Montenegro III: Am Not, Are So

Continuing AFOE’s first point-counterpoint debate between two posters, here’s my final post on Montenegrin independence.

I’ll discuss a few specific points that BG made, then say why I still think independence is a deeply dumb idea.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Yet he seems to think that rolling history back is both possible and desirable.

I really have no idea where this comes from. I think Montenegro and Serbia should stay together, yes. Does this mean I want the old Yugoslavia back? Hardly. I think they need to renegotiate their relationship, as the current one doesn’t work. But that means moving forward, not back.

“It’s heavily subsidized by Serbia.” No it’s not.

Ah, yes it is. Montenegro still enjoys a wide variety of indirect subsidies from Serbia. To give just a few examples:

— Montenegro imports electricity from Serbia for much less than the going regional price.
— Serbia shoulders a disproportionate burden of most social welfare payments. (These are assessed in proportion to population, but since Montenegro is poorer, it’s taking more per capita.)
— Serbia purchases much of the output from Montenegro’s largest single factory, the Tito-era KAP aluminum refinery, at prices well above world market price.
— Serbia services almost all of the federal debt, though a disproportionate amount of this was accrued by Montenegro.

How much does this amount to? I don’t know, but I think a conservative estimate would be in the range of 2%-4% of Montenegrin GDP.

All that direct budgetary support was cut in the Milosevic era. Montenegro is economically self-sufficient.

Um, no, it isn’t. In addition to the aforementioned subsidies, Montenegro has one of the highest per capita current account deficits in Europe, estimated at a breathtaking 19% of GDP. They import far more than they export. That’s been true for a while now, and will be true for many years to come. If they weren’t on the Euro, their currency would have collapsed by now.

Then there’s foreign aid. This amounts to around 8% of GDP. If that sounds like a lot, keep in mind that Montenegro’s GDP is only about 1.6 billion euros. USAID alone is over $25 million. Add up other American aid, World Bank grants, EU, EBRD, UNDP and bilateral aid programs and it’s well over $120 million per year.

So, totalling up conservative estimates of subsidies from Serbia, current account deficit, and foreign aid, we see that Montenegro is currently sponging close to 30% of its GDP. That figure would be no big deal in Africa, but it’s rather startling in Europe. I have trouble seeing how a country can be called “economically self-sufficient” under those circumstances, but perhaps our definitions differ.

“The present federal union is a sweetheart deal for Montenegro. To give just one example, Montenegro has 8% of the population but 50% of the ambassadors and diplomatic staff. (A Serbian acquaintance of mine dryly asked if they could find that many Montenegrins who could read.)” So Montenegrins don’t deserve independence because they are all stupid? I dunno, I thought we were trying to steer away from that sort of stereotyping. Some would call it racism.

Bigotry, not racism. My point was that Serbs are well aware that they’re giving Montenegro a sweetheart deal. I don’t think Montenegrins are stupid, no. I do think that giving 8% of the population 50% of the benefits was kinda dopey.

The Montenegrin government is the only multi-ethnic coalition in the region which did not emerge from conflict.

Um. Last time I looked, Romania and Bulgaria both included ethnic minority parties in the ruling coalition. I won’t even mention Vojvodina.

Their reward for being nice to their minorities is that Serbs call them stupid and foreigner call them nationalists.

Pft. Their reward for being nice to their minorities is that they’ve managed to avoid having a civil war.

That said, I do hope you’re not getting the idea that Montenegro is some sort of island of peace and tolerance. Montenegrins were notoriously vicious fighters (on the Serb side, of course) in the Yugoslav wars. The destruction of Dubrovnik? Montenegrins. Montenegrins made up a disproportionate share of some of the nastiest paramilitary groups, such as Seselj’s White Eagles. And, of course, the famous Zeljko Raznatovic, aka Arkan: Montenegrin.

Montenegrins are underrepresented among indicted war criminals because they were underrepresented in command positions. But don’t get the idea that they sat out the wars. They were enthusiastic junior partners of Serbia until 1996.

