Montenegro: Djukanovic Defies Europe

Europe increases pressure on Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic to back away from independence referendum plan.

Montenegro: Djukanovic Defies Europe

Europe increases pressure on Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic to back away from independence referendum plan.

Friday, 14 December, 2001

Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic appears determined to press ahead with plans for a plebiscite on whether Montenegro should remain in Yugoslavia, despite coming under growing European pressure to change his mind.

Djukanovic's refusal to do so is likely to increase political tensions with those in Montenegro determined to remain in Yugoslavia.

The latest European call for Djukanovic to ditch his plans for an independence poll next spring came from French president Jacques Chirac during a visit to Belgrade last week.

"It is my personal opinion that the European Union would not recognise an independent Montenegro," the visiting head of the state told Djukanovic.

Although the Montenegrin president has agreed to further talks with Belgrade on reforming the federation in line with a demand put by Xavier Solana, the EU's high representative for common foreign and security policy, few believe Djukanovic is about to make a u-turn on independence.

Solana plans to attend the new talks between Montenegrin representatives and the Serbian/Yugoslav leadership, which are due to begin in Belgrade next week and continue until the end of January.

He is reported to be aiming to secure agreement between Serbia and Montenegro on a loose federation, with joint regulation of areas such as foreign affairs, defence, transport and trade.

But no European official before Chirac has contested Montenegro's right to independence if it is attained in a democratic and fair referendum. The French head of state's words have been interpreted in Podgorica as proof that the European campaign against Montenegro's independence is intensifying.

Chirac even went so far as to cast doubts over the source of funds earmarked for the planned referendum. Djukanovic is sensitive to such charges, since he is at the centre of a long-running corruption scandal.

The international community's attitude to Djukanovic has changed dramatically since the fall of Yugoslav hardman Slobodan Milosevic. Changing the borders of the federation is no longer an appealing idea, because it would raise questions over the position of Kosovo, which is formally part of Yugoslavia but actually under an international protectorate.

"The government should expect even fiercer blows. Attempts will now be made to break Podgorica because the creation of yet another independent state in the Balkans is not in Europe's interest, " one American analyst said.

James Lion, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, ICG, told the Montenegrin press, "The EU's stand is very clear. They prefer the preservation of a federation and the question is whether Solana will act as a true mediator in the talks between Belgrade and Podgorica."

For Djukanovic, there is no turning back. After his meeting with Chirac, he said he still believed independence was the best solution for Montenegro.

Proof of this was Montenegrin prime minister Filip Vujanovic's remark that a referendum will only be called off if the two republics are able to agree a peaceful split like that between the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Djukanovic's voter support is now based exclusively on the promise of independence. The economic reforms he announced three years ago, when he won the presidential elections, have still to get underway and the international community, once generous with its financial assistance, has turned off the tap.

Meanwhile, the Montenegrin president turns increasingly to patriotic rhetoric to back the independence cause, saying his republic will disappear if it stays in the federation.

According to the latest opinion polls, the electorate is split down the middle on the issue, with 55 per cent supporting secession.

Apart from convincing the doubters, Djukanovic has also to unite his own fractured coalition bloc. His partners in the Liberal Alliance believe there should be no further talks with Belgrade, and that European pressure should be ignored. Djukanovic, however, does not want to become totally isolated, so he intends to negotiate, hoping that the liberals will continue to support him as the only chance for independence.

At the same time, the anti-independence bloc, "Together for Yugoslavia", riding the wave of European opposition to the referendum, is withdrawing from talks on conditions for the proposed plebiscite, believing that Europe will persuade Djukanovic to drop the idea.

Milka Tadic Mijovic is IWPR's project editor, and editor of the Podgorica weekly magazine, Monitor.

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