Montenegro: With Friends like This…

3 March 2006

Montenegro: With Friends like This…

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t believe that the Montenegro government would choose to step into contradiction with the EU over this issue,” said Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union’s envoy to the region, in the tones of silken menace that diplomats practice before mirrors in the privacy of their bathrooms. And he was right: Montenegro does not dare to “step into contradiction” with Brussels on the question of how to conduct its referendum on independence — but there may be hell to pay as a result.

Montenegro is very small, and it doesn’t even have a distinctive language: Montenegrins speak exactly the same language as their Serbian and Bosnian neighbours. But it’s been around as a self-conscious identity and nation for a thousand years, so if the Montenegrins want to be independent again, why not? An independent Montenegro (population 650,000) would still be 30 percent less ridiculous than independent Luxembourg (pop. 450,000).

Alas, Montenegro is in the Balkans, and the EU grandees up north feel that there are already quite enough countries in the Balkans (if not too many) after the wars that broke up former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They don’t want another impoverished Balkan state that will demand lots of aid from the EU in the short run, and expect a separate seat at the EU table in the long run. Can’t Montenegro just stay part of Serbia?

You can see their point, but Montenegrin separatists have a point too. Their country has only been attached to Serbia since the First World War, when the victors bundled the Montenegrins into the new, Serb-dominated state of Yugoslavia along with Bosnians, Croatians, Slovenes, and Macedonians. A minority of Montenegrins immediately rebelled, demanding their old king and country back, but they had no real chance of leaving until Yugoslavia began to break up in the 1990s in reaction to the intolerant and brutal rule of Slobodan Milosevic, an extreme Serbian nationalist. Even then, opinion was so divided that they kept postponing the decision to leave.

Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia are all independent countries now, but Montenegro teetered on the brink of independence for years, never quite daring to jump. Montenegrins are so close to Serbs in many ways, even sharing the same Orthodox faith, that their sense of national identity is rather slippery. The proportion of the population who choose to identify themselves as “Serbs” or “Montenegrins” slides around literally from decade to decade.

At a time when people were murdering one another in large numbers just beyond their borders over questions of identity, the Montenegrins chose not to open Pandora’s box. They broke the chains of political authority that gave Serbia any real power over them, but they stopped short of a formal break with Belgrade in order to avoid a civil war at home. It was a wise choice, but it meant they were still legally tied to Serbia when the shooting finally stopped in the Balkans.

By the start of this decade a majority of Montenegrins definitely wanted out, since Serbia had become a pariah state, rightly accused of sponsoring a genocide in Bosnia but still defiantly denying its own guilt. But by then the European Union’s main priority was calming the Balkans down, so in 2003 they pressured Montenegro’s separatist government into staying in the “Republic of Serbia and Montenegro” for three more years before voting on independence. That time expired last month, and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic began negotiating with the opposition parties on the date and wording of the referendum.

An opinion poll last month showed 41 percent of Montenegrins in favour of independence and 32 percent against it, with the rest undecided or refusing to say. But the EU doesn’t want any more countries in the Balkans, so its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana Lopez, told Djukanovicthat a vote for independence would not be recognised as valid UNLESS AT LEAST 55 PERCENT OF VOTERS BACKED THE “YES”.

This is a recipe for civil war. If you take last month’s opinion poll and split the undecideds evenly between “yes” and “no”, then the final result would be 54.5 percent in favour of independence and 45.5 percent against it. With a nine-point majority in their favour, the pro-independence side would nevertheless be deemed to have lost the referendum. They would be very, very unhappy, and this is still the Balkans.

Montenegro is already independent for all practical purposes, and more phlegmatic people might be tempted to leave it at that. (The Serbian new dinar is not even legal tender in Montenegro, which uses the euro instead.) But most people in Montenegro care greatly about the symbolism of formal independence — whether they are for it or against it. The EU is playing with fire.

Under irresistible pressure — the EU even threatened to withhold the foreign observers whose presence is needed to reassure everybody that the vote is fair — Djukanovic’s government yielded to the EU’s terms. The referendum will be held on 21 May, with a 55 percent threshold for an independence victory. But he warned that “the EU formula contains a virus dangerous for stability….The decision should belong to the majority, not the minority.”

If the “yes” loses despite getting 53 or 54 percent of the vote, there may be some more shooting in the Balkans.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Slovenia…Balkans”)