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Analysis: Montenegro Seeks Talks On Dissolving Joint State With Serbia

Montenegro's government is about to take a big step toward dissolving the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro and moving toward independence. Where matters will end is nonetheless anybody's guess.

The union of Serbia and Montenegro has never been truly popular in either of those republics. EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana is the man chiefly responsible for its creation in 2002, so much so that some Balkan wags dubbed the new state "Solania." Following years of ineffective policy initiatives in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Brussels was determined not to allow any more small states to emerge from the wreck of Josip Broz Tito's one-time federation.

But many Serbian leaders were reluctant to grant political equality to Montenegro, which has roughly one-tenth of the larger republic's population. The Montenegrin leadership, for its part, grudgingly yielded to EU pressure for a joint state but refused to give up its ultimate goal of independence. Consequently, the agreement setting up the union permits a referendum on independence but not until 2005 at the earliest.

The state is curious hybrid, which lacks not only a unified economic policy but even a common currency: Serbia uses the dinar, while Montenegro has the euro. Foreign and defense policies are among those conducted by joint ministries, but Montenegro also has its own foreign minister and tries to conduct external relations of its own. There is a common army, but Montenegrin soldiers are expected to serve only in that republic. And although the basic principles for the union were agreed in early 2002, it took roughly one year of haggling before the legal basis was set for the joint state to come into being in 2003.

Polls in Montenegro have often shown a roughly even split on the issue of independence, perhaps with a slight majority now favoring independence. The root of the problem is that Montenegrins have never achieved a consensus as to whether they are a distinct people or a special branch of the Serbian nation. Many Montenegrins live and work in Serbia, and they and their families would suffer were the joint state to split up.

On the other hand, Serbian public opinion has tended to favor ending the union, but few politicians have been willing to embrace independence in defiance of the EU. Exceptions are the G-17 Plus party, which is a smaller member of the governing coalition, and Vladan Batic's Christian Democrats (DHSS), which fared badly in the December parliamentary elections. Batic once sponsored a petition drive on a referendum on independence, much to the embarrassment of some of his coalition partners in the previous government. In recent months, the G-17 Plus has stressed that the two republics' economies are incompatible under one roof and that European integration can best be achieved by each republic going its own way.
Polls in Montenegro have often shown a roughly even split on the issue of independence, perhaps with a slight majority now favoring independence.

The EU does not see things that way. Brussels has made it clear that it would be very unhappy were its creation to be dissolved, and that any new republics would have to relaunch their stabilization and association talks with the EU from the start again.

Against this background, Montenegro's governing Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has sought to end the summer political doldrums by making a concrete proposal aimed at dissolving the joint state. Miodrag Vukovic, who is a DPS leader, said in Podgorica on 18 August that the Montenegrin authorities will formally propose to Serbia in September that the two sides start talks on ending the union.

Vukovic suggested that Belgrade and Podgorica might review three options, starting with total independence for each republic. A second possibility might be to link two internationally recognized, independent states in an association on the model of the Commonwealth of Independent States that exists among some successor states to the former Soviet Union. A third option might be to remain in the joint state until 2005, when a referendum on independence will automatically take place.

Initial reactions to his proposal were guarded, to say the least. The Montenegrin Social Democrats (SDP), who are coalition partners of the DPS and outspoken advocates of independence, declined to comment. The opposition Socialist People's Party (SNP) said that the DPS is unlikely to find many people in Belgrade who are willing to talk with them about their proposal.

In the Serbian capital, only G-17 Plus leader and Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said that talks could start in the fall. He stressed that the current situation is untenable because economic differences between the two republics are so great that no further progress in stabilization and association talks with the EU is possible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 May and 23 June 2004).

In response to a statement by a Serbian government official that the cabinet is not legally competent to discuss separation, Vukovic told the pro-opposition daily "Dan" of 20 August that such an attitude reflects "political stupidity." He stressed that dissolution is the best way to avoid what he called an impending "debacle" if matters continue as they are. Dragan Kujovic, who is deputy speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, said on 20 August that the government will launch a campaign for a referendum on independence if the Belgrade authorities refuse to talk.

Brussels did not comment on Vukovic's initial statement immediately, but in Strasbourg, Roman Jakic, who is chair of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly's Political Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL on 19 August that "the international community" would prefer that Serbia and Montenegro continues as a joint state. Jakic, who is from Slovenia, added, however, that one must respect any democratically expressed wish of the citizens of the two republics.

In Podgorica, the pro-government daily "Pobjeda" reported on Jakic's interview with RFE/RL, saying in the headline that he believes that "separation is a matter for Serbia and Montenegro" alone.