The future of Serbia-Montenegro

12 December 2005

The European Policy Centre, together with the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Conflict Prevention Partnership (CPP), held a Joint Dialogue on The future of Serbia-Montenegro. The panellists were James Lyon, Serbia Project Director, International Crisis Group (ICG); Daliborka Uljarević, Executive Director, Centre for Civic Education Montenegro; Stefan Lehne, Director of Western Balkans/Central European Task Force, Council of the European Union and EU Representative to the Kosovo future status process; Joost Lagendijk, Member of the European Parliament, Greens/European Free Alliance; Srdjan Cvijic, External Advisor at the Centre for Non-Violent Resistance, Serbia; and Steinar Bryn, Director of "Dialogue and Peacebuilding", Nansen Academy and Senior Adviser to Nansen Dialogue Network. EPC Senior Advisor Fraser Cameron chaired the event. A question and answer session followed. This is not an official record of the proceedings and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

James Lyon began by presenting the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) policy report on Montenegro’s Independence Drive. The report looked at where Montenegro fit into the international security picture and examined the possible outcomes of a referendum on Montenegro’s independence, which could occur as early as April 2006.

Mr. Lyon outlined what he said were the international community’s three key concerns in the event of a positive result in the referendum.

First, what effect would independence have on stability in the region as a whole and within Montenegro itself? In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians did not generally see a link between Montenegrin independence and that of Kosovo. In Bosnia, progress was being made on police reform and strengthening constitutional structures, and, for the first time, Bosnian politicians were taking responsibility for their own future. Any talk of partitioning Bosnia to "compensate" Serbia for losing Montenegro would not be considered. Macedonia was further along on the right track and should not be affected by the referendum or any potential attempt by Macedonian-Albanians to seek independence.

In terms of internal stability, Mr. Lyon noted that most ethnic Serbians in Montenegro voted for Serbian nationalist parties. There was some talk about a minority attempting to pull down the government if a pro-independence vote was successful. There were even suggestions that Serbian authorities might try to interfere if Montenegrin independence was declared, with a possible "autonomous Serbian region" being established in the north. However, the ICG felt there would not be any violence during or after a referendum because the Montenegrin army was not interested in intervening.

The second worry was about Montenegro’s economic viability as an independent state. Here, said Mr. Lyon, the signs were encouraging. There was already a huge amount of foreign investment in the country, coming chiefly from Russia.

Finally, there was concern that an independent Montenegro could become a haven for crime and corruption. Mr. Lyon noted that local authorities were trying to improve the situation, although significant and "well integrated" criminal networks did exist. Still, the situation was not as bad as in neighbouring Serbia or Kosovo.

Daliborka Uljarević outlined the five main points of a Joint declaration on the conditions for further democratisation in Montenegro, prepared by 15 leading non-governmental organisations in Montenegro.

1) It is necessary to organise a democratic and fair referendum in the spring of 2006. Any delay would not only perpetuate the status quo, but would also be counter-productive by helping to consolidate non-democratic forces and undermine social change.

2) Local political elements must show good will and a willingness "to start a constructive, reasoned and effective dialogue".

3) The process of integration into the EU was having a positive influence on Montenegrin society. The process of stabilisation and association should continue regardless of the final resolution to the referendum question.

4) Civil society in Montenegro had the capacity to play a role, but needed help from the EU. The Union should distribute programme assistance designated for NGOs in the region directly.

5) Dialogue between the EU and NGOs had to remain open and direct. NGOs favoured the establishment of a European Commission office in Podgorica to further facilitate communication.

Stefan Lehne rejected claims in the Montenegrin media that the EU was applying heavy pressure for a referendum not to occur. He said the only group applying pressure on the EU was the ICG. He felt the ICG’s interpretation of EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana’s comments on Montenegro were "rubbish" and "completely fictitious".

