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Montenegro: Djukanovic Cornered Over Independence

Podgorica leader under pressure as Brussels warns it will cut off much of its funding if Montenegro holds poll on secession.
By Milka Tadic

With the European Union threatening Montenegro with economic isolation if it pursues its plans to stage a referendum on independence, President Milo Djukanovic has little option but to play for time.


The EU might cut off at least half its financial aid to Podgorica unless it drops its plans to hold a plebiscite within the next few days, according to Western media reports.


At a meeting in Brussels in mid-February, the EU foreign policy chief Xavier Solana is said to have told President Milo Djukanovic to start setting up a new federal customs and monetary system, or face the possible withdrawal of economic help.


He is reported to have said the EU envisaged the creation of a unicameral parliament for the federation, which would continue to enjoy international recognition - ruling out separate diplomatic recognition for Montenegro. The name Yugoslavia could be replaced by a title mentioning both republics, either in a "union" or "federation".


Solana's apparent ultimatum threatens to ruin the career of the republic's pro-independence president, who was the darling of the West when he opposed Slobodan Milosevic's government in Belgrade. Djukanovic urged Solana to extend the February 16 deadline while he consulted his Socialist and Liberal coalition partners.


As IWPR sources in Podgorica confirmed, Solana offered one sweetener in the form of an assurance that this was a temporary solution and that Montenegro could withdraw from the renegotiated federation after five years. However, the president will still have a tough job selling a "volte face" to his supporters. Over the past two years, Podgorica has taken over all federal institutions, apart from the armed forces.


In spite of the pressure on his poverty-stricken state, Djukanovic's acceptance of the EU plan is not certain. His Socialist Democratic Party, SDP, and Liberal Union, LSCG, allies both advocated resistance.


"If Djukanovic opts for a moratorium on the [independence] referendum, he will have to look for somewhere else for support for his minority government," said Miodrag Zivkovic, leader of the Liberals, who have supported independence since their foundation in 1990.


The party backed the coalition of the SDP and Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, since the April 2001 elections solely on account of its pro-independent stance.


The SDP deputy president, Miodrag Ilickovic, was equally hostile to a postponement and lambasted the EU for bullying his country. "They put Milosevic's policy on trial in The Hague," he said "yet their aim is to preserve Milosevic's creation, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. According to Carla del Ponte, this state served as a basis for genocide."


The president's own party said it would not abandon the referendum and would continue to negotiate with the EU and Belgrade. However, in a sign that international pressure is splitting the Montenegrin coalition, an influential DPS official, Svetozar Marovic, said the Solana plan should be accepted.


If Djukanovic does postpone a referendum, it will almost certainly bring down the coalition that won the last year's election on the independence ticket.


The government has been weakened also by failure to deliver promised reforms and higher living standards, as well as corruption scandals and rumours of links to organised crime. If Montenegro then loses EU aid, the pro-Yugoslav coalition, led by the former pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party, SNP, may well capitalise on the anticipated wave of social unrest.


As the government's options shrink, the most likely exit strategy will be to play for time by throwing the responsibility for a decision on the referendum onto parliament. The assembly's Liberal speaker, Vesna Perovic, told the media on February 19 that deputies would have to give the final say on cooperation with the EU.


According to Western media reports, the government is likely to bank on extracting more concessions from Brussels in the meantime. Montenegro wants to continue using the euro, which the country inherited as a result of its earlier decision to switch to the German mark. It will also seek clarification on the role of the Yugoslav army, which Milosevic used to intimidate the republic when he was in power.


Milka Tadic is editor in chief of Podgorica daily Monitor


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