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VIEWPOINT: Montenegro: Owning Up to Dubrovnik

Montenegro is finding it hard to take responsibility for its role in the siege of Dubrovnik.
By Rade Bojovic

The unsealing of the Dubrovnik indictment on October 2, 2001, was embarrassing for the Montenegrin authorities as they had been notified of the charges seven months before but had failed to arrest and extradite any of the suspects to The Hague. Podgorica claimed none of the indictees were in the country.


Yet one of the accused, General Pavle Strugar, had been in Podgorica all along. Once the indictment was published, he surrendered himself to the international court. He was followed by Vice-Admiral Miodrag Jokic, who had been living in Serbia.


Two other indictees, retired Vice-Admiral Milan Zec and Yugoslav army captain, Vladimir Kovacevic, remain at large, but almost certainly outside Montenegro.


The authorities are faced, however, with the possibility that more indictments could follow, widening the net to include political figures prominent in the Montenegrin government at the time of the Dubrovnik siege.


On October 9, The Hague announced that 15 more people are under investigation for crimes committed in Croatia, including two former high-ranking Montenegrin officials: Momir Bulatovic and Branko Kostic.


In September 1991, over 30,000 JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) reservists from various parts of Montenegro prepared for a military campaign against Dubrovnik and the south-eastern regions of neighbouring Croatia. Under the cynical slogan "war for peace", a tragic and senseless military adventure began.


Montenegro, against its own best interests and under the leadership of a puppet government, embarked on a policy of territorial acquisition.


Whether they were driven by patriotism, personal ambition or simply misguided, the Montenegrin leaders of the day - Kostic, Montenegrin member and president of the joint Yugoslav presidency; Bulatovic, president of Montenegro; Svetozar Marovic, deputy president of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS; and Milo Djukanovic, Montenegrin prime minister - backed the operation to "defend" an already non-existent Yugoslavia.


Some in Montenegro did protest against the war. The Civilian Peace Council rallied resistance around the slogan "heroism means not going to war". But politicians and the media stirred up a wild atmosphere of support for military action and defence of the "Serbian cause".


The tragic six-month-long campaign left 100 Montenegrin boys dead, exposed the servility of the Podgorica political establishment, left the republic internationally compromised and guilty of a great sin against Croatia, its closest neighbour.


The signing of the Dayton accord in 1995 and Milosevic's so-called policy of reconciliation with the international community gave the Montenegrin leadership (freed by then of Kostic's presence) hope that it would be possible to forget the anti-Croatian military campaign and the republic's undeniable share in responsibility with Belgrade.


At that time, The Hague, set up in 1993, was viewed by the Montenegrin leadership and the majority of people as a legal and political fiction, harmless to those in power.


During those years, Montenegro's ruling parties - the DPS, the Socialist People's Party, SNP, and Serbian Radical Party - tried to play down Montenegro's role in the Belgrade-led war campaign.


Personal responsibility was reduced to a minimum. For example Bulatovic claimed in interviews with the weekly NIN, that the government had been acting under extreme pressure from the JNA general staff.


It was obvious that the Podgorica leadership believed that The Hague tribunal would be short-lived and that international justice had limited reach.


From 1992 to 1996, most Montenegrin people and state officials supported the Milosevic policy of ignoring the work of the "unjust" Hague tribunal.


Only when Djukanovic split with Bulatovic and Montenegro began distancing itself from Milosevic's politics, did the republic begin facing up to the consequences of its military adventurism.


Despite repeated claims from Bulatovic and his supporters that the 1991 mobilisation was in response to an impending invasion by Croatia, most Montenegrins began to question the sense of Podgorica's involvement in Milosevic's schemes. Doubts grew as the conflict between Djukanovic's now pro-Western government and Milosevic intensified.


Finally at Cavtat just over a year ago, Djukanovic somehow found the strength to ask Croatia for forgiveness for his personal deceit and for the consequences of Montenegro's belligerent policies in the early Nineties. Serbian nationalists felt embittered and so too did Montenegro's pro-Serbian unionists.


