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Balkan Report: January 19, 2001

19 January 2001, Volume 5, Number 5

WHICH WAY FOR SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO? Future scenarios for Serbia and Montenegro automatically involve three important issues. The first is the future of democracy in Serbia. Next comes the question of national identity in Montenegro. And the third involves the nature of any future political link between the two states.

One of the main reasons why Slobodan Milosevic was able to hold on to power in Serbia for about 13 years was the incompetence of the opposition. This problem was manifested in factionalism and in the constant clash of mighty egos. Milosevic played off the major figures against each other and thereby helped keep the opposition disunited and ineffective.

The parties and political action groups in Serbia during the Milosevic years fit a pattern familiar to students of the history of the Balkans of the 1920s and 1930s. This pattern involves the existence of a multitude of parties ranging in size from very small to rather large. Most, if not all, are firmly nationalist, even those that claim to be on the Left.

But as has traditionally been the case in the Balkans, the real difference is not that of programs or principles. The main issue is the political rivalry between charismatic leaders. Most of the political parties throughout the region were or are thus virtually synonymous with the name of their leading politician.

For most of the Milosevic period, the principal rivalry was between Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party and Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement. The German-educated Djindjic appealed to a more modern, urban public. The fiery, bearded Draskovic had his power base among ordinary Serbs throughout the country. Both men can be called nationalists, but Draskovic's nationalism is much more blatant and aggressive.

He, Djindjic, and other politicians formed a series of short-lived opposition coalitions in the past. Milosevic offered them all a bit of power as a way to co-opt and corrupt them. In the end, only Draskovic truly took the bait, serving for a while as Yugoslav deputy prime minister. His party, meanwhile, controlled the Belgrade city administration.

In the end, Draskovic's downfall was his ego. He failed to join with 18 other parties and groups to form the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition -- or DOS -- in 2000. This is the group that ultimately unseated Milosevic, while Draskovic's party did not even clear the 5 percent hurdle. The coalition's main actor was Djindjic.

At the formal head of the coalition, however, stood Vojislav Kostunica, a nationalist politician and lawyer. One year ago, he was little known outside Serbia. But his main advantage was that he alone of the leading politicians was not tainted by scandal or petty political infighting.

At the beginning of 2001, Kostunica is president of a Yugoslav state of Serbia and Montenegro that may or may not have a future. Djindjic is set to become prime minister of Serbia, which is where the real power in Belgrade lies. For now, the coalition continues to hold together. But the question remains: for how long?

The DOS agrees on what has to be done. First, corruption must be eliminated and political and financial processes made transparent. Second, the police, military, judiciary, and media must be depoliticized. European norms must, in fact, be introduced throughout political life.

Third, the economy must be brought into the post- communist era. The rule of law must be established to pave the way for a functioning market and the serious foreign investment the country needs. It will not be enough to fire a few directors and change a few laws. The entire legal system and business culture must be brought out of the "Balkan" past and into the European present.

Fourth, and perhaps most central to all the changes, is the need to introduce and develop a democratic political life and culture. It would hopefully mean a reduction of the number of political parties and the reshaping of the political spectrum around a small group of larger parties. These parties would be distinguished by differences in their programs and philosophies rather than by differences in the personalities of their leaders.

Such a transformation would be radical and will not come quickly. The best that can be hoped for is that the DOS will maintain a reasonable degree of unity and launch Serbia on its way to a future in keeping with European standards and norms.

If, however, the leaders of DOS go back to their old habit of fighting among themselves, Milosevic and the politicians who ruled with him are always waiting for an opportunity. They will argue that the DOS is a group of amateurs, and that Serbia needs "strong rule" by those people who know how to run things. Draskovic, for his part, is staying quietly in the background. But he knows how to electrify a crowd if the ordinary voters come to see the DOS leaders as incompetent.

And the question of incompetence is most likely to arise if the government fails to meet the voters' social and economic expectations. Serbia is now Europe's poorest country, at or below the level of Albania, depending on what statistics one uses. If the government does not come up with and implement serious programs, and attract sizable foreign investment, the voters are likely to turn the DOS out at the next opportunity. The recent electric power cuts throughout Serbia were a sign that the end of Milosevic is not the end of Serbia's problems.

