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Yugoslavia: Montenegro Sets Its Terms

Prague, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Montenegrin authorities have laid down tough terms for continuing a joint state with Serbia. The regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is unlikely to accept those terms, but democrats in Serbia might find them attractive.

The Montenegrin government last week approved a detailed plan that would abolish the Yugoslav federation and recast Podgorica-Belgrade relations as a loose association (zajednica) of two equal and sovereign "member states." The Montenegrin parliament is slated to approve the measure soon.

It is unclear whether the government intends the proposal as a basis for negotiations with Belgrade or as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Top Montenegrin officials said recently that they will hold a referendum on independence if the Serbian authorities do not respond to the proposal by late September.

The plan calls for establishing an "Association of Montenegro and Serbia" with a unicameral legislature. Montenegro and Serbia would have equal representation, while legislators would be subordinate to the parliament of their own member state.

The positions of president and prime minister would rotate between Montenegrin and Serbian officials. The president would be from one member state and the prime minister from the other, while both would belong to the governing political party or coalition in their own state. "Bureaucratic" administrative structures would be small.

There would be a maximum of six ministries with small staffs. Each republic would, in effect, have its own foreign policy and army, which would be loosely coordinated with those of the other.

The two sides would have to agree to joint foreign and economic policy goals aimed at integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. Each republic would have economic independence and the right to introduce its own currency. Any joint currency would be freely convertible and would be backed by a currency board and protected by strict legal safeguards. Each republic has a veto on joint decisions, including the election of the joint president and a declaration of war.

There would be a constitutional court to rule on the validity of legislation passed by the association's legislature. Montenegro and Serbia would have equal representation on the bench.

The text, in fact, reads more like a dull legal document than a declaration of political principles. Podgorica's intent was to make very sure that its rights and privileges are carefully protected and that it would no longer be Serbia's junior partner.

Nor would this be a new Yugoslav federation to which constituent "republics" would be subordinated. Power clearly would rest with the two member states. The joint state would exist solely to further the specific interests of each member and not as an end in itself. It would not be called Yugoslavia.

The basic political principles are that the association would be based on democratic values, the rule of law, and human rights. Economic policy would rest on the pillars of a market economy, free trade, and a convertible currency.

There are several references to developing ties with the EU and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. But there are no references to the proposed union of Serbia, Russia, and Belarus, which the Belgrade hard-liners have so warmly embraced.

The Belgrade regime is unlikely to accept the Montenegrin proposal, which would greatly limit the powers that Milosevic enjoys within the current federal structure.

Last Sunday (Aug. 8) Ratko Krsmanovic, who is a top official of the pro-Milosevic United Yugoslav Left, called the plan "an attempt to destroy our country and to provoke conflicts. It would create a situation for foreign intervention." The Radicals' Vojislav Seselj has blasted it as "illegal secession."

It could be argued that any Serbian politician would have difficulty endorsing a plan that gives Montenegro's approximately 600,000 inhabitants political weight equal to that of the roughly 7 million people living in Serbia (excluding Kosova).

But initial reactions suggest that many members of the democratic Serbian opposition -- such as the Democrats' Zoran Djindjic and Vladan Batic of the Alliance for Change -- have responded positively to the Montenegrin proposal, seeing it as a step toward the democratization of Serbia.

If the Milosevic regime remains silent on the Montenegrin proposal or rejects it outright, Montenegro is likely to declare independence. But if Serbia in the coming months acquires a democratic leadership that is willing to accept Podgorica's principles, the outcome could be a democratic state with a sound and growing economy.