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Montenegro and Serbia after the Referendum

01 May 2006

I was in Montenegro 20-24 May over the referendum period, and in Belgrade 24-27 May to gauge reactions to the result there. The following note presents my reflections on the significance of the referendum for EU Balkans policy; on the prospects for independent Montenegro; and reactions in Belgrade.
<br />1) 'Soft power' works
The Montenegrin referendum of 21 May was a major success for the EU - this needs to be emphasised. 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 the most 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.
One might also add that 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 of 55.5 per cent voted in favour of independence, and 44.5 against, on a turnout of 86.5 per cent of the registered electorate. The EU maintained a strictly neutral position during the campaign, but the decisive nature of the outcome must be welcomed. Had the vote fallen below the 55 per cent threshold prescribed by the EU, there would have followed months, if not years, of intractable wrangling between the two republics, diverting attention from internal reforms and EU integration, and raising tensions in the wider region at a sensitive time. 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.
EU member states should now move swiftly and in unison to capitalise on this success as a 'turning point' in its Balkans strategy. The EU has confirmed its commitment to the region and demonstrated that the 'EU perspective' can work there as it did for Central Europe. It must therefore promptly recognise the new state and resume the SAA negotiations with Montenegro under a new mandate. It should stand ready to facilitate dialogue and agreement between Montenegro and Serbia on the terms of the separation (notwithstanding Serbia's reticence).
This could be an opportune moment to consider whether the EU should appoint a Special Representative for the Western Balkans as a region. This would reinforce the EU's message on the need for a 'regional approach' in the Western Balkans. The EU itself needs to give thought to the coordination and consistency of its efforts in the region. The SAA process is the driving force for change, but experience shows that, in this fragile, fragmented region of weak and 'unfinished' states, the SAA process does not work automatically. It depends for its effectiveness on the backing of the EU's political and security commitment. Thus the 'double-hatted' EUSR in FYROM; the increasing prominence of the EUSR role in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the OHR post is drawn down; and the growing EU presence in planned for 'post-status' Kosovo.
An EUSR with a regional remit that includes Serbia and Montenegro could be useful. Neither state warrants an EUSR of its own, but both could benefit from a high-level EU political interlocutor. They may need assistance in the short-term in managing their 'divorce', and, in the medium term, in re-establishing constructive relations on a new footing. Montenegrin independence also has wider - positive - implications for the region. It has good relations with all its other neighbours, so a new dynamic in regional cooperation could emerge. But meanwhile, Serbia is in danger of becoming increasingly isolated, and its SAA negotiations are in abeyance. The regional situation needs careful monitoring.
Another issue of regional concern is security sector reform (as emphasised by the past UK and current Austrian EU Presidencies). This should be a priority in both Serbia and Montenegro, as well as the rest of the region, which could benefit from close attention from a regional EUSR.
<br />2) Prospects for independent Montenegro
Montenegro faces two primary challenges as a new state: firstly, to overcome the deep political division in Montenegrin society exposed in the referendum campaign; and secondly, to set its relations with Serbia on a new, more constructive footing. The two issues are closely connected: tensions with Serbia have an unsettling effect on Montenegrin society, where about 30 per cent of voters identify themselves as Serbian.
The picture of entrenched political polarisation within Montenegro may be not be quite as bad as it looked at the start of the referendum process. The 'European factor' has shown its potential to help overcome this rift in the course of the referendum process. The desire of key players to prove their 'European' credentials was what ultimately made agreement on the rules of the game possible. There was just enough sense of responsibility and recognition of what was at stake to induce a minimal shift away from 'zero-sum' politics and the inflamed rhetoric of mistrust and ill-will.
After the referendum, there is now room for a major political realignment in the party-system. This realignment will take time, but it has already begun as the parties begin to come to terms with the new reality and prepare for the regular parliamentary elections, due in September. A key factor in the consolidation of Montenegro as a functional and democratic state, ready to move on to the serious business of EU integration, will be securing recognition of the referendum results by the major party in the defeated pro-union 'Bloc for the Common State' - the Socialist People's Party (SNP), led by Predrag Bulatovic.
Bulatovic and the SNP showed a propensity to negotiate in good faith. But he was - and remains - under constant pressure from three overtly Serbian-nationalist parties in the Bloc, to whom he has been losing supporters in recent months. His main rival, the Serbian People's Party (SNS), boycotted the negotiations but finally accepted the referendum rules when these offered powerful incentives to participate. Other smaller partners in the Bloc participated in the negotiations and signed up to the rules, but apparently not in good faith, as (like the SNS, and all no doubt taking their cue from Belgrade) they do not now feel obliged to accept the results. Bulatovic and the SNP are now torn between the fear of losing further voters to these parties, and their desire to sustain their credibility as a modernised, 'pro-European' party.
