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

Yugoslavia Limits Montenegrin Ambitions

Montenegro has little chance of implementing economic and democratic reforms if it remains in Yugoslavia.
By Zeljko Ivanovic

As long as it stays united with Serbia, Montenegro will not be able to forge ahead with democratic and economic transition nor tackle corruption. Over the last decade, progress on these issues has been effectively blocked by Montenegro's federation with Serbia. Attempts to reform the republic's economy and democracy have been derailed time and time again during this period.


The first and most destructive setback came between 1989 to 1997. This period was characterised by blind support for Milosevic's policies: wars, atrocities, crimes, smuggling and pressure on independent media and the opposition. Reforms were out of question.


More obstacles emerged at the end of March 1997 when the monolithic Democratic Party of Socialists broke up. Milo Djukanovic took charge of the party, after a pro-Milosevic faction, led by Momir Bulatovic, left to form the Peoples' Socialist Party.


The two camps were soon engaged in political conflict. Milosevic was against democratic and economic reform. Djukanovic's democratic government was for it, but achieved little.


The Montenegrin authorities had an excellent excuse. How can you expect to open up the economy, introduce privatisation etc when the country you are part of is at war with its neighbours and under international sanctions, they argued.


Following Milosevic's fall from power last year, yet more obstacles surfaced. The Montenegrin leadership faced new difficulties: Djukanovic was not ready for either his new partners in Belgrade nor for new relations with his partners in Brussels and Washington.


So, as a result of all of this, Montenegro is faced with much the same problems it faced a decade ago. The only real difference between now and then is that the majority of the population currently supports the idea of the independence.


The latest poll conducted by the Centre for Democracy in Podgorica, CEDEM, indicated that if a referendum on secession were conducted now, just over half of voters would back independence.


Sometimes, it seems that Djukanovic and his associates want to exploit support for independence to merely buttress their own positions. The fact that they have done little over the last four years to prepare the country for secession fuels these doubts.


The current government has not grasped that the process of independence requires the acceptance of certain European standards. That definitely means breaking with its communist legacy, which has been the main cause of corruption and economic incompetence.


Up to now, Djukanovic has not had to address these issues, because Serbia's hostile attitude towards Podgorica makes independence the only realistic option.


Belgrade may have a new government, but many of its predecessor's prejudices are still evident, especially its hatred of and discrimination against ethnic minorities. During the election campaign, for instance, the pro-Belgrade "For Yugoslavia" coalition warned Muslims not to vote for Djukanovic.


The new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, has also pushed Montenegro further away from Serbia by failing to recognise some of the democratic changes that have taken place here in the last few years. His unflattering remarks, such as the suggestion that "there are more refugees in Serbia then there are in Montenegro citizens", have also alienated people.


This sort of attitude has not advanced the cause of federalism amongst the Montenegrin population which, on the whole, has jettisoned the nationalistic anti-European rhetoric of the Milosevic era.


Significantly, more than 80 per cent of those questioned in the CEDEM poll said they would like their country to become a part of the European Union.


The international community is currently against Montenegrin independence. The EU and the USA are adamant that Serbia and Montenegro should remain together at all cost. This view is short-sighted, although their fear that secession could further destabilise the region and open the way for Kosovo, Republika Srpska, Herceg-Bosna to do the same is understandable.


It is possible that for the moment, given the current situation in the region, separation could lead to many problems. But in the long run, it is clear that the international community would have far more success in contributing to the building of democracy in an independent Montenegro hungry for new reforms. Indeed, this could serve as a shining example to the rest of region.


Zeljko Ivanovic is one of the owners of the Montenegrin newspaper Vijesti


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