They’ve been nice to their minorities because (1) the minorities are small, and have been politically quiescent; and, (2) Djukanovic has been smart enough to realize that there’s no end to that road. Will the next Montenegrin leader be as wise? I suppose we’ll find out.

I have to agree that the government is far from perfect; yet they are far from the only government in the region who are “corrupt, inbred, intolerant of criticism, and deeply linked with regional criminal elites”. In fact, I don’t even think they are the worst.

Hm. In late 2004, Dusko Jovanovic, head of the main opposition paper, was cut down by automatic weapons fire as he left his office. Then, a year later, the guy in charge of investigating his murder — the deputy chief of the Montenegrin criminal investigation police — was murdered in much the same manner. That was in November 2005.

You don’t see that sort of thing going on in Serbia or Albania these days. Troublesome journalists still get beaten up with depressing regularity, but gangland style executions? Followed by whacking the cop too? Not for a while now.

independence will increase transparency

Really? Why? Did transparency increase in the other Yugoslav republics after independence? Do you expect it to increase in Kosovo?

and the ability of international forces to exert conditionality,

Huh. International groups are exerting conditionality right now, with the imposition of the 55%. You don’t seem to like that much.

More seriously: Montenegro currently negotiates its own conditionalities with the World Bank and the IMF. So, no change there.

“Serbian paranoia and victim-nationalism will not be improved by this.” So other people must shape their policies, indeed their countries, in order not to offend the refined sensibilities of the Serbs? Do we use this argument to the Kosovars?

Straw man again. The Kosovars are something else entirely, as you know perfectly well. Most obviously, they’ve suffered under a decade of a brutal Serbian police state. Through malevolent racism and deliberate misrule, Belgrade has forfeited its rights in Kosovo. Montenegro, on the other hand, has been granted full autonomy short of sovereignty, along with subsidies, free movement of citizens, and generally tender treatment. The Serbs have given the Montenegrins a sweetheart deal.

So, yes, I do think their sensibilities should be at least considered. The alternative, it seems to me, is to say that the nation as a whole never has any interest in the secession of a smaller part. That seems ridiculous on its face.

Finally, as a practical matter, Serbia could make this either easy or hard. They could make life very difficult for Montenegro if they cared to. I’m not talking war or blockade. More simple stuff like “sorry, you’re a foreigner, can’t work here any more.” Montenegro, like neighboring Albania, is a poor country with a large diaspora. But while Albanians go to Italy and Germany and Greece, Montenegrins go first to Serbia. (It’s poor, but it’s richer than Montenegro, and the language and culture are the same.) Kicking them out would be perfectly legal, consistent with the EU’s own practice… and would kneecap Montenegro’s economy overnight.

So, yes, I do think Serbia’s views should be at least considered.

Uncertainty is what feeds paranoia.

Hardly. Having large numbers of your people suddenly shunted into other countries feeds paranoia.

“Did I mention that it would be an economic basket case?” You did, and you are still wrong!!!

Three exclamation points. Hm.

Some data points. Montenegro’s current PPP-adjusted GPD is around $4,000 per year, roughly the same as Guatemala. About 12% of GDP (and a whopping 60% of export earnings) comes from the country’s only significant industry, the obsolete, massively indebted KAP aluminum plant.

Total FDI in the last five years has been about $450 million. Per capita, that’s about the same as neighboring Albania. It’s about a third less than Serbia and roughly a tenth of Hungary. Almost all FDI consists of either privatization (which is almost done) or investment in tourism (which is growing rapidly, but only along the narrow coastal strip).

The IMF gives the following figures for GDP growth rates.

2005 2006 2007

Serbia 7.5% 4.5-6% 5%
Montenegro 3.1% 3.3% 3-4%

So, Montenegro has been growing at about half the rate of Serbia, and will continue to do so. By way of regional comparison, Albania and Macedonia have both been growing at 5%-6% for the last several years.

