Serbians Bitter Over Montenegrin Independence Drive

Serbians are finding it difficult to adjust to Montenegro's inevitable secession from the Yugoslav federation.

Serbians Bitter Over Montenegrin Independence Drive

Serbians are finding it difficult to adjust to Montenegro's inevitable secession from the Yugoslav federation.

Montenegro is moving ever closer to independence - and Serbians are bitter about it.

For the first time in a decade, Belgrade will not use force to try to keep hold of a republic wanting to break away from Yugoslavia, but resentment against Montenegrins is growing nonetheless.

Following his election on January 25, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic said that Serbia would demand the two entities split if a mutual agreement to resolve their differences could not be reached.

Vojislav Kostunica seems to accept separation as inevitable. "Relations between the two countries will be based on respecting the people's will," said the Yugoslav president.

"If it's the will of the Montenegrins not to be a part of the federation, then this would be honoured".

The new leadership's remarks followed deadlocked negotiations with Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic on January 17.

Serbians are not sabre-rattling but their disappointment is tangible, as they share a common history, culture and language with the Montenegrins.

Besides the emotional ties binding the two states, pro-unionists argue that the separation would present too many practical problems.

Dismantling the federation would de facto mean the disappearance of Yugoslavia as an entity. A split could, in turn, provoke Kosovo's secession.

It would also have serious financial consequences. Serbia would have to reapply for international recognition, which would probably take a long time and delay urgently-needed international financial aid.

Indeed, Kostunica's own position might also be thrown into doubt. For, in effect, he would be left president of a country which had ceased to exist.

This is why, say Belgrade analysts, the Yugoslav head of state has not tried to get rid of the Serbian president and Hague-indicted war criminal Milan Milutinovic. Should Montenegro secede, Kostunica is likely to want to take over from Milutinovic.

The new leadership is far from resolving its troubled relationship with Montenegro.

Some Serbians naively believed the problems would end with the departure of Slobodan Milosovic - a view that underestimated Montenegrin desire to distance itself from Serbian policy over the last decade.

When it became evident that Kostunica was not at all flavour of the month in Podgorica, Serbians reacted angrily.

One of the more malicious headlines in the Belgrade press read, "Only Djukanovic and Thaqi (ex- Kosovo Liberation Army commander) do not recognise Kostunica as FRY president".

Resentment against the 600,000 Montenegrins living within Serbia (the same number as live in Montenegro proper) is growing.

Serbians are asking Montenegrins what they really want. They see them holding senior management and directorial positions in Serbia and wonder why, when their own republic is so small, they want to secede at all.

"Everything is different now," said pensioner Milka Cukic, a Montenegrin living in Belgrade. "Serbia does not have the strength for another war, that is our salvation. And we will survive despite being constantly told off and not being served in the shop when our turn comes."

Also feeling the pressure is the large contingent of Montenegrin students who traditionally study at the University of Belgrade. Many Serbians privately voice the opinion that if they feel they want to leave the union, they should pay foreign student's fees.

Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic described what he called "anti-Montenegrin hysteria" and "Serbian Nazism" appearing on the streets of Belgrade in recent weeks.

As a consequence, more and more Montenegrins in Serbia feel pressured by their neighbours into towing the Serbian line. For many, this recalls the days when Croatia and Bosnia seceded from Yugoslavia.

In some cases, anger and frustration has given way to resignation. "Let them (Montenegro) go," said the newly appointed Yugoslav ambassador to Mexico, Vesna Pesic, at the end of January.

But even at this late stage, some Serbians are hoping that their Montenegrin brothers will come to their senses.

This has been spurred both by a recent EU statement opposing the formation of yet another state in the Balkans and some hope that pro-unionists will win forthcoming elections in Podgorica, in effect shelving the independence issue.

"I hope," said Serbian historian Dusan Batakovic, "that the Montenegrins understand that the real interest of Montenegro is to stay in the union with Serbia, since Montenegro needs Serbia more than Serbia needs Montenegro."

Batakovic says that Podgorica should be grateful for the fact it has as a partner the largest state in the region. Montenegrin expectations of their republic becoming some sort of future Monte Carlo, he says, are unreal.

During their January 17 meeting, Djukanovic, Djindjic and Kostunica could talk only of their "huge differences regarding the future".

Both leaderships had their own vision of a future federation and both refused to compromise.

Back in late December, Montenegro had proposed a union of two independent and internationally-recognised states, held together by a loose federation.

This was not well received by the Serbian leadership, which believes it would result in the loss of the federal police force and state presidency, making Yugoslavia a state with a weaker central government than Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Likewise, Kostunica's alternative proposal fell flat in Montenegro two weeks later. The Yugoslav president envisioned Serbia and Montenegro having a common foreign and defence policy, currency, customs agreement as well as a united transport system.

With the prospect of separation, what future lies for Serbia? Across the political spectrum, Serbian fears of isolation have sparked off irrational suggestions.

Zoran Andjelkovic, general secretary of Milosevic's SPS party, proposes that if Montenegro does decide to leave, Serbia should push for a union with Macedonia.

Deputy president of the Serbian government, Nebojsa Covic has suggested a union with Bulgaria, Romania and Greece.

Behind these irrational scenarios lies the fear of being left alone to face what some see as near insuperable problems. Not only does the country have to confront widespread corruption and a shattered economy, it will also have to face the hugely troubling issue of war crimes responsibility.

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a journalist and activist of Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

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