Montenegro: Jump higher

So, Montenegro.

Little mountainous state on the Adriatic. Six hundred thousand people, mostly Montenegrins, a few Albanians and whatnot. Was an independent country until 1919, when it got swept up into Yugoslavia. Now it’s part of the “Federal Union of Serbia and Montenegro”, which consists of (1) Serbia, and (2) Montenegro.

And they’re arguing about whether they should leave. After all, the Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, and Macedonians all left, right? And the Kosovars are about to, any day now. Why should Montenegro be left behind? They had their own country for centuries; why not once again?

Why not indeed:

1) Montenegrin independence makes very little sense. The country is small and consists mostly of mountains. It’s heavily subsidized by Serbia. An independent Montenegro would be an economic basket case for a long time to come.

2) Very broadly speaking, the international community would like to see Serbia and Montenegro stick together. (The region has enough countries already.) An independent Montenegro would further complicate a region that’s already quite compicated enough.

3) Montenegrins and Serbs are, basically, the same people. I’m not talking about one of those subtle Balkan “they look exactly alike to outsiders, but they know their own” type deals, like Serbs and Croats. No. I’m talking, like, Montenegrins often call themselves “Mountain Serbs”, and large numbers of them self-identify as Serbs. Montenegrin nationalism (as opposed to Montenegrin regionalism and specificism… different things) is almost entirely a post-Communist construct.

4) 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.)

5) Montenegro’s government, while decent in several respects (they’ve been admirably slow to play the race-baiting card, despite Montenegro’s Albanian and Muslim minorities) is corrupt, inbred, intolerant of criticism, and deeply linked with regional criminal elites. Any subsequent government is likely to be worse rather than better… and independence is likely to make this worse yet, by imposing significant additional costs and burdens, while giving the nation’s elites new toys to play with. (“Hey, who wants to run the new State Investigative Bureau? No, not you, you’re already ambassador to Italy.”)

6) Brooding Serbian paranoia and victim-nationalism will not be improved by this. It’ll be a shot in the arm for wingnuttery of every sort. This at a time when imminent independence for Kosovo is already putting Serbia under heavy stress.

7) Did I mention that it would be an economic basket case?

There would be endless fiendish details to work out. Frex, there are over 100,000 Montenegrins in Belgrade alone. By some estimates every fourth Montenegrin lives in Serbia. There’s a very substantial brain drain out of the country, as ambitious young people tend to go north. What becomes of those people? Even Slovenia has problems with this issue; will Serbia do better?

Is there anything good to say about this? Well, Montenegrin independence would probably be accomplished without violence. The country is almost independent already in several respects. It uses a different currency than Serbia’s (Montenegro is on the Euro). It has drastically different laws. When you cross the border between the two states, you go through Customs. And the current federal union has almost ceased to function already. So formal independence would not be such a shattering break.

But it’s a deeply, obviously stupid idea.

So why is it even an issue?

Well, Djukanovic — the current Prime Minister of Montenegro, and the dominant political figure there since 1991 — is a clever, amoral opportunist. (I know, I know… the very last thing you’d expect to find running a republic of the former Yugoslavia.) And he’s had a good long run, with some remarkable accomplishments. But he’s nearly painted himself into a corner in the last couple of years. The economy isn’t growing, FDI isn’t flowing in, the Serbs can’t stand him, people are getting unhappy about things like dead journalists, and the international community is no longer charmed by his ‘look at me! I’m a plucky democratic patriot from an appealing small nation’ act.

So independence. It makes perfect sense for him, and for the people around him. They’d be running a sovereign nation, no longer having to pay even lip service to Belgrade. It would be a disaster for Montenegro, but so what? Independence has been a disaster for most of the republics of theformer Yugoslavia. That hasn’t stopped one nation from turning into five-and-counting. Political elites exploiting nationalism to advance their own interests: that’s just post-Yugoslavia for you. So, PM Djukanovic and his cronies have been using Montenegro’s state-dominated media to whip up nationalist sentiment,

Now, the next act of the story should be: Montenegro holds a referendum, declares independence.

But! Enter the EU. Which has, through judicious and sustained arm-twisting, forced the Montenegrin government to agree on the following requirements:

1) 50% of eligible voters must vote; and,
2) 55% of those most vote in favor of independence.

This is setting the bar really quite high. Most commentary (insofar as there has been any… not a lot of people outside the region care) has focused on the 55% requirement. Djukanovic and his supporters call it “undemocratic”. Me, I think it’s great — I think breaking up a country should require a clear majority, not a narrow one, and I give kudos to the EU for the sudden discovery of testicles — but reasonable men can differ.

It’s the second requirement that may be the kicker, though. Voter turnout in this part of the world tends to be low. In 2002, two Serbian presidential elections in a row had to be voided for having less than 50%. A referendum in Macedonia last year generated less than 30%.

Who will win? Well, the referendum has been set for May 21. Me, I won’t be shocked by a victory for either side, but at the moment I’d slightly favor the “no” forces; the quiet but clear EU opposition to independence will be hard to overcome.

Other hand, Djukanovic and his people are in charge, and they really don’t want to lose this — it would be a major political blow. So I wouldn’t write the “yes” side off just yet.

Of course, whichever side wins, further complications will then ensue. If yes, then independence; see above. If no, then Montenegro will have to renegotiate its relationship with Serbia, as the existing federal structure has pretty much completely broken down.

So, watch this space.

3 thoughts on “Montenegro: Jump higher

  1. Fascinating. I hope this will be the end of the nationalism-marching-on theme that has chararcterised the former Soviet world for the last decade and a half, but I suspect it won’t, even if the referendum gives a no vote.

  2. Why is point 6 relevant at all? If Serbs are so addicted to imperialism, why placate them? Weimar Germany was threatening; post-Milosevic Serbia’s just pathetic.

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