The past decade in Bulgaria, Romania, and many other countries in the region have shown that anti-communist opposition parties often do a very bad job in government. They frequently fight among themselves, and, above all, are unable to make the transition from criticizing others to drafting and implementing constructive programs of their own. This was the downfall of the Bulgarian Union of Democratic Forces. In the case of the Romanian and Albanian anti-communists, they allowed themselves to fall into old patterns of corruption and arrogance. Is this the future of DOS? Or will it succeed in making up for 13 lost years and in returning Serbia to Europe?

This is, at any rate, what Serbia's foreign friends hope. They have been generous with early diplomatic recognition and money before it is clear whether DOS will prove to be a real change -- and not just a change from Milosevic to Not-Milosevic. The foreigners extended recognition and money before it was clear -- and it is still not clear -- what the new government will do about the indicted war criminals in Serbia, from Milosevic on down.

These are only the most pressing of the Serbian government's domestic problems. There are others, most notably the pressures from Vojvodina and Sandzak for autonomy, which are often latent but still important. In any event, the Serbian authorities must immediately deal with two close but not really domestic issues, namely the future of Serbia's relations with Kosova and with Montenegro.

Kosova is a subject that has often been discussed in "Balkan Report" (see, for example, 22 December 2000). As to Montenegro, it remains to be seen how Belgrade will deal with it, or how the Montenegrins will approach the question of their own national identity.

In fact, the central problem in Montenegrin politics and history over the past century is that there has never been a lasting consensus in Montenegrin society as to what Montenegrins are. Are they a separate, distinct people that prides itself on centuries of independent or at least autonomous statehood, while the rest of the Balkans was part of the Ottoman Empire? Or are they just a special branch of the Serbian people, having a distinct regional identity of course, but basically Serbian Orthodox Christians who speak Serbo-Croatian?

In fact, the division in political orientations has run through Montenegrin politics for over 100 years. Traditionally, those Montenegrins favoring an independent identity were called "Greens" and could be found mainly in the low-lying, coastal areas. Those Montenegrins who identified with Serbia were called "Whites" and tended to be found in the rugged mountains to the east.

At the end of World War I, Montenegrin political leaders ousted the ruling dynasty and united with Serbia under its ruling Karadjordjevic family. The triumph of the Whites seemed complete, and the Montenegrins were identified as Serbs in what was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

In the course of World War II, Josip Broz Tito and his communist Partisans sought support among Montenegrins, including those who were disappointed with more than two decades of Serbian identification. Tito's Yugoslavia included Montenegro as one of six federal republics. The Montenegrins were recognized as a distinct "nation," or separate people.

Meanwhile, politics in Montenegro went on much as usual. Green-White rivalries were always present, and politics was often a matter of power-sharing among traditional clans. Even in the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Montenegro, seats were carefully allotted on a clan basis.

Montenegrins, moreover, generally did very well for themselves in old Yugoslavia. People from the poor, mountainous republic tended to be over-represented in Belgrade central institutions. This included not only the bureaucracy, media, and the party, but also and especially the army and police. Serbian and Montenegrin families intermarried, and there was migration in both directions. Two well-known "Serbs" who are really of Montenegrin origin are Milosevic himself and the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

For its part, the Montenegrin leadership under Momir Bulatovic was loyal to Milosevic during his wars from 1991 to 1995. But by 1997, one faction of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) came to have doubts. These politicians, led by Milo Djukanovic, sensed that their own future and that of Montenegro lay with abandoning Milosevic, drawing closer to the West, and, above all, playing the "Green card" in favor of greater autonomy for Montenegro.

At the beginning of 1998, Djukanovic took office as Montenegrin president, in place of Bulatovic, whose followers had left the DPS and formed the Socialist People's Party (SNP). Milosevic took Bulatovic to Belgrade as federal Yugoslav prime minister. Djukanovic refused to recognize the federal government, which, he and his supporters argued, was a tool of Milosevic. They insisted that no federal government could be formed without the consent and participation of Montenegro's elected government.

With time, popular support for Djukanovic and the Green option grew in response to Milosevic's often arrogant behavior toward Montenegro. Although the Montenegrin population is traditionally split between Green and White, a clear majority began to emerge in political polls in favor of holding a referendum on independence.

This leads to the third and final question, namely the future of Serbian and Montenegrin relations. The key issue is whether a democratic leadership in Serbia will be any better able than Milosevic to work out an arrangement with an increasingly self-confident Montenegro and maintain a joint state.

The issues here are complex. First, Montenegro's leadership insists on absolute equality between the two partners, including in voting rights in the federal parliament. This, however, is not acceptable to any Serbian politician, because the Serbian population is at least ten times greater than that of Montenegro.