The pro-Serbian 'irreconcilables' have now set about forming an electoral alliance whose platform will centre on contesting Montenegro's new status as an independent state, and promoting the Serbian nationalist agenda. It will be interesting to see how they fare in September. These parties' combined opinion poll support to date is around 18 per cent, and their agenda can appeal to a maximum 30 per cent of the electorate who identify as Serbs. Indeed, early analyses of the referendum results suggest that proportion of Serbian voters in fact favoured Montenegrin independence. It would be a mistake to read the 44.5 per cent pro-union vote only - and possibly not even mainly - as an endorsement of the Serbian-nationalist agenda propounded by these parties. Other salient factors for pro-union voters were personal aversion to 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.
This reservoir of anti-government sentiment presents Bulatovic and the SNP with an opportunity to reinvent themselves as the main opposition party to the current government of Prime Minister Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). In order to do this, the SNP will have to accept the new reality of Montenegrin independence, and the signs are that they are preparing to do this once the new state wins international - and especially EU - recognition. So far, they have publicly committed themselves to 'continuing on the European path' and 'full cooperation with the EU on issues pertaining to Montenegro and the Western Balkans'. They are thus waiting for EU recognition before executing the necessary volte-face. The sooner this happens the better - then the SNP will have a good chance of capturing not only a fair chunk of those who voted pro-union, but also of those pro-independence voters who share their antipathy towards Djukanovic and disappointment with the current government.
Potential allies for the SNP may be found in the NGO 'Group for Change', which also aims to bridge the gulf between pro- and anti-independence voters. Its focus is on the shortcomings of Montenegrin democracy under Djukanovic. It will register as a new party for the coming elections. During the referendum campaign, however, its credibility was damaged by the ineptitude of its leader, Nebojsa Medojevic, who was criticised for abandoning the movement's neutrality on the statehood question and aligning himself far too closely with the pro-unionist position. Many of his actions and intemperate personal attacks on Djukanovic handed valuable ammunition to the pro-unionist and Belgrade media. Cosying up to Serbian nationalist parties, some of whose supporters sported T-shirts with portraits of Mladic and Karadzic at campaign rallies, damaged the movement's credentials as a 'democratic alternative'. As one of my interlocutors mused, 'It's almost as if someone paid Medojevic to do it.'
At this stage, the way seems open for Djukanovic to win a further mandate in September. He has now been in power - as Prime Minister and President - for seventeen years. His popularity remains high and the DPS is by far the strongest single party, with current opinion poll support at around 35 per cent. Djukanovic must be regarded as the most skilful survivor in the tumultuous world of Balkan politics - and he is still only 45. Does he have the capacity to shake off the more dubious aspects of his past and to mature into genuinely reformist, democratic politician? We will soon see. But in the longer term, the maturation of Montenegrin democracy will depend on whether such a small body politic will prove able to throw up another politician of the calibre to challenge Djukanovic.
In the medium term, there are reasons for optimism about Montenegro, despite its weaknesses as a state and as a democracy: <br />There is a substantial electoral constituency for change, as suggested above. <br />The next government will no longer be able to hide behind the overriding issue of independence. It will have to deliver concrete results, and will now be under intense scrutiny by voters and the EU alike. <br />The idea of 'Europe' clearly provides a unifying focal point for a new national consensus. <br />Moreover, the Montenegrin independence project is not driven by exclusive ethnic nationalism, but by attachment to a historic territory. Montenegro's minorities (Albanians, Bosniaks, Muslims and others) have bought wholeheartedly into the independence project. <br />Administrative capacity may be a weak point (as emphasised by the Commission's reports), but the organisation and conduct of the referendum showed that, with firm EU guidance and close monitoring, the Montenegrin authorities can deliver good results. <br />With such a limited pool of human resources to meet the challenges of EU integration, the government will be forced to draw on the best available, whatever their previous political commitment.
3) Reactions in Belgrade
Belgrade's responses to the events in Montenegro have been predictable, firstly, in the sharp division of approaches between President Tadic and Prime Minister Kostunica; and secondly, in the curmudgeonly response of the latter, blaming everyone but himself - and especially the EU - for what has happened.
President Tadic's prompt recognition of the referendum result as a legitimate expression of the democratic will of Montenegrin voters, and especially his visit to Podgorica on 27 May, as soon as the official final result was confirmed, were warmly welcomed in Montenegro and helped offset the damage done by Kostunica. Kostunica's chef de cabinet and the Minister of the Interior were apparently giving direct instructions to the pro-union parties in Montenegro to contest the result to the last (even after all legitimate avenues were closed), thus belying his frequent profession of profound brotherly sentiment towards the Montenegrins. However, the intention seems more one of 'punishing' the wayward junior sibling than the more sinister one of seriously destabilising Montenegro.
Tacit consensus has meanwhile emerged that it is now time for Serbia to focus on itself, which would be no bad thing, except that the ideas put forward so far seem wholly unrealistic. For Vuk Draskovic, restoring the monarchy is the obvious solution to Serbia's difficulties, while Kostunica wants to relaunch the long-delayed and hopelessly bogged-down process of passing a new Serbian constitution.
