Montenegro Risks Angering US

Djukanovic's push for Montenegrin independence threatens to lose him important friends in the West

Montenegro Risks Angering US

Djukanovic's push for Montenegrin independence threatens to lose him important friends in the West

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

On the eve of Milo Djukanovic's presidential inauguration in January 1998, United States Balkan envoy Robert Gelbard travelled to Podgorica to announce "the intention of the United States to support the democratically elected government" in Montenegro.


Armed with an initial promise of $2 million for the new president's reform plans, Gelbard outlined a bedrock principle of US Montenegrin policy: "As far as we are concerned, Montenegro is an integral part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY] and we don't see any alternative to that," he said.


Three years on, and US policy on Montenegro is formally unchanged despite war, constitutional changes, and even the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic. The reasons behind that policy have, however, changed dramatically.


With Milosevic out and Vojislav Kostunica in, Belgrade has emerged as the latest focus of international attention. Montenegro, formerly the darling of the West, seems to have slid into the shadows.


This shift doesn't come as a surprise to Podgorica's pragmatic Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac, "Montenegro used to be seen as a democratic, pro-European option." Now, after the fall of Milosevic, he said, "Serbia is perhaps seen as the principal partner in the region" while "we're probably seen as troublemakers, or as potential troublemakers."


Over the past three years, the US State Department has pledged "strong and unwavering support" for Djukanovic's "shining example" of leadership. The Clinton administration backed up these words of praise with substantial financial help with relatively few strings attached. Now that Milosevic is out of the picture, the days of such unreserved assistance look numbered.


The chief trouble is Montenegro's growing enthusiasm for independence. Recent surveys - including one commissioned by the Podgorica based Center for Democracy and Human Rights, CEDEM - show the country is now split down the middle on secession from Yugoslavia.


Washington analysts say the United States has little sympathy for Djukanovic's intensifying independence drive. "Support for Montenegrin independence is, right now, even less than before," said Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank.


"If Djukanovic insists on pursuing this path in clear opposition to what the new federal authorities want, he won't find much support in Washington," Daalder said.


Despite Washington's resistance, Djukanovic insists the US is not using its financial muscle to persuade it to fall into line. He vigorously denied recent media reports claiming Washington had threatened to withhold aid if Podgorica rushed towards secession.


"No-one from the United States threatened to withhold support," Djukanovic said. "I don't think the international community uses the language of ultimatum to blackmail small countries."


Montenegrin leaders deny that the US is threatening them, but believe that its insistence on their country remaining within the Yugoslav federation is short-sighted.


"There's been a crisis here for a very long time," said Lukovac. "Everyone, including the United States, would like to close this chapter as soon as possible and declare the crisis over."


While Washington might not be able to close this chapter as quickly as it would like, another chapter is certainly coming to an end: the presidency of Bill Clinton, who played a significant role in the Balkans over the last ten years.


With the outcome of the US presidential elections still hanging in the balance, the question emerges as to how US policy towards Montenegro might change under the leadership of Al Gore or George W Bush.


As part of his pre-electoral campaign, Bush sought to distance himself from Gore - and the legacy of the Clinton administration - by saying he would withdraw US peacekeepers from the Balkans.


Gore, joined by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, denounced the Bush proposal, suggesting that the security of the region and the NATO alliance itself would fall apart in the absence of US leadership.


Even with this radical difference in strategy - one of the few foreign policy issues to make it onto the campaign trial - there is little indication US views on Montenegro would change markedly under the new presidency, whether Republican or Democratic.


"It is hard to predict," said Kurt Bassuener of the Balkan Institute at the government-funded United States Institute for Peace in Washington.


"One might assume continuity with the current policy under a Gore administration, " he said. " But I think either [Gore or Bush] would want to avoid undermining President Kostunica."


Brian Gregg is a freelance journalist based in Podgorica


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