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A Marriage of Inconvenience: Montenegro 2003
A Marriage of Inconvenience: Montenegro 2003
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 169 / Europe & Central Asia

Montenegro's Independence Drive

Montenegrins are more likely than not to vote in April 2006 to break away from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. It is time for the European Union, whose diplomacy in 2001-2002 created the manifestly dysfunctional confederation, to make clear that it will accept whatever decision Montenegro’s citizens make, and encourage those opposing independence to participate peacefully in the referendum process.

Executive Summary

Montenegrins are more likely than not to vote in April 2006 to break away from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. It is time for the European Union, whose diplomacy in 2001-2002 created the manifestly dysfunctional confederation, to make clear that it will accept whatever decision Montenegro’s citizens make, and encourage those opposing independence to participate peacefully in the referendum process. At a time when the international community needs to concentrate on resolving Kosovo’s status, it is important for the EU not to be seen as giving any comfort, inadvertently or otherwise, to those still-dangerous Serbian nationalist forces who may be prepared to risk potentially destabilising actions, not only in Montenegro but elsewhere in the region.

The State Union’s Constitutional Charter of 4 February 2003 permits either party to begin independence procedures as early as February 2006. Opinion polls in Montenegro suggest that pro-independence forces are likely to prevail, though that is not a foregone conclusion. The State Union appears to be equally unpopular in each of its constituent parts. But the independence question remains sensitive domestically both for nationalist and emotional reasons, and because of uncertainty about property and pension rights for the many citizens of one republic who live in the other. And it remains sensitive internationally because of questions about how it would affect the political climate in a still highly nationalist and significantly unreformed Serbia, the political and constitutional climate in a still fragile Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the diplomatic climate around the Kosovo negotiations that have just begun.

Those sensitivities notwithstanding, Montenegro has taken major steps to earn the right to make its own decision free of outside pressure. It is the only republic of the former Yugoslavia that has formed a genuinely multi-ethnic government without internal conflict. It is also the only one to volunteer reparations for the wars of the 1990s, and it enjoys good relations with its neighbours, including Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia and Croatia. Its economy has been largely self-sufficient since 1999, and its reforms – privatisation, restitution of nationalised property and banking sector adjustments – are well ahead of Serbia’s, as demonstrated by higher per capita foreign private investment. These differences are reflected in official EU assessments and in the twin-track Stabilisation and Association process the EU recently established. The Montenegrin government also appears to be cleaning up its act with respect to organised crime, which has long caused international concern. There is a strong feeling in Podgorica that its opportunity to advance faster toward EU membership is held hostage to Serbia’s often retrograde policies.

Against this background, Montenegro’s neighbours (other than Serbia), the U.S. and a number of EU member states appear relaxed about accepting a referendum’s results: Montenegro seems objectively to fulfil the requirements the EU used when it recognised the independence of other former Yugoslav republics, and it has operated as a de facto independent state since 1999. But other EU member states and the foreign policy apparatus of the Council and the European Commission remain concerned about independence implications, to the point of pressing the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to delay pronouncing on preconditions for the referendum, threatening consequences in the Stabilisation and Association process, and at least tacitly encouraging the anti-independence opposition.

Any effort to freeze the Montenegrin independence issue until Kosovo’s final status is worked out would risk repeating the mistakes of the early 1990s, when Western reluctance to face up to the impending break-up of Yugoslavia encouraged extremists. Already there are indications that Serbian nationalist elements, in both Belgrade and Montenegro’s anti-independence opposition, interpret EU discomfort as a green light to reject dialogue with the government, boycott a referendum and possibly resort to violence. There are signs that some elements are discussing the organisation of a secessionist Serbian Autonomous Region inside Montenegro, a move reminiscent of the precursors to the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

There are risks in Montenegrin independence: probably the most serious of them is that the immediate reaction in Serbia could be to the political advantage of that republic’s most extreme elements. However, at least from a slightly longer-term perspective, resolving Montenegro’s status definitively (likewise Kosovo’s) would be likely on balance to contribute to regional stability by encouraging Serbia – its most essential potential component – to concentrate at last on its own internal problems, beginning by finally carrying through advertised reforms of the military and security services as well as halting the army’s practice of using Montenegrin ports for smuggling weapons, immigrants and other goods into the EU.