Almost all of that growth comes from tourism, BTW. Take that out and the rest of the economy is dead flat. And it’s an open question whether Montenegro’s tourism industry can be long-term competitive with Croatia (which has more to see and do, better service, and is easier to reach) and Albania (which is much cheaper).

You can argue whether or not this constitutes “basket case”. But Montenegro is one of the poorest countries of Europe’s poorest region, and it shows no sign of shedding that status any time soon.

“Independence has been a disaster for most of the republics of theformer Yugoslavia.” They should have stayed in a Milosevic-dominated federation?

There’s that pesky straw man again. Although I would argue with a straight face that the average Croat, Bosnian or Macedonian would be better off today if they’d gritted their teeth, ignored their own nationalists and outwaited Slobo. But that’s a story for another post. My point here is, there are few concrete benefits to independence, and plenty of downsides.

I deplore the EU’s strong-arm tactic

Me, I applaud it. Even if I thought independence was a good idea and made sense, I wouldn’t want to see it entered into lightly. Minimum turnouts and elevated majority requirements strike me as perfectly reasonable. Especially given the background of this referendum — the history of the region generally, and the recent history of Montenegro in particular.

To be clear: I also applauded the EU’s firm line with Croatia on the Gotovina issue, and with Serbia on Mladic and Karadzic. I thought the Bush administration carried of a rare stroke of diplomatic brilliance when it recognized Macedonia’s proper name on the eve of the referendum there. And I was generally a fan of Paddy Ashdown, Proconsul.

“Who will win?” Well, I rather hope the people of Montenegro will win, in that they make a clear decision one way or the other. The current uncertainty is doing nobody any good.

Yes and no. A yes vote for independence would be clear-cut, sure. I think it would be the wrong decision, but it would point the way forward. A no vote might be better for all concerned in the long run, but it would lead to a period of increased uncertainty in the next year or two while Belgrade and Podgorica negotiate a new relationship.

I doubt all this will convince you, but I hope I’ve at least advanced some plausible reasons for my position. I suspect there’s a deeper philosophical issue here. Having lived in the former Yugoslavia for some years, I’ve come to loathe Balkan-style nationalists from the bottom of my heart. Patriotism may or may not be “the last refuge of the scoundrel”, but in the Balkan’s it’s the very first refuge ofr the gangster, the religious fanatic, the kleptocrat and the bigot. Splitting up the former Yugoslavia was a horrible idea; the majority of its inhabitants have yet to recover the standard of living they enjoyed in 1990. Under these circumstances, in a region that’s still deeply traumatized by its recent history, surely we should be reasonably cautious about further splitting?

(Kosovo, yes. Bloody but necessary surgery, and very different from what we’re talking about here. And even there, the Kosovars have been waiting for their independence for six long years now.)

Further: given the general shiftiness and sleaziness of the Djukanovic administration, and the far-from-complete independence of the local media… does 50%-plus-one, even with monitoring, really make that much sense? Djukanovic has been in office nonstop for the last fifteen years. He knows how to win elections in Montenegro. And he’s already made it clear that his administration will use government resources to push the “yes” vote. Under those circumstances, a narrow victory would have a distinctly funny smell, and would be likely to alienate the large minority who oppose it. So, pushing the bar a bit higher seems not just prudent but positively wise.

Well. I could go on, but this is plenty long enough. Comments welcome; and I’d also be interested to hear whether you readers like this sort of tit-for-tat, and would care to see more of it. I don’t think anyone wants to turn this blog into Usenet, but I’m curious to know whether this is even mildly interesting to anyone.

13 thoughts on “Montenegro III: Am Not, Are So

  1. Surprising that a small country with an alumium smelter imports electricity. Also electricity sold to them for a lower rate. Who would have thought that?

    ps. Electricity rates are very dependend on usage pattern and as such can’t easily be compared. Most electricity imports are on the higest usage days but Montenegro’s alumium refinery is probably closed on those days and their hydrodams on full power. The electricity on those days is much dearer

  2. I think this has been an interesting topic, particularly as it’s a subject which has had very little serious airing in mainstream media – and therefore in my opinion naturally territory for a blog like this.

