Montenegro Backs US, Serbia Neutral

Republics' views on Iraqi crisis determined by how each view their longer-term interests in the international arena.

Montenegro Backs US, Serbia Neutral

Republics' views on Iraqi crisis determined by how each view their longer-term interests in the international arena.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

As much of Europe opposes Washington and London over the attack on Iraq, the newly-formed state of Serbia and Montenegro has been conspicuously silent. Behind the federal facade, the constituent entities are both trying to respond in a way that will further their own ends internationally.

Under the terms of the Belgrade agreement, which created the new state, Montenegro must remain joined to Serbia for the next three years. After that, Podgorica will make another bid for independence. With that in mind, Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic seems in no doubt where his interests lie.

He has openly accused the European Union of conspiring with Serbia to prevent Montenegro from becoming independent, while simultaneously emphasising his country's good relations with Washington.

As early as mid-February, he wrote a letter of support to US president George W Bush, pointing out that Podgorica has "always been a friend, partner and ally of the American people". Around that time, Time magazine speculated that Washington could be offered a naval base on the Montenegrin coast in return for backing independence in three years' time.

Serbia, on the other hand, has been treading a finer line, anxious not to antagonise either Europe or the US. Desperate to join NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and, in time, the EU, it hopes to take the first step in this direction this year by gaining entry to the Council of Europe.

The Serbian government, meanwhile, relies directly on American economic aid and is affected by Washington's influence within international monetary institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank.

To this end, the late premier Zoran Djindjic decided that neutrality was the best policy, a view supported by the pro-government media, including the influential daily Politika. When eight European countries supporting the US stance on Iraq signed an open letter, Djindjic announced that after taking part in a number of major wars over the last two centuries Serbia would be "keeping herself to herself" this time around.

Thus, Belgrade escaped the censure of Jacques Chirac, who criticised the mainly central and eastern European states that had signed the letter, implying that their accession to the EU would be slowed down as result. At the same time, Serbia has avoided aggravating Washington by steering well clear of the anti-war coalition headed by France and Germany, particularly after the US congress voted on March 5 to normalise trade with Serbia and Montenegro.

The Helsinki Charter, mouthpiece of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, published a pro-US essay in its January issue, but such views are in a minority here. The prevailing mood among Serbs is still deeply anti-American, with memories of NATO's bombing campaign of four years ago still fresh.

A public opinion poll conducted in last year revealed the nationalities least liked by Serbs and Montenegrins as Albanians, Chinese, Croats and Americans. A nationwide survey of Serbian youth published this month produced similar results.

Despite this, the Serbian public has shown little appetite to protest against the Iraqi conflict. As massive anti-war demonstrations took place all over the world in mid-February, only a few hundred pacifists assembled to protest on the streets of Belgrade. This does not necessarily reflect indifference on the part of ordinary citizens, however. A reluctance amongst leading parties in the ruling coalition to stick their necks out has meant that no respected group or individual is prepared to organise a rally or demonstration.

For now, the Serbian government looks set to continue walking its politically opportune tightrope, keeping its head down and hoping that neither side in the dispute over the war will force it to take sides.

Jan Briza is the editor of the Vojvodina daily Dnevnik.

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