Second, Montenegro's leadership insists that the process of the breakup of old Yugoslavia that began over ten years ago simply be allowed to continue. Djukanovic wants Serbia and Montenegro to become separate, independent, and internationally recognized states, each with its own seat in the UN. According to Djukanovic, the leaders of the two states would then meet and decide what common institutions to form. These would include at least a customs union, an open border, and a free flow of money and goods. Djukanovic has also referred to a joint foreign, defense, and monetary policy. But it is difficult to see how these would work if both Serbia and Montenegro are internationally recognized actors, and if Montenegro continues to use the German mark as its currency.

DOS, however, wants more. Djindjic has stressed that political independence and separate seats in the UN are unacceptable. He and Kostunica want a union that would include a joint foreign policy, defense, monetary and economic policy, basic social services, and transportation and communications. The key political difference between the two concepts is that Podgorica wants a loose union of two independent actors, while Belgrade calls for wide autonomy in a joint state.

It is not clear where matters are headed. There are several variables that affect any possible scenarios. The first variable is the stability of the DOS and the strengthening of democracy in Serbia, and the impact of these trends on relations with Montenegro. If the DOS manages to stay united and succeed in its basic programs, Djukanovic may -- or may not -- find it difficult to resist pressure from Belgrade and his Western friends to find some sort of compromise with Kostunica and Djindjic. It would appear to be squaring the circle, but one should not underestimate the resourcefulness of politicians.

On the other hand, one should not overlook the possibility that some members of the Serbian elite may come to differ with the current stand of Kostunica and Djindjic. Some Serbian leaders may thus decide that they have enough problems to worry about without having to deal with Montenegro. In this scenario, some Serbian politicians would seek to cut loose from Montenegro (and possibly Kosova) in order to concentrate their energies on the vital questions affecting Serbia proper. Djukanovic would thus be able to effect a "velvet divorce" with Belgrade on the Czech and Slovak model.

If, however, DOS somehow collapses and elements of the old regime return to power, it would seem only a matter of time before Montenegro goes its own way. It will most likely do so with a firm mandate from the voters and without asking anyone else's permission.

The second variable is the role of the EU and U.S., or, more precisely, how much influence these foreigners will have on Montenegrin politics. Following the fall of Milosevic, the EU and the U.S. have increased their earlier pressure on Djukanovic not to hold a referendum or declare independence. The foreigners seem to be unable to let go of their old, questionable idea that the dissolution of what remains of Yugoslavia can and should be prevented -- as though that were an end in itself (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 November 2000).

For now and in the future, the more stable democracy in Serbia is, the more likely that the foreign pressure on Djukanovic to make a deal with Belgrade will increase.

If however, DOS degenerates into in-fighting and fails to deliver on its basic promises, the Montenegrin voters -- the third variable after the Serbs and the foreigners -- will probably continue their current trend toward pro-independence views. In that case, the opinions of the foreigners will not matter so much to the voters.

Therefore, if Serbia fails to recover, many Montenegrin voters will want to get away from a sinking Serbian ship. Furthermore, many may have already concluded that the federation is history and want to opt for independence anyway, regardless of what happens in Serbia. This is especially true of younger voters.

Montenegro is due to vote in the coming months in early parliamentary elections. A referendum on independence could take place soon afterward. If it proves successful, Djukanovic would have a very strong mandate. The international community and Belgrade could be confronted with a fait accompli.

In any event, at least one thing seems to have changed once and for all for the better with the ouster of Milosevic. Whatever happens in relations between Belgrade and Podgorica, the possibility of the use of force by Serbia against its junior partner seems to have ended. Djindjic, for one, has been very clear on that. (Patrick Moore)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "Milosevic may be history, but Serbian politics of the past decade have relied on a nationalist consensus, in which the then opposition participated fully." -- "Koha Ditore" publisher Veton Surroi. Quoted in "IWPR's Balkan Crisis Report," 15 January 2001.

"What I know for sure is that any attempt to resolve the [Kosova] issue is destined to fail if it undermines the Kosovars' right to decide their own future." -- Surroi (ibid.)

"Kosova is an unfinished peace. If American soldiers leave, it's war. Kosovars believe in the American flag, and Serbian soldiers are afraid of it. If they don't see it, there's a war between Kosova and Serbia." -- "Koha Ditore" Editor-in-Chief Baton Haxhiu. Quoted in the "New York Times" on 16 January.