Still Buying Time : Montenegro, Serbia and the European Union
Still Buying Time : Montenegro, Serbia and the European Union
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 129 / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Still Buying Time : Montenegro, Serbia and the European Union

On 14 March 2002 the leaders of Serbia, Montenegro and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) signed an agreement in Belgrade to replace FRY with a new "state community": a "union of states" to be called "Serbia and Montenegro".

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Executive Summary

On 14 March 2002 the leaders of Serbia, Montenegro and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) signed an agreement in Belgrade to replace FRY with a new “state community”: a “union of states” to be called “Serbia and Montenegro”.

If the agreement can be implemented, it will establish a loose association in which the two “member-states” enjoy virtually all the prerogatives of independence except those that depend on international personality (e.g. UN membership). The republics will control their borders – including customs – and become fully responsible for their economies and internal security. The union will depend on the republics to fund its institutions: an assembly, president, council of ministers, court, and the armed forces.

This agreement was the direct outcome of the European Union’s determination to block Montenegrin separatism and keep the two republics together. Before EU High Representative Javier Solana intervened last November, the two republics were close to approving a Montenegrin referendum on independence. By cajoling Montenegro’s and Serbia’s leaders, and warning the former of negative consequences if they pursued independence, Solana pushed them to preserve some sort of federal union.

The 14 March agreement, however, falls short of the EU’s original ambition, neither securing a federal state nor closing the debate on Montenegro’s status. It is provisional (either party can review the arrangement after three years), ambivalent, and very incomplete; and its terms satisfied very few in either republic. Pro-independence Montenegrins were resentful at the intense pressure to head off a referendum, while many in Serbia believed that Solana had yielded crucially to Djukanovic on substance.

That said, Solana’s agreement is significantly redeemed by its pragmatism. While the Montenegrins did not get their early referendum, the envisaged union will conform much more closely to Montenegro’s negotiating platforms than to Belgrade’s proposals since January 2001. There will be no roll-back of either republic’s economic reforms to date. The three-year moratorium on independence should assist serious dialogue among the parties in Montenegro, where voters are split almost down the middle over independence. Another likely achievement is that the federal (Yugoslav) military’s room for making political mischief should be considerably reduced as the federal budget dwindles, the republics insist on greater civilian control over the armed forces, and border control duties pass to the republics.

Since 14 March, the governments have begun to address the range of practical issues raised by the agreement, on the apparent assumption that Serbia and Montenegro will act as semi-independent states. The immediate challenge is for them to agree on the detailed content of their new union. This will not be easy. The timetable given in the agreement to establish the union is unlikely to be fulfilled. None of the three parliaments can be counted upon to adopt a Constitutional Charter by the required majority. Although both of the republic parliaments have approved the Solana plan, the federal parliament has yet to do so, due to wrangling between pro-republic and pro-federal forces.

In short, the 14 March agreement may not be implementable even with good faith efforts in both republics, and certainly will not be so without continuing EU pressure. Moreover, even if a new union does take shape, it may not prove to be durable. Especially as the Serbian government takes over federal competencies, the trend of political and public opinion in both republics may create a momentum of disaggregation that carries the two republics beyond the union and towards formal separation, even within the agreed three-year limit. Already, since 14 March, the question of Serbian independence has become a mainstream political issue for the first time.

Should this occur, the international community must stand ready to reopen the agreement; it should not be seen as an end in itself but only a means to an end – a stable, sustainable solution, based on democratic legitimacy.  The EU should stop trying to decide on behalf of the republics themselves what their relationship should be. It is simply not critical for the future stability of either entity or the wider Balkans region that a union of some kind between Serbia and Montenegro be maintained. The reality is that the Stabilisation and Association process will be implemented through the three entities that currently make up the FRY – Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. It would be rash for the EU to rush into signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement purely to shore up the new “union” structures and bind the union together before the questions of Montenegro’s and Kosovo’s status have been resolved.

Rather, the EU should use the new agreement by helping Serbia and Montenegro to stable, sustainable solution, based on democratic legitimacy.  Only if it serves this purpose will Javier Solana’s intervention have bought time to good effect.

Podgorica/Belgrade/Brussels, 7 May 2002

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