Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia Faces Constitutional Challenge

One the most serious challenges facing the new Serbian government is the resolution of its constitutional dispute with Montenegro and Kosovo
By Zarko Korac

The democratic changes in Serbia open the possibility of resolving the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, but as the new Belgrade government sets about trying to resolve old problems some difficult new ones are beginning to emerge.

On top of an economic crisis, institutional reform, accountability and war crimes, and refugees (nearly 9 per cent of the population), the new government has to deal with the question of borders and statehood.

Serbian public opinion generally held that once the new forces came to power, the political conflict between Serbia and Montenegro would be resolved immediately. That has not been the case. There are now serious differences between the two. And the need to clear them up has taken on a real sense of urgency.

In Montenegro, there is a very intensive debate about the future of the Yugoslav federation - or, to put it more precisely, the question of Serbian and Montenegrin statehood. The tendency in Podgorica towards independence is strong.

Vojislav Kostunica, the president of Yugoslavia, has meanwhile proposed fresh talks with Montenegro on the issue, but insists the basis for these discussions must be that the federation remains an internationally recognised subject.

Many people in Serbia are afraid that if the two republics become sovereign and independent states, as advocated by Podgorica, then Belgrade will lose out, as it will have to reapply for admission to all kinds of international institutions, including the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the World Bank and so on.

They are also afraid that if Montenegro opts for a referendum on independence, Albanians in Kosovo will do the same. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which established the international presence in Kosovo, considers the territory an integral part of Yugoslavia, and carefully avoids mentioning Serbia.

Yet once again there is a profound difference of political positions. Albanians in Kosovo have basically achieved a consensus over independence, while most citizens of Serbia (and not just Serbs) see Kosovo as an integral part of their country.

Belgrade has generally argued that the frontiers of newly independent successor states of the former Yugoslavia should reflect the old Yugoslav federation's republican borders.

Independence for Kosovo would violate this principle. If Serbs in Croatia or Bosnia could not make new states, why should Kosovo Albanians be able to - especially since Albanians already have a "mother state" in Albania? Belgrade has also argued that independence could be destabilising: if Kosovo Albanians could have a state, why not allow the same for Albanians in Macedonia or Croats in Bosnia?

Since the Serbian opposition came to power, there have been several hopeful developments in Kosovo. Local elections there confirmed the leadership of the moderate Ibrahim Rugova; Kostunica has offered Rugova unconditional dialogue; and some Albanian political prisoners in Serbia - most notably activist Flora Brovina - have been released (although others remain, awaiting the promulgation of a new law to overturn the charges against them and allow their early release).

Yet the Serbian side lacks serious debate about how to provide some constitutional way out of the crisis. There have been some discussions about special or even confederal status for Kosovo, but these are rarely expressed in public. Others in Serbia speak of partition.

At the same time, the Kosovo Albanians have failed to prevent the expulsion of the remaining Serbs from Kosovo. Albanians always speak of "isolated incidents" perpetrated, in Rugova's words, by "frustrated individuals". But Belgrade sees the continuing violence and harassment there as a deliberate attempt to ethnically-cleanse Kosovo of Serbs, Roma and other minorities.

There has also been the increased violence by Kosovo Albanians in Presevo, Serbia, near the administrative border with Kosovo. Some Serbs view this as an attempt by Kosovars to strengthen their negotiating position should talks over the partition of the province ever emerge.

The new Belgrade government, then, faces serious challenges - possibly the gravest that have faced any post-communist government.

For Serbia, the worst case scenario is that both Kosovo and Montenegro go their own way, more or less with the consensus of the international community. Some argue that in this case, no crisis would follow. Serbians, they say, have other more immediate concerns on their minds.

But others point out that this could revive the fortunes of nationalist forces, which would be able to claim, with some justification, that the democrats had contributed to the dismemberment of the country.

This is precisely the warning laid down by Slobodan Milosevic before the recent parliamentary elections. And a government facing so many problems must take seriously the risk of providing such ammunition to its political enemies.

Some argue that while the fundamental positions on Montenegro and Kosovo have not changed, Belgrade's new diplomatic approach to the constitutional crisis could pay dividends.

While Belgrade still opposes separation, it now seeks dialogue and negotiated constitutional adjustments.

It also wants the international community to help mediate in the resolution of these problems through peaceful political means. And for the first time, it is determined to be a partner - rather than an isolated opponent - in bringing this about.

Zarko Korac is a vice-president in the Serbian government responsible for social affairs. He is also a psychology professor.