Plans for a Montenegrin referendum on independence once again appear to have been put on ice. The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, paid a brief visit to Belgrade yesterday in a bid to keep Serbia and Montenegro together in a federation. Solana says he still believes a reformed and probably renamed federation with considerable autonomy for Montenegro is the most likely outcome. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, details of a potential Serbian-Montenegrin Union are sketchy.
Prague, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and the ruling pro-independence minority coalition government may be fighting for their political lives in the face of a European Union-brokered deal in the making that would quash hopes of independence and establish a new, loose federation of Montenegro and Serbia.
Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for foreign and security policy -- who is an outspoken opponent of Montenegrin independence -- said after talks with Djukanovic and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica in Belgrade last night that progress has been made and that a deal could be reached by mid-March. "Let's hope that we'll continue making progress."
The Montenegrin daily "Vijesti" today published an authorized text by Solana in which he says the proposal he has given to President Djukanovic calls for the establishment of a "Union of Serbia and Montenegro."
Solana says, "The union would have several jurisdictions, leaving sufficient space to the constituent republics to manage their own affairs." But Solana once again rejected Montenegro's call for separate Montenegrin and Serbian seats at the UN. Rather, he says that, although the Union of Serbia and Montenegro would have only a single seat at the UN, Montenegro would be allowed to play a significant international role.
The Belgrade daily "Blic" said today this appears to mean that Montenegro and Serbia would be able to open their own representation offices abroad as warranted by specific interests.
Solana also says "protection mechanisms" would ensure that Serbia would not be able to dominate Montenegro as it tried to under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Djukanovic met with reporters after the Belgrade talks last night and, like Solana, declined to offer details of what sort of a deal is in the works.
Solana continues to reject the idea of holding a referendum on independence, which had been a key part of the campaign platform of Djukanovic's Victory for Montenegro coalition in parliamentary elections last April. In the past, Solana has said that a referendum should not be held unless the outcome is absolutely certain. The Montenegrin public is fairly well divided over independence. A referendum, if held now, at best would gain a bare majority.
Earlier this month, Solana was reported to have told Djukanovic to establish a new federal monetary and customs union with Serbia or risk losing EU financial support. Montenegro's official currency is the euro, while Serbia uses the Yugoslav dinar.
Last week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected assembly of regional academic experts and former diplomats, sent an open letter to Solana accusing the EU of "trying to bulldozer Podgorica in a direction that would be economically and politically unwise." The ICG says Montenegro should be allowed to hold a referendum either to form a loose confederation, allowing for different economic policies for the time being, or to pave the way for independence.
Djukanovic was upbeat, though tight-lipped, in summarizing the status of his talks with Solana.
"We decided in favor of giving the negotiating process a better chance one more time, rather than to inform the public about the elements that we are discussing. Mr. Solana and I can report that today's discussions were successful, that they represent progress in the negotiations, and that we expect that in further discussions at the end of this month or early next month a solution could be reached. I repeat: We're convinced it will be democratic."
But Djukanovic reiterated his call for two separate seats at the United Nations -- one for Montenegro and one for Serbia.
"That doesn't mean we don't want a referendum. A referendum is not a bugaboo to scare society with. It's democratic. The referendum is a democratic procedure, a constitutional procedure in Serbia and Montenegro, so why not say it again: It's very important that no one in the international community forget that Montenegro has the right to determine its future. So now we are discussing under what conditions and at what moment this right can be activated and implemented."
Rade Bojovic, an expert at the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Podgorica, says that whether the referendum will be held in two, six, or 12 months is not important.
"The fateful question is whether Montenegro's political forces are in favor of an independent state and will be united and together will persevere under unfavorable political circumstances in resolving the issue of the Montenegrin state."
A variety of Montenegrin groups are upset with the prospect that Djukanovic might agree to give up his dream of independence for Montenegro.
Miodrag Zivkovic heads the Liberal Association of Montenegro. He says his party will re-evaluate its continued cooperation with the minority coalition government if the government disassociates itself from its pro-independence line and agrees not to hold a referendum.
"Accepting a moratorium on holding a referendum constitutes recognition that it won't ever happen, that this region will remain a quasi-state creation which others can call Yugoslavia, but in essence it's the same. So for the Liberal Party, neither a redefinition of the federation nor any sort of moratorium on holding a referendum is acceptable."
RFE/RL's correspondents in Montenegro questioned passersby in the former royal capital of Cetinje about their views on independence.
Man: "I think they [the international community] shouldn't have any right to interfere with the will of the people of Montenegro. As far as the president of Montenegro is concerned, he keeps saying he won't give up on holding a referendum, and we expect it will be held."
Woman: "I hope Montenegrins will be able to determine their future, not through two seats [at the UN], but Montenegro on its own."
Man: "The international community and Mr. Solana are behaving as if the Montenegrin authorities' behavior led them to behave this way. The Montenegrin authorities have been resolutely in favor of holding a referendum and are for Montenegrin independence, but the international community has found a way to take advantage of the situation."
Old man: "A referendum should be called, and there should be two seats at the UN, one for us and one for Serbia."
The leaders of four organizations grouping Montenegrin intellectuals (Matica Crnogorska, the republic's Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Montenegrin Pen Center, and the Montenegrin Association of Independent Writers) have issued an open letter to Solana, saying, "freedom and independence cannot be achieved without victims and blood."
They are protesting the way they say Solana is trying to redefine the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, while dismissing the rights of the citizens of Montenegro to express their views on the status of the country in a referendum. They term this "a flagrant violation of the universal right to national self-determination and of the whole body of human rights adopted by the EU and the rest of the democratic world."