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Interview: Montenegrin Foreign Minister Makes The Case For Independence

Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic (file photo) Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic said at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 10 February that Montenegro wants to join the EU and NATO as an independent country and not remain "hostage" to Serbia's reluctance to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. He argued that Montenegro is "patient" and willing to discuss any number of possible political formulas regarding its statehood, providing that such options do not compromise its "right to international recognition." He said he believes that Serbia and Montenegro can find a better basis for understanding in a union of independent states than in the current "non-functioning" joint state.

Rejecting arguments that Montenegrin independence would have a destabilizing effect on the western Balkans, Vlahovic stressed that such a development would defuse long-standing tensions in both regional affairs and Montenegrin internal politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2005, "RFE/RL Balkan Report" 27 August 2004, and "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 16 December 2004, and 13 and 20 January 2005).

Vlahovic's remarks come at a time when the future of Montenegrin statehood continues to be the top political issue in that republic. With a population of about 650,000, Montenegro has more inhabitants than Luxembourg (480,000), which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency.

At the heart of what historians call "the Montenegrin question" is the fact that there has never been a consensus among Montenegrins in modern times as to whether they are a separate, distinct people or a special branch of the Serbian nation. In 1918, led by the young and educated urban classes, Montenegro opted for union with Serbia. Today, those same social groups tend to favor scrapping the joint state with Serbia, which was set up in 2002-03 under EU pressure. The government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is committed to independence, particularly through a referendum. A recent poll suggests that about 44 percent of the population would vote for independence, while 40 percent is opposed.

The Union 'Does Not Function'

Speaking at RFE/RL, Vlahovic addressed a number of issues relating to Montenegro's role in the Balkans and its future as an independent state. He stressed that independence "will not change anything" in practical terms for ordinary people, noting that the union "does not function" at present and would be best done away with for everyone's sake. Asked about Serbian arguments that Serbian voters should also participate in the referendum on the grounds that an independent Montenegro would deprive Serbia of its access to the sea, Vlahovic said that only Montenegrin citizens can determine Montenegro's political course, as is the case in virtually every democracy. He argued that Serbia does not use the Montenegrin port of Bar, anyway, but does most of its shipping through Thessaloniki in Greece. The minister stressed that Montenegro's future is as part of the "European family" as an independent country "and not as somebody's access to the sea."

Vlahovic added, however, that some form of a "union of independent states on the model of the EU" could be set up between Belgrade and Podgorica in which everyone would benefit. He warned against a "Balkan zero-sum game" approach in which there would be only winners and losers, stressing instead that "we could stay together with Serbia while being independent" in a way that would help bridge the divisions within Montenegrin society as well as between the two republics. Vlahovic nonetheless said that Serbia must treat Montenegro seriously as a partner and agree to its international recognition, otherwise Podgorica will have no choice but to go its own way.

Impact On Kosova

Asked about any impact of Montenegrin independence on Kosova's future, Vlahovic argued that the two issues are unrelated. He said that relations between Belgrade and Podgorica have "different dynamics" from those between Belgrade and Prishtina, adding that Kosova "is not Montenegro's problem" and that his country is not involved in resolving the Kosova dispute.

That having been said, Vlahovic noted that it is important for internationally recommended standards to be enforced in Kosova, especially "individual and collective rights" for the non-Albanian minorities. He pointed out that Montenegro itself is determined to remain a "functioning multiethnic and multicultural which we are very dedicated." The minister said that Montenegro's Albanian minority enjoys some benefits, such as "positive electoral discrimination." As proof that the Albanians are integrated into Montenegrin society, he noted that two of the Albanian deputies in the parliament come from ethnic Albanian parties while two others belong to "civic parties" that embrace all ethnic groups.

EU And NATO Membership

While arguing that Montenegro must become an "independent European state...with the political and cultural capacities to solve all our problems in a peaceful and democratic way," Vlahovic also stressed the importance of his country's joining the EU and NATO, starting with the U.S.-sponsored Adriatic Charter that includes Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania. He feels Montenegro can achieve these goals more quickly without being tied to Serbia. He argued for what in Croatia is known as the "regatta principle," in which each EU applicant proceeds at its own pace irrespective of what others do or do not achieve.

Montenegro has a proud military tradition, and no discussion of Montenegro's future would be complete without a reference to its fighting capacities. Vlahovic referred to the current military of Serbia and Montenegro as a bloated, "old-fashioned, and costly army without any reforms or civilian control." He noted that the current "ineffective" navy includes 2,500 men, while that of Croatia, which has a much longer coastline, consists of 700 men in what is essentially a modern coast guard operation.

Stressing that Montenegro is a peaceful country that does not plan to use its military, Vlahovic called for a "small, democratically controlled, multipurpose army not exceeding 3,000 men," fully integrated into the Adriatic Charter and NATO and advised by experts from Europe and the United States. He said that it might be possible to form a joint military with Serbia, but only if each state controls the forces on its own territory and if the joint force is integrated into NATO.