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Serbia-Montenegro: New Calls For Independence Risk Slowing EU Membership Bid

Under intense Western pressure, Serbia and Montenegro agreed last year to join in a loose, common union, and Montenegro's pro-independence leaders shelved their plans for a sovereign state. Now, calls to split are being heard again, this time from some Serbian politicians. This latest pro-independence initiative comes ahead of a key European Union summit later this month, raising concern that the calls could slow Serbia and Montenegro's progress toward eventual EU membership.

Prague, 5 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union insists that Serbia and Montenegro can only join together, but advocates of an independent Serbia say the joint state is simply not functioning. A split is inevitable, they say, and would be in the interests of both.

Mladjan Dinkic, the governor of Serbia's National Bank, says trying to harmonize relations between Serbia and Montenegro -- which have separate markets, central banks, taxes, and customs systems and different currencies -- is a "mission impossible." Given that, he says, the three years proscribed under the union agreement before each country can decide on independence is a "waste of time."

Dinkic is deputy leader of the opposition G-17 Plus Party, which recently threw its weight behind the pro-independence idea. The G-17 Plus is a relatively new political party that groups internationally renowned economic experts.

Miroljub Labus, the G-17 Plus leader and a former Yugoslav deputy prime minister, was among the signatories of the Belgrade agreement that brought the loose union state of Serbia and Montenegro into being earlier this year. Now, Labus says, the union will only slow Serbia's advance toward membership in the EU.

"The European Union insists on two conditions which together cannot be fulfilled," Labus said. "That's obvious. It insists that the union state continues the process [toward possible EU membership], and also that the union state be functional. Since we cannot make the union state functional, we must ask whether this policy is realistic or not."

Montenegro had been pushing for independence before EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana brokered the union agreement. Solana is currently on a visit to the region, where he is expected to try to smooth relations between Belgrade and Podgorica ahead of this month's European Union summit. European leaders are expected to discuss the priorities for the Western Balkans with their counterparts from the region at the summit, in Thessaloniki, Greece, on 20-21 June.

The European Union has said that the five states of the Western Balkans -- Croatia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro -- have a future in the bloc. Slovenia is already due to join the EU in 2004.

Over the weekend, G-17 Plus began a nationwide campaign to gain public support for their concept of an independent, functional Serbian state. The campaign was launched in more than 100 Serbian cities under the slogan: "Serbia in First Place."

Independence advocates also include the small Democratic Christian Party of Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic and the League of Vojvodina Social Democrats. Both parties are members of the ruling DOS coalition.

The Democratic Party of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic and its allies in the ruling coalition say the EU is not willing to change its decision to allow Serbia and Montenegro to join only as one state -- and therefore they should try harder to harmonize their economies and make their union work.

Cedomir Jovanovic is the deputy Serbian prime minister in charge of European integration:

"We think that we must not waste time but must carefully follow the advice of the Brussels administration. We must not build up hopes and think we should use the time ahead of us to change Brussels' thinking instead of trying to complete what we failed to achieve during the previous 10 years."

G-17 Plus insists its campaign is not directed against Montenegro but is simply in Serbia's economic interests.

Srdjan Darmanovic, the director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Podgorica, says that given the current poor state of the economies of both republics, it is hard to say who would win and who would lose from a possible split.

Darmanovic told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service that what is at fault is the very structure of the union between tiny Montenegro and much bigger Serbia. He says that, as a rule, bigger states, when they join with smaller partners, always seek a strengthening of the union, reckoning that because of their size they would be better able to defend their interests.

"The Serbian political elite simply hoped that with the Belgrade agreement, some sort of a joint state would be preserved, and then through the constitutional or legal arrangements, and under pressure from the European Union, something closer to a federal state would be set up, rather than the loose union on which Montenegro insisted."

Darmanovic rejects suggestions that the Montenegrin government is stalling on the economic harmonization process in order to force Serbia to leave the joint state. He says with two states so disproportional in size and population, economic harmonization will be, by necessity, difficult.

Critics say the initiative for an independent Serbia is an attempt by some smaller Serbian parties to score cheap political points ahead of possible early parliamentary elections.

Darmanovic says there is more to it than that, particularly in the case of G-17 Plus.

"I think there is a mix of motives here. [On one hand,] the desire to fill in a political niche, since in Serbia only the small [Democratic Christian] party of Justice Minister Vladan Batic had openly come out in favor of an independent Serbia, and maybe G-17 Plus now sees there a space it could fill in. But I think this is intertwined with their perception of what Serbia's real interests are. Maybe that is how Labus and a group of Serbian economists see future Serbian interests."

As for the Serbian public, it seems split. According to an opinion poll published in the Belgrade media earlier this week, some 48 percent continue to support the joint state with Montenegro. But 41 percent favor an independent Serbia, saying further attempts to improve the relationship between the two republics would be useless.