On 5 June, the Serbian parliament claimed succession to the State Union, as provided for in the 2003 Belgrade Agreement, and tasked the government with all necessary measures to implement this within 45 days. This includes resolving all disputed issues with Montenegro, thus implicitly recognising the new reality. The Serbian political elite is now busily absorbed in internecine strife over the question of appointing a new Deputy Prime Minister (post vacant since the resignation of Miroljub Labus after the suspension of SAA negotiations), and filling the new Serbian ministerial posts at Defence and Foreign Affairs.
All my interlocutors in Belgrade on 24-27 May concurred in their explanation of Kostunica's behaviour: he had simply persuaded himself that a 'yes' vote was impossible in Montenegro and now genuinely cannot come to terms with the result. Several used the same term: he is 'in a state of shock'. His 'strategy' has completely collapsed. He is unable to see how his and his associates' performance contributed to an outcome that is precisely the opposite of what they wanted. This confirms a pattern.
Kostunica really does seem to have no concept of politics in a normal democratic sense. Montenegro should have been relatively unproblematic for him. Serbian society is not wracked by angst over it - reactions range from 'good riddance' through indifference to a sense of relief that at least one potentially messy issue has been removed from the Serbian agenda. But Kostunica chose to surround himself by a rather particular cluster of advisers on this issue, the so-called 'Terazie Montenegrins' (Terazie avenue being the main haunt of Belgrade's café society). Disregarding ample evidence from Montenegrin opinion polls, Kostunica simply refused to contemplate a 'Plan B' in case things did not go the way he wanted.
Most of my interlocutors interpreted Kostunica's behaviour in the wake of the referendum as motivated by electoral considerations, and as a signal that he is preparing for autumn elections. It is not clear to me that there are many votes to be won in Serbia by fouling up relations with Montenegro. The 'yes' result should have quickly been accepted if he were to salvage anything positive for his own position in the coming electoral contest - and for Serbian interests. It could have been done, but he just was not able to see it. This speaks more of ideological than electoral motives. The Serbian response to Montenegro is that of a 'deserted lover', as one person put it. For me, Kostunica is in a state of denial, diagnostic of the psychological disorder typical of the former dissident nationalist intelligentsia in post-communist countries, wedded to the idea of themselves as the embodiment of transcendent wisdom about the 'interests of the nation', regardless of what that nation actually votes for or says it wants.
The EU and member states need to be ready to counter the politics of self-delusion with unambiguous messages and prompt actions. Swift recognition of Montenegro by EU member-states will be an important signal to Belgrade - any delay will play into the hands of those who have no interest in regional stability, and even less interest in Serbia's EU integration prospects. Some of those I talked to wondered what leverage the EU now had over Belgrade to induce a more constructive approach towards Montenegro, having suspended the SAA negotiations. Some argued that the credibility of the EU perspective has diminished anyway (with 'enlargement fatigue'), so what is really on offer for Serbia now?
Such people need to be reminded that the Serbian government's current behaviour towards Montenegro is no way to persuade the EU member states to be more forthcoming. The EU showed last year that it remains ready to move forward with those who are ready to do what it takes - as shown by the start of accession negotiations with Croatia, and the award of candidate status to FYROM. Likewise, rapid recognition and restarting the SAA negotiations with Montenegro would send an exceptionally powerful confirmation of this message to Serbian society.
Moreover, the EU's expectation that Serbia will work constructively to effect a smooth and rapid 'divorce' with Montenegro should feature as an item on the agenda of member-states' forthcoming bilateral meetings with the Serbian government.
On the perennial question of elections in Serbia: Both DSS and DS still seem confident that the EU will do anything to keep the Radicals out of power. And of course, the EU should do what it can. But we should remind them that we cannot do it for them, if they are (unwittingly or otherwise) set on bringing about this very result by their action, inaction or general ineptitude. They are going to have difficulty putting a package of 'achievements' before the voters. A good momentum in recasting Serbian-Montenegrin relations is in their interests here. This point - self-evident to outsiders - may need to be made to Serbian politicians.
My hunch is that Mladic will not be in the Hague by September, when the G17 Plus party (now led by Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic in the wake of Labus's resignation) will activate their resignations from the government. This will bring down the government and elections follow within 90 days - not far off the end of the term of the present government anyway. My interlocutors in Belgrade were expecting cooperation from Ahtisaari, in not bringing his proposals for Kosovo to the UN before elections in Serbia. That means delaying his report to the UN until October or even later. Can or should the Kosovo status process be put on hold to accommodate Serbia? This would only be worth considering if one assumes that the 'democrats' have the sense not to squander the breathing space thus offered. Will the international community be ready to help them out with this type of concession, if there is no evidence that they can even get it together on Montenegro?