Accessibility links

Balkan Report: May 30, 2006

30 May 2006, Volume 10, Number 5

THE BALKANS AFTER THE MONTENEGRIN VOTE. The victory of pro-independence forces in Montenegro's May 21 referendum suggests that one long-standing contentious issue will soon disappear from the Balkan political agenda. Other problems will continue to bedevil the region, however, some with far-reaching implications.

Montenegrins have voted narrowly but indisputably for independence from Serbia and the end of the joint state known as Serbia and Montenegro. This marks one of the final stages of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and one of the more peaceful chapters in that story. It is true that many people in both republics remain unhappy with the outcome of the referendum. Perhaps, however, they might at some future date come to agree with those Czechs and Slovaks, who were unhappy with the division of their country on January 1, 1993, but eventually came to accept that both peoples were better off without the constant and irritating disputes between them that overshadowed much of former Czechoslovak public life.

Indeed, Serbs and Montenegrins appear heading for a comfortable "velvet divorce." Vuk Draskovic, who is foreign minister of the joint state, said on May 24 on a visit to Helsinki that many of the most important issues could be settled by mid-July. He also noted that Serbs and Montenegrins share deep historical and cultural links, which will not be affected by a division that promises to be free of the deep-rooted animosity that characterized some previous episodes in the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

The presumed final chapter in that story, namely the independence of Kosova, has yet to be concluded (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," December 9, 2005). In the view of Kosovar Albanian leaders, Serbia forfeited all claim to the overwhelmingly ethnically Albanian province by its repressive policies in 1998-99. The Albanians also demand independence on the basis of self-determination and majority rule, which has underpinned the international decolonization process since the end of World War II. In Kosovar Albanian eyes, two processes are intertwined, namely the dissolution of Yugoslavia and decolonization.

The Kosovar Albanians reluctantly yielded to pressure from the international community to include Serbian representatives in talks aimed at resolving Kosova's final status, which began in 2005. The Albanians stress nonetheless that Belgrade can have no veto over the direction of the negotiating process -- a point that most of the international community acknowledges -- and that Serbia's role centers primarily on resolving technical, practical issues.

The Serbian side has nonetheless frequently engaged in foot-dragging and obstructionism, and has questioned the impartiality of UN negotiator Martti Ahtisaari. This negative approach should come as no surprise, not only because Serbian political culture remains heavily engaged in blame and denial where the conflicts of the 1990s are concerned, but also because no Serbian politician wants to appear "weak" on Kosova in the run-up to elections that are widely expected in 2006 or 2007. In short, Kosova talks are likely to go nowhere prior to the Serbian vote unless the international community makes good on its hints that it will not allow the negotiating process to drag on indefinitely.

Independence for Montenegro and Kosova is hardly likely to resolve all the problems of the region, even if one does not take particularly seriously the complaints from Belgrade about either or both of those developments. The most important issue confronting the western Balkans is the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, or membership in the EU and NATO. It has long been widely understood in the Balkans and beyond that Euro-Atlantic integration is ultimately necessary to stabilize the region politically and provide the investments and development necessary to promote economic growth and social stability.

But NATO seems in no particular hurry to admit the next group of candidates, which includes Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. Perhaps more importantly, the entire process of EU enlargement has been called into question by the rejection of the proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

This has not gone unnoticed in the region. Pro-reform forces have found the changed mood in many of the older EU member states disturbing and discouraging. By contrast, antireform forces -- often linked to the complex structures involving business, nationalist politicians, the security forces, and organized crime that emerged in the 1990s -- have taken heart. At the end of April, the Bosnian parliament rejected a package of constitutional changes backed by the United States and EU that are necessary if Bosnia-Herzegovina is to draw closer to Brussels. Elsewhere, Serbian leaders allowed to pass two EU-imposed deadlines for the arrest and handover to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic.

As a result, the EU announced on May 3 that it is suspending talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro. Many observers see this development ironically as the final nail in the coffin of the EU-sponsored joint state, since some Montenegrin voters seem to have concluded that Serbia is holding their country back from EU membership and cast their ballots for independence.

In the end, what will ultimately determine the pace of Euro-Atlantic integration in most of former Yugoslavia and Albania is a combination of the willingness of those countries to undertake reforms themselves, and the desire of the EU and NATO not to have a "black hole" develop on the eastern side of the Adriatic that could attract the attention of terrorists and become an even greater hotbed of organized crime and human trafficking. What the time frame for this integrative process will prove to be is anyone's guess. What is certain is the reform process in the western Balkans will become stalled or even be reversed unless the EU and NATO maintain a clear commitment to enlargement. (Patrick Moore)

WHAT NEXT FOR SERBIA? Serbian President Boris Tadic was quick to acknowledge the outcome of the Montenegrin referendum and visit the victorious leaders in Podgorica, namely President Filip Vujanovic and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. RFE/RL's Balkans analyst Patrick Moore discusses what impact -- if any -- Montenegro's departure from the joint state will have on Serbia.

RFE/RL: Montenegro is on the road to independence and, unlike in the cases of the other former Yugoslav republics, there doesn't seem to be much bitterness in Belgrade about it. Why is that?

Patrick Moore: In the case of the separation of Montenegro from Serbia, it is not the same as, say, that of Croatia. There just isn't the bad blood there. Montenegrins will continue to attend Belgrade University and work in Belgrade; Serbs will continue to spend their summers on the Montenegrin coast. There will be much going back and forth, it will be a sort of velvet divorce, I am pretty sure. And let's not forget that up until now they have had two different currencies, two different customs systems, so this isn't something that is coming out of the blue.

