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Montenegro Backs Off Separation Vote

Brussels is winning its battle to force republic to stay with Serbia.
By Nedjeljko Rudovic

Montenegro's referendum on independence will probably be postponed indefinitely, as the EU increases pressure on the republic to remain in the state union with Serbia, support for separation falls and cracks widen in the pro-independence camp, local analysts say.


Lack of any agreement over conditions for a valid ballot is another major obstacle to a referendum going ahead.


The leadership's first attempt to call a referendum fell through in March 2002. At that time, under pressure from the EU and its foreign policy chief Javier Solana, Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro's president and head of the ruling Democratic Socialist Party, DPS, signed the Belgrade Agreement.


This deal imposed a three-year moratorium on an independence vote and committed Montenegro to joining - at least temporarily - a weak state union with Serbia.


Since then the DPS has steadfastly maintained that it will re-activate its plans for a referendum as soon as the three-year freeze expires.


But as pro-referendum parties show increasing difficulty in presenting a united front, Europe has continued to robustly defend the state union, and support for a separate state in Montenegro itself has tailed off.


Brussels diplomats remain adamant that a joint Serbian-Montenegrin ticket offers both republics their only hope of joining the EU in the near future.


Speaking in Belgrade at a recent IWPR round table on Europe, Dutch ambassador Barend Van Der Heijden said fresh territorial divisions in the region might "lead to the further proliferation of weak, small and even revisionist states".


These, he said, would "probably be in a constant state of economic crisis".


Mentioning no names, but with Montenegro surely in mind, he added, "They will be hardly economically viable. So again I have to repeat that in my opinion the quickest route to the EU lies in the state union."


While Djukanovic insists the independence vote will go ahead, his party's vice-president, Svetozar Marovic, recently threw cold water on the plan. The state union was here to stay, said Marovic, who is also president of Serbia and Montenegro.


"The state union is the most rational framework for the accelerated accession of Serbia and Montenegro to the European Union," Marovic said in late March, after talks with Solana's special envoy, Stephan Lehne.


At the same time, Djukanovic categorically defended the opposite line on a visit to the United States. "Serbia and Montenegro should be engaged in European and Euro-Atlantic integrations as separate states," he told Voice of America on March 22.


"If both Serbia and Montenegro were separate states, they would by now have signed Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the European Union."


Djukanovic told Montenegrin TV a week later that he remained confident that a referendum would go ahead as soon as the three-year moratorium ended.


While some Podgorica analysts say the war of words inside the DPS over the state union reveals fractures in the ruling party, others suspect the two DPS officials have reached a clandestine agreement and that the disagreements are for external consumption.


A DPS source told IWPR that he "had no reason to believe Djukanovic and Marovic are at odds with each other". He added, "One should not exclude the possibility that Marovic is preparing the supporters of Montenegrin independence for another delay of the referendum."


The same source continued, "Their numbers are falling and it is now far from certain that a referendum would even succeed."


Most recent surveys suggest this estimate is correct. The number of supporters of the state union is level pegging with - and for the first time exceeding - backers of Montenegro's independence.


The most recent poll in April 2004 put pro-independence support at a record low of 39.8 per cent while the number in favour of the state union had risen to 39.7 per cent.


The lack of an agreement with the republic's strong pro-Serbian opposition over conditions for a valid vote is seen as another reason to postpone the referendum.


The failure to reach a consensus over this issue two years ago proved a major obstacle to calling a referendum on independence in 2002.


The opposition says it is increasingly confident the wind is blowing their way. "I'm sure there won't be any referendum," Zoran Zizic, of the opposition Socialist People's Party, SNP, told IWPR.


"There is no agreement on the conditions and as the time goes by the state union is slowly beginning to function while Europe is exerting pressure to ensure its survival."


Zizic said Europe would not relish the sight of Montenegro scrapping the constitutional arrangement it has established. "The EU cannot allow the destruction of what the EU itself has created," Zizic insisted.


At the same time, Zizic recalled what he said was a key provision in the Belgrade Agreement, which states that any state seceding from the union must forfeit membership of all international organisations that the latter belongs to.


Zizic said this would condemn an independent Montenegro to applying for membership of all these forums again, imposing a huge drain on time and energy.


The wobbly note in the DPS camp has left Djukanovic's ardently pro-independence coalition partners, the Social Democratic Party, SDP, distinctly worried.


Adamant that the referendum must proceed, the SDP is furious with Marovic and is attempting to recover momentum for the ballot by reminding the Montenegrin public of what it says are the state union's big, hidden costs.


SDP leader Ranko Krivokapic, who is also speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, recently said the state union would cost Montenegrin voters millions in extra euro.


Harmonising Serbian and Montenegrin customs tariffs alone would cost the tiny republic's half million inhabitants 20 million euro, he said.


He said the republic also stood to lose out on financing the joint Serbian-Montenegrin army. "All this will amount in total to over eighty million euro in expenses," Krivokapic maintained.


The issue of the referendum is not over, and may revive if Serbia elects a president from the far-right Serbian Radical Party in mid-June. For now, however, even key supporters of independence seem ready to keep their trump card for another day.


Nedjeljko Rudovic is a journalist with the Podgorica daily Vijesti.


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