Report / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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

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