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia suggest war reparations should be paid for damage incurred, then Montenegro will not avoid that responsibility."


Djukanovic claimed, however, that Montenegrins were hoodwinked into participating in the conflict. "Montenegro was unwillingly and somewhat naively involved in operations whose character at the time were not clear," Djukanovic said.


His remarks provoked unequivocal condemnation from the Podgorica opposition and the Belgrade regime.


"There is no doubt, with this apology to Croatia . . .the Montenegrin regime is entering a final phase of treason, openly calling for the occupation of this part of the country," said Velizar Nikcevic, leader of the Serb People's Party, in Podgorica.


The pro-Milosevic Belgrade daily Politika said Djukanovic had "soiled the reputation of the proud Montenegrins by dropping to his knees before Croatian President Stipe Mesic."


Belgrade opposition politicians gave mixed reactions. Pedrag Simic of the Serbian Renewal Movement called the apology a "brave step". But Vojislav Kostunica, president of the Democratic Party of Serbia said Djukanovic was merely trying to "wash his hands" of his past involvement. Djukanovic had been Montenegrin prime minister at the time of the conflict. In Croatia, the former ruling HDZ's stinging criticism of Mesic was perhaps predictable.


Mesic and Djukanovic, however, see sound political and economic reasons for establishing ties. A proposed Adriatic-Ionian motorway, which would link Italy with Greece through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania is just one example of what stable relations could bring.


The motorway, which has been sponsored by the international community, is an attempt to strengthen and stabilise the Balkans by developing economic and transport links. Croatia, which relies heavily on tourism, has a huge interest in seeing such projects come to fruition.


Such possibilities perhaps explain why both sides pushed the Prevlaka peninsula issue onto the back-burner. The uninhabited strip of land, which officially belongs to Croatia, was seized by Yugoslav troops in 1991 and never returned. A UN mission currently occupies the peninsula which controls Boka Kotarska Bay - home of the Yugoslav navy.


Clearly Mesic and Djukanovic believe the proposed Adriatic-Ionian motorway is of far greater use to both countries, than a new war over Prevlaka.


During his meeting with Mesic this spring, French President, Jacques Chirac, held out the prospect of a Zagreb summit for Albania and the countries created after the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia.


Even though the aims of such a gathering have yet to be defined, such a grouping would further isolate Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The rapprochement between Croatia and Montenegro removes the last real obstacle to Chirac's initiative.


Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor


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