Djukanovic's public apology unambiguously confirmed the new course of Montenegrin state policy. But it also pointed out the extent of resistance to the politics of reconciliation and good neighbourly relations, some nine years on from the conflict.


At the same time, The Hague investigators' growing presence in the Dubrovnik region, media reports on the estimated material damage caused by the war and information on the crimes against humanity committed on the Dubrovnik battlefield, shed more light on political and military participation in this tragic campaign.


Finally, the establishment of direct communication between the Montenegrin authorities and The Hague prosecution during 1999/2000 encouraged a change in public attitudes towards the international court.


Opinion polls carried out over the last year show a clear decline in hostility towards the tribunal. In April this year, a survey by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights asked people for their opinion on the court. - 51 per cent backed it.


Despite these encouraging signs, however, the new political climate has not produced any significant results in establishing so-called parallel jurisdiction in national courts for the criminal prosecution of those suspected of grave violations of international humanitarian law.


The Montenegrin judiciary has launched only two criminal cases against individuals suspected of war crimes, none of which relate to the Dubrovnik siege.


Indictments against such prominent figures as Bulatovic and Kostic, would politically speaking, ask serious questions of the government, especially if they refuse to surrender voluntarily. Kostic has already declared publicly that he will not give himself up.


Kostic and Bulatovic, both ex-members of the ruling DPS, are nowadays vigorous campaigners against Montenegrin independence. Around 46 per cent of Montenegrins support continued union with Serbia and are likely to object to the extradition of Bulatovic or Kostic, sharpening yet further the divisions between the pro-independence and pro-Yugoslavia camps.


Although this would not in itself pose a great threat to society, it would certainly provoke political instability. The Together for Yugoslavia coalition centred around the SNP announced recently they would boycott any referendum on independence. The Montenegrin authorities, meanwhile, are trying to reach a compromise with the SNP on conditions for holding the referendum.


Although the pro-independence majority of the population have little objection to suspected war criminals being extradited to The Hague, faced with the prospect of arresting indictees, Djukanovic is likely to delay, waiting for the right moment - after Montenegro's status is settled.


Domestic political considerations exclude the possibility of Djukanovic himself being indicted. There are two reasons for this.


Firstly Djukanovic's pro-Western and anti-Milosevic policies in recent years are locally believed to have afforded the president a form of amnesty for any alleged past offences.


Secondly, the Montenegrin authorities believe that Djukanovic's position at the time exempted him of any responsibility for what took place. As the then prime minister of Montenegro, he had no say in the mobilisation, deportation or operations of the military and paramilitary formations in the Dubrovnik region.


In any case, Djukanovic has said publicly on many occasions that he is willing to answer for his political activity during the incriminating period if required to by The Hague.


Finally, were Djukanovic to be indicted, pro-western political factions would view this as an act of indirect political support for the allies of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica - who are, paradoxically, the staunchest opponents of the Hague tribunal.


An indictment of Djukanovic would almost certainly be viewed as unjust by the Montenegrin public and would undermine the legitimacy of the tribunal.


The current crisis in Montenegro surrounding the forthcoming referendum on independence and the need to build a national consensus behind the process, makes it all the more difficult for Djukanovic to find room to manoeuvre.


Montenegrin independence would lead to more productive cooperation with the tribunal. On the other hand, should Montenegro remain part of Yugoslavia, then those whose politics has brought them under The Hague's scrutiny and those who opposed the tribunal, would be strengthened.


Facing up to international justice is clearly a heavy political burden for the Montenegrin authorities. As The Hague's investigations continue, it appears likely Djukanovic will persist with his tactics of procrastination and attempt to create a climate of opinion conducive to the voluntary surrender of those named by The Hague.


Rade Bojovic is an analyst of the Podgorica-based Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, CEDEM.


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