In any event, the EU needs to begin sending a consistent message that should include the basic point that it is prepared to accept whatever decision Montenegro’s citizens make about their future – provided it is done transparently and democratically, pursuant to internationally accepted standards.

Belgrade/Podgorica/Brussels, 7 December 2005

Report 142 / Europe & Central Asia

A Marriage of Inconvenience: Montenegro 2003

It is time for new policies and new approaches on Montenegro. International engagement with that republic in recent years has brought significant positive results.

Executive Summary

It is time for new policies and new approaches on Montenegro. International engagement with that republic in recent years has brought significant positive results. It bolstered the pro-Western government of Djukanovic when it faced the threat from Milosevic. It has helped promote reforms that have set Montenegro on the way to becoming a modern democracy, with a market economy and an independent, effective criminal justice system. However, efforts to promote regional stability have been hampered by an unnecessary obsession with keeping Montenegro and Serbia in a single state. The international community’s overriding interest in the region should be to find stable, long-term solutions. Cobbling together interim solutions that lack legitimacy for those who must implement them and that are unlikely, therefore, to be functional in practice, is not the way to build stability.

The formation of a new state union of Serbia and Montenegro, following the March 2002 Belgrade Agreement, has failed to resolve the future relationship of the two republics. The tortuous negotiations that eventually produced the new union’s Constitutional Charter demonstrated the lack of common purpose or consensus. Throughout the negotiations, from November 2001 until December 2002, only heavy engagement and pressure from the European Union (EU) kept the process on track.

The agreement on a new union takes no account of the status of Kosovo, notionally still an autonomous province of Serbia, but in practice a UN protectorate. As long as Kosovo’s future remains unresolved, the territory and the constitutional make-up of Serbia, and of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro, remain undefined. The agreement between Serbia and Montenegro only partially addresses the future of the defunct Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and does not represent a stable solution for the territories of the former state.

The EU’s determination to press Montenegro into retaining the joint state was largely driven by its fear that early Montenegrin independence would force an unready international community to address Kosovo’s status prematurely. Consequently the EU and the wider international community have opted for interim, inherently unstable solutions for Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo alike, rather than tackling the causes of instability.

The international community should no longer oppose Montenegrin independence but should instead be ready to support whatever solution Montenegro and Serbia can agree upon for their future relationship. It, and the EU in particular, should be ready to assist those two republics to work out a satisfactory arrangement, while adopting a neutral stance on what the form of that relationship is to be.

A major focus of international policy should be to promote needed reforms. Already, considerable resources have been devoted to this end, and they have brought good results. However, the negative attitude of much of the international community towards Montenegro, as an alleged haven of organised crime, has led to a distorted approach in which the prevalence of organised crime is sometimes linked to the status issue.

Organised crime and corruption are indeed problems in Montenegro, as elsewhere in the region. Some steps have been taken, although concerns remain about the degree of commitment Montenegrin authorities demonstrate when the allegations that need to be investigated relate to senior officials. The focus should be on helping, and when necessary pressing Montenegro, as well as other entities in the region, to show greater zeal in carrying out reforms and in tackling organised crime and corruption.

Particular stress should be placed on reform of the criminal justice system, especially to end political interference. Assessments of progress should be based above all on concrete results. In particular, any suspicion that some figures are above the law, due to their high connections, and that sensitive cases are covered up should be dispelled.

Strict conditionality should be applied on assistance to Montenegro, based on performance. Assessments of reform programs need to go beyond ticking off legislation adopted and focus on implementation. In particular, the international community should insist upon effective measures to tackle corruption. Where there is not adequate evidence of action, assistance programs should be shut down. Credit should be given where it is due, and pressure should be applied where progress is lacking, but no assessment should be influenced by a desire to influence Montenegro on the status issue.

Given its budgetary problems, the Montenegrin government depends on international assistance. Until now the leverage that fact of political life implies has largely been used in the ill-conceived effort to keep the republic in a union with Serbia. Instead, it should be used to force real change in the way that Montenegro is governed.

Podgorica/Brussels, 16 April 2003