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The EU's 'soft power' at work in the Balkans

01 July 2006

The Montenegrin referendum of 21 May was a major success for the EU. Skilful, patient and determined deployment of the EU's 'soft power' brought remarkable results: the EU's efforts overcame acute political polarisation among key players and brokered acceptable rules of the game, which stimulated exceptionally high voter turnout on the day. The EU's commitment was matched by other international organisations, which provided intensive monitoring of the referendum process, and the Montenegrin authorities rose to the challenge. Both the campaign and the voting took place in a peaceful, orderly way. Thus was produced a result whose legitimacy is not open to serious challenge.
This offers dramatic proof that political behaviour in the Balkans can change, provided the EU is committed and closely engaged. The 'EU perspective' has shown it can work in the Balkans, as it did for Central Europe. It was the desire of key players in Montenegro to prove their 'European' credentials that ultimately made agreement on the rules of the game possible, and induced them to shift away from 'zero-sum' politics and the inflamed rhetoric of mistrust and ill-will. The experience has been a learning process for all sides, and the 'European factor' has shown its potential to help overcome deep political polarisation.
This was a success for EU enlargement, too. The EU drew upon valuable new assets from new member states, especially Slovakia, which provided superb diplomats with deep local knowledge and linguistic capacities that were crucial to the effectiveness of the mission. As Slovaks, they were trusted by all sides. Ambassador Lajcak's frequently robust and forthright messages could not easily be dismissed by the parties as expressions of 'Great Power arrogance'.
The final result is good for the EU too. A convincing majority - 55.5 per cent - voted in favour of independence (the EU had required a qualified majority of 55 per cent as a minimum for independence). The fact that turnout was so high - at 86.5 per cent - shows that both pro- and anti-independence sides were made to work hard to reach out win and more voters than their respective parties had ever won before. They had to reach out beyond their established camps of convinced supporters, and to persuade the some 25 per cent of voters who were undecided at the start of the campaign.
The EU should now move swiftly to capitalise on this success as a 'turning point' in its Balkans strategy. One key item of 'unfinished business' has been removed from the 2006 agenda in the Western Balkans. Now, the Montenegrin government can no longer blame the State Union for defects in its performance. And Serbia will have one less reason to avoid confronting its key challenges: Kosovo and cooperation with the ICTY.
The focus is now again on Serbia. President Tadic was prompt to recognize the referendum result and extend a Serbian hand of friendship to Montenegro. But Prime Minister Kostunica adopted the posture of a sulky 'abandoned lover', reluctant to recognise Montenegro and hold talks on winding up the State Union. But the intention was more one of 'punishing' Montenegro than any sinister attempt to destabilise it. Meanwhile, as legal successor to the Union, Serbia is getting on with the practical business of taking over the portfolios of Defence and Foreign Affairs - around which furious political infighting has predictably erupted. Elections are in the air, and expected this autumn.
Serbia's divided democrats expect the EU to help them face down the looming threat of the Radical Party, still led by indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, and still propagating ethnic hatred. Yet the Radicals expect the support of nearly 40 per cent - making it far the most popular party in Serbia. But many voters will abstain. They are tired of the ineffectual and rancorous bickering of the democratic parties. Of course, the EU should do what it can to help Serbia - isolating Serbia is not part of its plan, as debate at the June European Council showed. But the EU cannot do the Serbian democrats' work for them.