Montenegrin leaders are reiterating their plans to leave the Yugoslav federation just one day after the European Union warned against trying to turn the small republic into an independent state. Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Rakcevic challenged the EU's assessment that declaring independence will further distance the republic from the EU and damage its economy. He says it is the right of Montenegrin citizens to "be free."
Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union negotiators and Montenegrin pro-independence leaders are basing their arguments for and against a renewed Yugoslav federation on the issue of future integration into the European Union.
Early this week (4 February), after another round of federation negotiations between Montenegrin and Serbian experts, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said a renewed federation is the "best and fastest way for Serbia and Montenegro to participate in European integration."
The following day (5 February), Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Rakcevic argued that being tied to Serbia would actually distance Montenegro from Europe.
"A return to the federation for Montenegro would be a return to the past, a distancing from European integration. It would be a return to the dinar, a return to high customs duties, a closed market and protectionism. It would be a return to the dominant system of state collective ownership because only 10 to 15 percent of Serbia has been privatized, while in Montenegro it's about 60 percent. It would be a return to visas, limitations on the movement of people, goods, and capital."
Rakcevic's comments reflect the serious concerns of pro-independence Montenegrin leaders, who see a renewed union with Serbia as damaging their republic's integration with the West. These pro-independence leaders represent a slim majority of the Montenegrin public. Last month, an opinion poll showed that close to 47 percent of Montenegro's 600,000 citizens favor independence, with close to 42 percent opting for a continued union with Serbia.
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who is pro-independence, says he will continue with negotiations but is threatening to call a national referendum on the issue in the spring. According to a referendum law passed last February, at least 50 percent of the republic's eligible voters must participate for a vote to be considered valid. Fifty percent plus one vote is needed to declare independence.
Djukanovic is due to hold a dinner meeting this weekend with Solana, who is expected to use the occasion to try to convince Djukanovic to support a renewed federation with Serbia. Djukanovic says he will continue to talk but that the outcome, ultimately, must be an agreement on Montenegro's independence.
"I'd be very pleased if we could reach an agreement [on independence]. If we are unable to reach an agreement, we won't sit down [for talks] with tied hands. We won't mourn over the impossibility of an agreement. [But we would rather] agree to talks in Montenegro with the preconditions that they would have to be democratic, transparent, and in line with constitutional procedures resolving the [independence] question, which today is long overdue for resolution."
While pro-independence Montenegrin leaders are bucking the negotiation process, leaders from parties supporting a continued federation say they are satisfied with the talks.
Srdje Bozevic, the deputy chairman of the Socialist People's Party -- the main pro-Belgrade Montenegrin party -- says he is happy with the EU's push for a renewed federation. "The European Union has made clear its stand and position in favor of a common state of Serbia and Montenegro."
Solana's spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, tells RFE/RL the EU is pushing for Montenegro to remain in a "very loose" federation with Serbia because it feels an independence movement in Montenegro will only further destabilize the Balkans.
"Everybody is absolutely free to express their wish. And if we could try to convince them on a renewed federation, that would be, we think, the best way to have the Balkans stable. If in the very end this is not possible, it will be the free decision of the Montenegrins, which the European Union would, of course, regret but would have to accept. But the purpose currently is to help the two sides identify the best arguments, the very best arguments in order to avoid a further fragmentation in the region, which could be contrary to the process of European integration."
Marc Thompson, the Balkans director for the International Crisis Group think tank, says that, instead of playing the role of impartial mediator, the EU is undermining the process of negotiation between Serbia and Montenegro by taking a pro-federation position.
Thompson says the EU should be concerned not with the outcome of the negotiations but the "quality of the negotiating process."
"What everyone is clear about is that the current federal structures, the federal republic of Yugoslavia, which was created by [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic in 1992, cannot endure. It cannot provide a state structure for the post-Milosevic democratic era. So change there has to be. We don't think that the international community, particularly Mr. Solana for the European Union, should be pressing its thumb so firmly on the scales for Belgrade's side. In fact, that's what the EU is now doing by constantly saying that Montenegro's best interests and the shortest route to Europe lie in preserving a single-state solution with Serbia."
Thompson says Solana and his EU negotiators are sending what he calls "unfortunate" messages to both the pro- and anti-independence sides in Montenegro and Serbia.
To Djukanovic and other pro-independence leaders in Montenegro, Thompson says the international community is demonstrating it is not impartial and that there is no point in having a transparent dialogue.
To the anti-independence camp, Thompson says the international community is showing there needn't be any compromises in the search for a new arrangement.
Thompson says that, right now, Montenegrin arguments for independence are valid given the slow speed of institutional and economic reform in Serbia. And he says that, while independence may not be the ultimate solution, it's clear Montenegro needs real negotiations so as to "feel comfortable" in any redefined union with Serbia.