Serbia: Calls for Break with Montenegro

Serbs increasingly believe their republic would be better off on its own.

Serbia: Calls for Break with Montenegro

Serbs increasingly believe their republic would be better off on its own.

Serbia is threatening to pull the plug on the Yugoslav federation if its partner republic, Montenegro, fails to state explicitly whether it is going or staying by the spring of next year.

The threat emerged after a summit on October 26 failed to resolve the crisis between the two republics on Yugoslavia's future.

Federal president, Vojislav Kostunica, deputy Yugoslav prime minister Miroljub Labus and his Serbian counterpart, Zoran Djindjic, agreed Montenegro must hold an independence referendum by spring 2002 and that no further delay would be tolerated.

Labus said they had set a deadline for next spring because that is when an IMF stand-by loan expires and a new one must be signed.

At the root of Serbia's anger are fears that the political uncertainty is damaging economic reforms, deterring foreign investors and hindering accession to key Western financial and defence bodies, such as the Council of Europe and NATO's Partnership for Peace program.

The urgency of the crisis has forced Kostunica and Djindjic to put aside their bitter rivalry in order to save the reform process and avert widespread social unrest.

In the past, Serbia was always seen as the one that would never let Montenegro escape its embrace. The pressure to retain a joint state survived the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, albeit in a non-violent form.

Serbia's justice minister, Vladan Batic, said on October 27 that Montenegro did not enjoy an exclusive right to hold independence polls.

"No one has the right to interpret the will of Serbian citizens on their behalf," he said. "Some 60 per cent of the Serbian population backs the idea of a referendum in Serbia."

Polls conducted by the Strategic Marketing research agency back Batic's comments, and suggest about 60 per cent of the public want the chance to vote on separation.

A straw poll on the streets of Belgrade confirmed support for Serbia going it alone. "I am against a joint Serbian-Montenegrin state and I think that a referendum should be held in Serbia," said Aleksandar Radic, a local journalist.

Belgrade housewife Vanja Krstic voices the frustration felt by many Serbs with the old federal arrangement. "They are just slowing us down," she said of the Montenegrins.

Serbs have lost patience with the Montenegrin leadership, which openly supports secession but has repeatedly delayed putting it to the test of the popular vote.

Most members of the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, DOS, believe Montenegro's parties have repeatedly jeopardised the reform process over the past year and the country's re-integration into international institutions.

Montenegro's president, Milo Djukanovic, however, has found himself in an increasingly awkward position. The West does not support his country's independence and the supply of financial aid, which flowed liberally during the Milosevic years, has dried up.

Although Montenegrins remain as divided as ever between supporters of independence and pro-Yugoslavs, Serbia's apparent vote face may now help Djukanovic proceed with a referendum and deal with the resistance of the pro-Yugoslav bloc, which had threatened to boycott the poll.

The contradictory policies of the two main Montenegrin parties have contributed to Serbia's irritation.

On the one hand, the Montenegrin party in the federal government, the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party, SNP, prevented DOS from passing a law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal, triggering a government crisis when Djindjic extradited Milosevic on his own authority.

On the other, the ruling party inside Montenegro, the fiercely anti-Milosevic Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, refuses to recognise the federal government at all, claiming it is a product of laws passed by Milosevic's regime.

In practice, Montenegro and Serbia virtually function as separate states. Each has its police and customs controls as well as its own financial laws and tax regime. Montenegro does not participate equally towards the federal budget.

Belgrader Milenko Krajcara complains that Serbia is paying for two governments and two budgets. "The joint state is costing us a lot, " he said.

The mass circulation weekly Nedeljni Telegraf, which is close to the Serbian government, recently predicted that Yugoslavia would break up by next spring.

The report may be an exercise in bluff, aimed at putting pressure on the Montenegrin leadership. However, it may be a sign that the political establishment in Serbia wants to prepare the public for separation.

Government sources say the final decision will be taken by the end of the year, when it will be clear whether Montenegro will

meet the spring deadline for a referendum.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR assistant editor in Belgrade.

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