The reality, according to Mr. Lehne, was that the constitutional charter for Serbia & Montenegro allowed for a referendum on independence to be held. Mr. Solana was simply supporting the rules laid out in the charter. What was "hugely important" for the EU was that any referendum uphold democratic standards. Mr. Lehne was wary about a referendum making the losing half "deeply unhappy", and wanted the EU to help resolve the status issue. There was also a big risk that some of the opposition would boycott the referendum, which was "unfortunate" because it would allow some to claim that the vote was not fully legitimate.

However, Mr. Solana was encouraged that Montenegrin leaders were talking about accepting the Venice Commission’s recommendations, since they would not only provide the framework for recognised democratic standards but also facilitate dialogue on the referendum. The EU was also open to assisting with the dialogue and would help to ensure the democratic process was upheld if a referendum occurred, along with the assistance of organisations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The two major unresolved issues for the Balkans were the status of Kosovo and that of Serbia & Montenegro. This caused instability in the region and provided openings which people with extremist agendas could exploit. The sooner these issues were resolved, the sooner the Serbians and Montenegrins could focus on "real" priorities like economic development, administrative capacity building, etc.

Joost Lagendijk explained that, three years ago, most members of the European Parliament would have been against the idea of a referendum on Montenegro’s independence, since there was general opposition to creating more new entities in the Balkans. More recently, however, there had been a shift toward recognition and acceptance that the status quo in both Serbian & Montenegro and Kosovo would not work. There was now a need for a "velvet divorce".

Mr. Lagendijk noted that a potential Montenegrin separation, with the possibility of something similar for Kosovo, would leave Serbia having to "swallow it twice". What, he asked, would be "offered" to Serbia in return? Speeding up integration with the EU was an option, but at this stage conditions in Serbia did not favour it. Furthermore, the general climate in the Union was moving away from further enlargement, with Serbia being a particularly sensitive case. The Balkan countries had been promised eventual membership, and the principles of the Thessaloniki Summit still stood, but there was little enthusiasm for any extra commitments. The big question thus remained how to sell the idea of accelerating Serbia’s European integration to a sceptical EU.

Srdjan Cvijic analysed the results of recent opinion polls on attitudes in Montenegro towards independence: 41% were in favour, 34.5% against, with almost 24% either abstaining or undecided. However, voters who were not identified as either abstainers or party members provided a different perspective, with only 21.3% for, 34.5% against and another 25.3% undecided. The outcome of a referendum was thus still unclear.

Mr. Cvijic recommended that Serbia reassess the concept of a union of independent states between Serbia and Montenegro in the event of the latter’s possible separation - something which Serbia had rejected in the past. Serbia should also become the guarantor of regional stability, since it was the most powerful country in the region.

Mr. Cvijic made three recommendations to Serbia:

1) It should not get involved in Montenegro’s political process.

2) It should build a lasting alliance with Montenegro.

3) It should be careful about taking a negative approach towards a Montenegrin referendum, since this would only widen the social and political gap between the two states.

Although he felt a referendum should probably not take place yet, Mr. Cvijic said Serbia had to respect Montenegro’s decision. Montenegro, in turn, had to respect the recommendations of the Venice Commission.

Finally, Mr Cvijic attempted to clear up some "false perceptions" about Serbia, arguing that it should no longer be associated with the old "belligerent, autistic and isolated" Milosevic regime. Montenegrin officials had to recognise this and Serbia’s democratic potential. The debate had so far been based on bad memories of the Milosevic years and did not take into account the economic cost of Montenegro’s independence.

Steinar Bryn described how the Nansen Dialogue Network had, over the last five years, invited more than 500 people from various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia to discuss possibilities for peace and progress. He said all sides felt victimised and little communication existed between different ethnic camps.

A referendum would be good, but there was a danger that the winners would feel "self-righteous" and behave accordingly. A viable state would be difficult to establish if the splits between winners and losers were not healed. Discussions should also focus on creating a single "civil" state, not a "national" one and ethnic language must be "tamed" because it perpetuated ethnic divisions.