Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

US Department of Defense post-strike assessment photograph of Podgorica Airfield, Montenegro.
It was NATO last time;
Belgrade's turn next?
M O N T E N E G R O:
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
Montenegro stands up to Belgrade

Artur Nura

It appears that the latest challenge to the dictatorial Serbian scenery comes from the tiny Republic of Montenegro. The smallest of the former Yugoslav republics, Montenegro is of extreme strategic importance for Serbia, and its position as the Yugoslav Federation's only access to the Adriatic Sea makes the issue of separation is a tricky one. But the Montenegrin people, who stoically resisted Turkish occupation and remained the only independent state in the region during the Ottoman period, seem to be trying to repeat their history of independence today, with the same stoicism but with a greater degree of moderation.

After Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, other former republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, declared their independence in 1991, the smaller Montenegrin Republic organised a referendum to determine the support of the populace for Montenegro's membership in the federation. Two-thirds of voters (most of them ethnic Serbian residents of Montenegro) voted in favour of staying with Yugoslavia.

Later, when Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed their independence, Montenegro joined with Serbia to form the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The international community refused to recognise this new state, and the United Nations asked it to reapply for membership to the community of nations. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was recognised by the European Union in 1996.

Tense partners

From 1992 to 1994, a strain in relations between Serbia and Montenegro began to become apparent. Among the most important factors in this tension have been the United Nations' economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, which have been very damaging to Montenegro, and a political force which can hardly be alien to Belgrade - nationalism.

Another element in this political tension has been the Muslim community of the current Yugoslavia, an element that surely has motivated Belgrade to control the foreign policy of Podgorica at the federal level. It might be remarked that to consider the Muslim community an ethnicity is itself peculiar. Religion is not ethnicity, although we can say with confidence that, according to its own traditions, the Muslim population of Montenegro descends from former Albanian Orthodox Christians who were converted to Islam within a specific historical period.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the population of Montenegro is composed of 60 per cent Montenegrins, 15 per cent Muslims, nine per cent Serbs, nine per cent Albanians and two per cent other minorities. The reform-minded Montenegrin president, Millo Đukanović, has repeatedly said that the problems between the two Yugoslav Republics are based on this demographic difference. This, he claims, is a matter that goes beyond the Milošević phenomenon, and that a possible successor to Milošević could be even worse. Still, basing their observations on the last century of co-existence, many political analysts of Montenegro and Serbia say that the conflict of interests between the two republics will be resolved once Milošević is removed from power.

Some months ago, Momir Bulatović, federal premier and former president of Montenegro, and Đukanović's strongest rival, conducted a public survey in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. According to the data published by Bulatović himself, the poll showed that the majority of the capital's citizens continue to favour the co-existence of the two republics within the federation.

We should remember, however, that not all members of Bulatović's party think as he does. At a gathering of the Popular Socialist Party, for instance, when party president Bulatović severely criticised the policies of Montenegro's present gevernment, as personified by Đukanović, and called for restoring relations with Belgrade, his vice president, Pregrad Bulatović (no relation), opposed his position and called for greater dialogue with Đukanović and greater reform within Montenegro.

However, small Serbian political parties in general, both within and outside of Montenegro, have indeed opposed the Đukanović reforms, and those of the government he represents, although not in the same way. For example, Dragoljub Micunović, president of the Democratic Centre, has declared that Đukanović's platform of changing relations within the Yugoslav Federation is emerging at the wrong time. In his view, such political steps should be taken only after Milošević's removal from politics.

Not in the public arena... yet

Meanwhile, reform-minded political voices within the small republic call frankly and openly for different relations with the Yugoslav Federation and with Serbia, and their demands come close to calling for a referendum on independence. This last political issue has so far been left out of demands for autonomy that aim to give to the Montenegrin republic the right to have its own army, its own foreign policy and its own monetary currency. (The last point has in effect already happened, with the Deutschmark acting as the Montenegrin currency.)

However, the severe Serbian reaction against these initiatives has led the proponents of such policies to declare that "in case of Serbian refusal" Montenegro should call a referendum for full independence. As anyone working for an independent Montenegro knows, however, a declaration of independence would bring them face to face with the Yugoslav Federal Army - something that, if it happens at the wrong time, could jeopardise the ultimate goal of the reformers.

It is easy to understand that this platform for de jure autonomy does not constitute a foundation for fully independent Montenegrin political institutions; whilst from the de facto side it goes beyond the realm of a perfect independence into the realm of a possible one. This indicates that moderate Montenegrin politics will determine the path towards independence. To be realistic, however, it must be said that the independence option is not openly supported by the majority of political interests in Montenegro itself, and until now this has appeared to be a pragmatic tactic for buying time and averting possible military intervention.

The internal political position in Montenegro appears to favour this public platform of autonomy, and perhaps even full independence, but although this Montenegrin strategy is very visible, no hasty political steps are being taken. The primary proponent of Montenegrin independence, Miograd Zivkovic, president of the Liberal Alliance Party, has declared that independence must be achieved by democratic means - in other words, through a democratic referendum. Meanwhile, Pregrad Drecun, vice president of the Popular Party, has declared that his party does not oppose continued co-existence with Serbia, but that if Montenegro decides to opt for independence, there will be no regret within the Popular Party.

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Certainly, politics in Belgrade, especially that of Milošević, have never veered towards such simple solutions of devolution and will never permit such democratic space. The path to power being taken by the Montenegrin politicians appears to be well organised and rational, but Montenegro on its own could not withstand the military force of Belgrade. Which is why until now its leaders have preferred to accept the status quo.

Millo Đukanović himself has not yet openly played the independence card. According to some analysts, Đukanović is working to a rational strategy and cannot afford to go against that part of the international community that hopes Montenegro will influence democratic developments in Belgrade and help bring about an integrated Balkans. At the same time, it seems that Đukanović's plan has led these same commentators to conclude that the Montenegrin president will in no way sacrifice his country by making it the victim of the centralist and bloody dictatorship of Milošević.

If or when?

Đukanović has declared that Serbians have plenty of internal possibilities to achieve greater democracy and that Montenegro can do no more than support these internal movements. If the Montenegrin president aims to attain a high moral position and gain support from that part of the international community, he, too, will need to instigate the move towards independence, and probably in near future.

It is well known that the independence desired by Montenegrin progressives will not be supported politically by Belgrade. Certainly, if independence is declared, it will provoke military intervention from Belgrade, which Đukanović and his police forces cannot withstand for long.

In regard to this evident military risk, Đukanović has declared that he "will demand help from the international community, including military aid." Certainly, to assume such responsibility, he will need the unanimous moral support of the entire international community. To achieve this, Đukanović looks towards the US, which no doubt has great interest in this as an avenue for destroying the dictatorship of Milošević.

Đukanović understands that to obtain what he wants will demand sacrifices. Seeing that Serbian military intervention is unavoidable, he needs to be sure that it occurs after a successful Montenegrin referendum on independence, and before Montenegro formally declares its independence.

It is more than probably that Montenegro is going to face eventual military intervention, like other former parts of Yugoslavia have done in the past. The question that determines Montenegro's fate is, therefore, not whether military intervention will happen or not, but at what stage of the republic's path to independence this will occur.

Artur Nura, 3 April 2000



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