    Balkan nationalism is obviously a very complex subject and there are always multiple viewpoints, so in this instance the format of this debate has been useful to see the opposing sides of the argument.

    Onto the subject itsself – I seem to remember that Montenegro was the only balkan country never conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and therefore had a longer history of independence prior to the formation of Yugoslavia than the other constituent republics. Which therefore always surprised me that there wasn’t a stronger independence movement than there has been.

    And finally…I not yesterday that relations between Serbia & Montenegro have broken down enough that they can’t agree who to send to the Eurovision Song Contest and have now withdrawn their entry this year!

  3. Can’t they do it like normal people over a football game. The Eurovision Song Contest makes it sound such like a farce

  4. “Can’t they do it like normal people over a football game. The Eurovision Song Contest makes it sound such like a farce”

    It does sound a bit ‘uncool’, doesn’t it? 🙂

    Disclaimer: not that there’s anything wrong with the Song Festival

  5. Let’s not be snobby here – if the Eurovision Song Contest was good enough to signal the start of Portugal’s 1974 Carnation revolution, it’s good enough to help mark the divorce of Serbia & Montenegro

    (Wikipedia has the detail for those of you unfamiliar with Eurovision’s previous significant intrusion into European politics: )

  6. Didn’t the Croatian troubles start with a foorball game?

    ps. The real reason why Montenegro shouldn’t become independend: Another Balkan country that will vote on other Balkan countries in the Eurovision Song Contest. How can any other win?

  7. I really enjoyed the debate. It would be good to see more of it. On the main subject, I also agree that independence does not make a lot of sense, for the various reasons outlined. The current deal is extremely beneficial to Montenegro. Still, if they want to go it alone and fend for themselves then so be it. With better growth rates and a more diverse economy, the main winner from the split is actually likely to Serbia. By the way, it is also good to see that Montenegro’s dirty little secret about its involvement in the Yugoslav wars was also raised. I have often felt that the current situation is rather akin to situation with Germany and Austria after WWII. Austria managed to get off very lightly for its role.

  8. Montenegro needs its independence. And frankly the Albanian area of Macedonia does as well. I was just there for six months ending this winter. Half the population considers itself non-Macedonian. It certainly is much closer to the Kosovo situation: downtrodden, persecuted, fudnimentally different population (different religion, different language, different sense of national identity). No question it will happen. better sooner than later. They are not integrated seriously.

  9. And when do you stop carving off parts of states because a segment of the population feels different and wants independence?

    The very reason why the international community has studiously avoided recognising seccessionist movements for the last fifty years is that once you start to ackowledge an unfettered right to self-determination you open up the way to state fragmentation on a massive scale. Why should the Albanians in Macedonia have the right to their own state or to unite with Kosovo and not the Hungarians in Vojvodina or Romania. And what about the Bosnian Serbs uniting with Serbia? How about the Muslims of Western Thrace joining Turkey? What about Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Trans-Dniestra, Northern Cyprus, the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The list goes on.

    The alternative route since the end of the Second World War has therefore been to promote political equality and full respect for minority rights. This is the model that we have sought to implement in any number of other cases, even in cases where the minority feels fundamentally different. Abandoning this model – even in the case of Kosovo – has the potential to increase international conflict and not limit it. Already Russia has said that Kosovo should be a precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Are we really ready to turn our backs on established practice and tacitly encourage separatism over reconcilliation and democratisation within existing borders?

  10. Acu tetigistus, Jim.

    I’m pro-secession when the secessionist group is distinctly different, has a just cause, would clearly be better off as a separate country, and when integration is clearly not a plausible alternative.

    Kosovo satisfies three and a half out of four of those. Macedonian Albanians, maybe two out of four. Montenegro, none out of four.

    I’m just not seeing it.

    Doug M.

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