RFE/RL: What finally motivated the Montenegrins to opt for independence?

Moore: The historical problem goes quite deep. It is basically that there has never been a consensus in Montenegro as to whether the Montenegrins are a distinct people or a sort of special branch of the Serbian nation. This lack of consensus has meant that sometimes the Montenegrins have favored closer ties with Serbia, and at other times have preferred to stress their own particular identity. In the run-up to the referendum, the decisive element probably was the widespread feeling that they could do much better on their own if they were separate, and that Serbia was a dead weight holding them back from Euro-Atlantic integration.

RFE/RL: During the referendum campaign, we heard pro-independence leaders saying that Montenegro could join the EU faster and prosper more quickly if it left its union with Serbia. That is because the EU has frozen talks with Belgrade over its inability to hand over indicted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic, among others. Do you think that leaders in Serbia now are increasingly aware of the high price they are paying over the war-criminals issue and that this could be added pressure on them to cooperate more?

Moore: We are dealing with a political culture [in Serbia] that has a very strong streak of stubbornness and puts some value on that. There is a term for this used in much of the Balkans, namely the Turkish word "inat," which translates as spiteful defiance. Inat is there in Serbia. Now, granted, I don't think that most Serbs care much about Mladic anymore. As we saw in Croatia with the arrest of General Ante Gotovina last December, when a prominent indictee is arrested and hauled off, they are considered yesterday's men by their countrymen. But somebody obviously knows where Mladic is, and presumably in the military there are people who know where he is and know how he could be captured, but it simply isn't done.

RFE/RL: We have been speaking here mostly about Serbia's political leaders. Can't ordinary people in Serbia, who might be alarmed by this increasing isolation of their country, be a force for change?

Moore: The Serbs have been given opportunities. The Serbs have been given the message and if ordinary Serbs are displeased with what their leaders are doing, then they are going to have to select the right leaders in the next elections -- ones who are going to pursue reforms unambiguously. But from what the polls show, that is not necessarily going to be the case. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party continues to attract the largest single bloc of voters.

RFE/RL: The EU has said it does want to work toward eventual membership for Montenegro but has set no timetable. Do you think Montenegro's referendum decision now will put it on a faster track, as pro-independence leaders promised?

Moore: Let's see exactly how quickly the EU lets Montenegro get ahead of Serbia. I am not sure that they want to send that message yet, lest it be taken elsewhere in the Balkans or perhaps even farther to the east as a message saying secession will get you somewhere. That is a message that the EU has tried to avoid sending all along. It prefers to deal with larger polities, even though Luxembourg, a founding member of the EU, has a smaller population than Montenegro.

RFE/RL: We have looked a bit at what the departure of Montenegro from the union might mean for Belgrade. Will it also have an impact on Kosovars, who also are seeking independence from Serbia?

Moore: The Kosovars say that their future, as far as they're concerned, was settled with the defeat of the Serbian forces in June of 1999. They don't feel that Montenegro has any link to that. But, on a purely psychological basis, I think it goes without saying that the Kosovars will indeed be emboldened by the Montenegrin vote.

RFE/RL: Finally, could the departure of Montenegro also have an impact on other restive areas of Serbia, such as Vojvodina, where feelings often run high against Belgrade?

Moore: The situation in Vojvodina is different from Kosova. Vojvodina, first of all, is overwhelmingly Serbian. The Hungarians make up just about 15 percent of the population. The other former Habsburg minorities, if we can use that term -- Croats, Slovaks, Czechs, Ruthenes, Ukrainians -- are still altogether just about 25 percent. By contrast, Kosova is over 90 percent Albanian. I think the issue in Vojvodina has not been independence but rather demands for more democracy, more rule of law, and more minority rights.

REGIONAL LEADERS HAIL REFERENDUM. Following the May 21 Montenegrin referendum, Croatian President Stipe Mesic sent a message of congratulations, while Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said the vote would "contribute to stability in this part of Europe."

Agim Ceku, the ethnic Albanian prime minister of Kosova, said the result was "the final act of the dissolution of Yugoslavia." He predicted that Kosova would join Montenegro as a new state before the end of the year and said both would be "an important factor for the stability of the whole region."

Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski called the vote "the end of the Yugoslav project, which was created a long time ago with good intentions."

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said the results of the referendum had made the region freer, more stable, and more secure "on the road toward Euro-Atlantic integration."

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa also welcomed the vote and called on the two sides to avoid "additional tensions." (RFE/RL)

NOTABLE QUOTATIONS: "We are going to do everything that is in our power regarding stability in the region. Serbia is today a republic and, regarding international law, after the referendum in Montenegro, Serbia is the [successor] of all rights in the state union of Serbia and Montenegro." -- Serbian President Tadic. Quoted by RFE/RL in Belgrade on May 23.

"After the official results of the [Montenegrin] referendum are published, the process of state divorce of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro will start. As far as the citizens of Serbia and Montenegro are concerned -- Serbs and Montenegrins -- any real divorce is impossible, because Serbs and Montenegrins are of the same family, both in Montenegro and Serbia. We are the people of the same history, we are the people of the same destiny." -- Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Draskovic, speaking in Helsinki on May 24. Quoted by RFE/RL.