Montenegro: Independence Setback

Leading international official signals opposition to referendum on Montenegrin independence just as Belgrade and Podgorica finally agree to its inevitability.

Montenegro: Independence Setback

Leading international official signals opposition to referendum on Montenegrin independence just as Belgrade and Podgorica finally agree to its inevitability.

EU envoy Xavier Solana's insistence in Podgorica this week that Europe wants Montenegro to return to negotiations with Belgrade on remaining part of federal Yugoslavia is a serious setback to the independence aspirations of President Milo Djukanovic and a measure of how times have changed since the Balkan wars.

Solana, the European Union's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, found himself on the same side of the debate in Montenegro as Predrag Bulatovic, leader of the pro-Yugoslav coalition and one-time supporter of Slobodan Milosevic, who dubbed the diplomat a NATO criminal during the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.

Solana's message to Djukanovic that the EU prefers "democratic Montenegro in democratic Yugoslavia", came as no surprise to Montenegrins. But they were shocked when the former NATO secretary general went a step further by urging the Podgorica leadership to renew negotiations with Belgrade.

"That it better than going for a referendum on independence without a clear idea of what its outcome will be," Solana said at a press conference on Wednesday, November 28. It was a delusion to believe that Montenegro would join the European integration process faster as an independent state, than as part of the Yugoslav federation, he added.

Solana's visit set back Djukanovic's cause at a time when it had appeared that the idea of a referendum on independence was beginning to appeal to both the international community and Belgrade.

When Djukanovic and his colleagues met Serbian and Yugoslav leaders in October, both pro-federation Belgrade and pro-independence Podgorica agreed they were unlikely to reach a compromise.

As a result, federal president Vojislav Kostunica accepted that it was necessary to organise a referendum on independence as soon as possible. Serbian officials followed Kostunica's lead, pointing out that it was up to the citizens of Montenegro to decide whether their republic should secede from the federation.

Significantly, at the beginning of November, the OSCE issued recommendations for referendum legislation. One of its representatives, Jerar Studman, said delaying the resolution of Montenegro's statehood would obstruct reforms both in Serbia and in Montenegro.

"Get ready for life in another state," British ambassador Charles Crawford, a normally staunch opponent of Montenegrin independence, told the daily Vijesti.

All this seemed to indicate that the international community would actively support the referendum process, now that negotiations between Belgrade and Podgorica had failed.

Even Bulatovic's anti-independence "Together for Yugoslavia" coalition dropped its plebiscite boycott strategy and began to negotiate over conditions for the ballot. It demanded that there had to be a minimum participation level of more then half the electorate for the vote to be considered valid.

Solana's insistence on a dialogue with Belgrade has thrown everything back into the melting pot. Issuing a statement after his meeting with Solana, Djukanovic reiterated his view "that the referendum in Montenegro is inevitable".

However, Bulatovic, emboldened by Solana's visit, warned there was a danger his pro-Yugoslav coalition would withdraw from parliament if Djukanovic began organising a plebiscite, and urged the president to renew negotiations with Serbia over the future of the Yugoslav state.

To do that at this stage does not suit the Montenegrin president. Pro-independence forces are already losing patience as the economy deteriorates. But unless Djukanovic talks to Belgrade, he could loose what little aid Europe still gives Podgorica.

Foreign assistance, long a mainstay of the Montenegrin economy, has almost dried up since the fall of Milosevic..

The Americans, however, offer a trace of hope for Djukanovic. Some analysts point out that influential circles in Washington view the disintegration of Yugoslavia as inevitable and say the issue of Montenegro's independence is an internal matter.

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

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