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Making a success of Montenegrin independence – lessons from Slovakia

01 June 2006

As a close observer of the short and unhappy history of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, I was often reminded of what I learned from watching the Czechs and Slovaks abandon their common state between 1989 and 1993. Although I had worked for several years on ‘Czechoslovak’ politics, I did not expect this federation to fail. At the time, it did not make sense to me: it seemed at odds with the shared ambition to join the EU, another federation of sorts; and neither Slovaks nor Czechs seemed at all sure they wanted separate states (which was why their leaders avoided putting the question to the test of a referendum). 
Beneath the surface of amicable relations between Czechs and Slovaks one could find simmering historical resentments, but these were hardly of the depth or bitterness to make the split an inexorable ‘historical necessity’ (as was the case with the Baltic republics’ breakaway from the Soviet Union in 1991). Contingent factors seemed to determine the outcome: the destructive personal chemistry between Klaus and Meciar, victors in the 1992 Czech and Slovak elections; and the dysfunctional federal institutions inherited from communist rule, which made it peculiarly easy for a small number of deputies from only one of the republics to block the formation of parliamentary consensus in those critical early post-communist years. The two separate states seemed to come about almost by accident.
On closer examination, however, I found deeper factors working against the survival of that federation. Slovakia had caught up with the Czech Republic in socio-economic terms, but in the process Slovaks had become more self-confident as a nation. As they ‘grew up’, the Slovak ‘kid brothers’ became more themselves, not more like Czechs, and they were increasingly intolerant of the Czechs’ irritating habit of bossing them about. Thus even if a majority in both nations wanted a common state, their divergent identities meant they had very different ideas of what that state should look like. A referendum would not have solved this problem. 
Moreover, there were important structural differences between the two republics’ economies. The political economy of reform was driven by different needs and interest in the two countries, which made a common reform strategy hard to define and so placed further huge strains on the working of the federation. Nor did the prospect of EU integration especially favour the federation; instead, it made independent statehood look like an equally viable and secure choice. And so it turned out. Independent Slovakia – after wasting five years on a detour under Meciar’s misrule – matured rapidly as a democratic state and has proved one the great success stories of EU integration. Just one confirmation of that is the enormously constructive role played by Slovak diplomats in sorting out the ‘problem’ of Montenegro on behalf of the EU.
I was again reminded of the parallels with Serbia and Montenegro by the comment of a Belgrade friend of mine, with whom I discussed the results of the referendum. For him, the moment that sealed the fate of the State Union was the assassination of Djindjic: what he meant was that the personal relationship between Djindjic and Djukanovic had been crucial to the State Union’s survival. If so, then it was built on flimsy foundations, as subsequently, the very bad personal chemistry between Kostunica and Djukanovic would doom it to fail. A case of déjà vu: Klaus and Meciar all over again?
Is that all there is to it? Of those 55.5 per cent of Montenegrin voters who chose independence, by no means all did so out of personal devotion to Djukanovic. Support for independence dropped after the ouster of Milosevic, and stayed below 50 per cent in most opinion polls thereafter. Support for the State Union was lower, and did not grow over time. About 25 per cent were ‘don’t knows’ or ‘don’t cares’ – until the referendum campaign. What swung enough of these undecided voters behind independence to secure that outcome? Some would argue that contingent factors were decisive, notably the EU’s decision to suspend SAA negotiations on 3 May due to Kostunica’s broken promise to deliver Mladic to the ICTY. This clinched a key pro-independence argument, that continued attachment to the State Union damaged Montenegro’s EU integration prospects. So now Kostunica blames the EU for the result. Once again, Serbia is the victim of ignorant and inept ‘Great Power meddling’ in the Balkans.
But were the assassination of Djindjic and the suspension of SAA negotiations purely contingent matters of ‘bad timing’? Hardly. Both sorry episodes tell us something fundamental about the nature of Serbia as a state and as a partner in the State Union. Both episodes signify Serbia’s difficulties in coming to terms with the legacies of the Milosevic era, and consolidating stable democracy based on the rule of law. Of course Montenegro itself has a few problems on this score, but remaining attached to Serbia would hardly help tackle them. These issues seem to me to have been decisive for the outcome of the Montenegrin referendum. For those voters sceptical or indifferent to independence, the strongest reason for voting ‘yes’ on 21 May must have been that independence, on balance, looked like the surer way of escaping from the frustrating political mess of the status quo, and moving forward faster towards EU integration.
This suggests something very interesting about the still-embryonic identity of this new state. Slavic-orthodox Montenegrins have long been fiercely proud of their distinct historical and cultural identity, but confused about whether or not they were a ‘nation’ separate from Serbs, and deeply divided on the question of independent statehood. In the early 1990s, Slovaks too were divided on the question of statehood, but were quite certain that they were a nation – an ethnic one. If Montenegrins were to become a nation – a collective identity laying claim to a state – this would have to be defined in other than ethnic terms. It was not until the 1990s that a decisive proportion of people started seriously to wonder whether their distinct identity might be best served by a separate state. This was, of course, during the Milosevic period.
Precisely why Djukanovic chose to break with the politics of Milosevic and turn towards independence remains obscure to me – it is often explained as personal opportunism. It was indeed a smart move, but it also had much wider implications, whether Djukanovic recognised them or not. The idea of Montenegrin independence could only gather credibility if it were based on something more than short-term political self-interest. A state needs a purpose, and Montenegro found it in opposition to the manipulative brutality of the Milosevic regime, and in particular to its murderous promotion of ethnic nationalism, which led the rump Yugoslavia into conflict with Europe and the rest of the world. This opened new space for a Montenegrin national identity, attached to historic territory and traditions, but also aspiring to be modern, to govern itself democratically, and to ‘return to Europe’.
A national identity so defined is an asset that Montenegrin citizens must not allow their politicians to squander. They must not be led down a blind alley, like the Slovaks were under Meciar. The key test of independent Montenegro will be whether it fulfils its promise as an inclusive and pluralist nation. This is a national idea that the Albanian, Bosniak and Muslim minorities have not only accepted but helped to shape. They must continue to do so. Now Montenegro will have to wean the opponents of independence away from the siren calls of Serbian ethnic nationalism. The pro-independence majority must show that Montenegro can work just as well for those who identify as Serbs as it can for all other parts of the ‘body politic’.  
Here Montenegro’s ‘European vocation’ can come into play. More than a few Serbs in fact voted for independence, and I guess they did so because they shared in the aspiration for their country to ‘return to Europe’. On the other hand, by no means all those who voted against independence are Serbs. Their choice was rather motivated by mistrust of Djukanovic, resentment at the self-enrichment and corruption of the ruling elite, dissatisfaction with the government’s performance in the economy, as well as plain fear of the unknown. The best way for the next government to overcome their reservations is to prove that Montenegro can deliver what supporters and opponents of independence alike clearly want: more transparent democratic governance, credible economic reforms that bring prosperity and social justice, and faster EU integration. Montenegro has the chance to become just as much of a ‘success story’ as Slovakia. Don’t waste it.