Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Montenegro Demands Divorce Talks

Podgorica’s real aim is to avoid federal elections, which might go badly for prime minister Djukanovic.
By Nedjeljko Rudovic

Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, has requested talks on dissolving his country’s state union with Serbia, in what opponents claim is more a bid to extend his own term in office than to seek a total split with Belgrade.


The pro-independence government has spent recent months pressing Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to hold talks on ending the state union, citing the 1993 break-up of Czechoslovakia into two sovereign nations as a model.


Montenegro’s leadership says it wants the present weak union to evolve into what it terms an alliance of independent states.


Having lately dropped calls for a national referendum on independence, Montenegro’s pro-independence champions now advocate direct bilateral talks between Belgrade and Podgorica in order to achieve the same outcome.


The state union – created out of the now defunct Yugoslav federation - came into existence through the “Belgrade agreement” in spring 2002, which was signed under considerable pressure from the European Union’s security and foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana.


The agreement stipulated that either republic could dissolve the union through a referendum that would be held at least three years after the agreement was signed.


There has been some dispute about how the three-year period should be interpreted. It took strong international pressure to persuade Djukanovic that this means 2006, not next year. The argument revolves around the fact that the state union’s Constitutional Charter was adopted a year after the Belgrade agreement was signed.


Although the Constitutional Charter envisaged direct elections to a joint parliament, Montenegro has refused to go ahead with this. Instead, Podgorica proposed that the parliaments of the two republics appoint their own delegates to a joint assembly, and this is the arrangement that now operates.


Montenegro’s constitutional status has dominated political life in the republic for some time, creating a chasm between those advocating independence and supporters of close ties with Serbia.


While the pro-independence camp opposes direct elections to a joint assembly, the opposition keeps pressing for them.


Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, and his junior allies in the Social Democratic party, SDP, fear they could lose direct federal elections, calculating that pro-independence voters are less likely than their opponents to turn out and vote in a federal poll.


The government also believes the opposition would be strengthened within Montenegro if it was victorious in the assembly election.


“We can’t win these elections, and our defeat would give the opposition a legitimate reason to demand early elections in Montenegro,” a DPS official told IWPR anonymously.


The same source said his party was aiming to secure an agreement from Serbia to renounce federal elections, in return for Montenegro’s consent not to question the state union’s survival before 2006.


Rade Bojovic, an analyst with the Podgorica-based Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, CEDEM, says Serbia’s government may accept such an offer in order to avoid defeat at the hands of its nationalist Radical Party opponents in a federal election.


Most parties in Serbia support the state union, and the hardline nationalist opposition there seems likely to win a federal election vote because it opposes a section of the Belgrade agreement that allows for the option of Montenegrin independence.


Solana’s office, which constructed the state union in the first place, says it will accept any agreement that Belgrade and Podgorica come up with, while spokesperson Cristina Gallach recently urged the two sides to reach a deal on the federal elections.


Brussels remains opposed to a pro-independence referendum in Montenegro, fearing it might damage the reformist cause in Belgrade and destabilise the issue of Kosovo.


Chris Patten, the European Commission’s foreign policy chief, in a letter leaked to the public in September, suggested the state union should be preserved until 2006 in order to give the international community time to resolve Kosovo’s final status.


Delaying a referendum in Montenegro may in fact help Djukanovic save face, as opinion polls suggest that voters are backing away from the idea of independence. The latest poll, conducted by CEDEM, said support for independence fell by almost six percentage points in the past month alone. It said 42.5 per cent would now vote for independence and 36.7 per cent against.


Uncertainty about how solidly voters now back independence has prompted Montenegrin officials to move towards a position that a referendum should be seen as “a last resort”, while everyone’s best interests would be served by a bilateral agreement.


“The two governments should agree to transform the current state union into an alliance of independent states,” Djukanovic said recently.


He has demanded a meeting with Kostunica to discuss the issue – but the Serbian prime minister adamantly refuses to even consider it.


“A meeting between the senior officials of Serbia and Montenegro on the separation of the two republics and forming independent states was never planned, nor will such a meeting be held,” said Srdjan Djuric, head of the Serbian government’s press office.


Most analysts believe Djukanovic will evade the potential dangers that direct federal elections would pose for him, as Brussels has not pressured him to take part, and Serbia cannot compel him to.


It is equally unlikely, however, that Djukanovic will be able to force Belgrade to take part in separation talks.


“The option of two independent states is unrealistic at this moment, as public opinion in Serbia is against it,” CEDEM analyst Rade Bojovic told IWPR. “The Montenegrin government’s new proposal is probably aimed at certain circles in Brussels, to show that the republic doesn’t want complete separation from Serbia.”


Nedjeljko Rudovic is a journalist with the Vijesti newspaper in Podgorica