Well, we are united in our diversity here at Fistful. I have to say I disagree with almost every point Doug made about Montenegro in his last post, and will respectfully dissect his arguments below. But first off, a plea for some sanity here. Too many people seem to think that the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990-93 was in some way the EU’s “fault”; that it failed to act quickly enough, to apply diplomatic pressure, or even (in contradiction to the evidence) that the EU’s recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in December 1991 somehow caused the wars. Nonsense. The fact is that Yugoslavia was broken up by the policies of the Serbian leadership. Outsiders tried to ameliorate or decelerate the process and the consequences; they largely failed. The international community does bear some responsibility for its inaction in the face of evil. But the larger share of the responsibility belongs to the local actors – especially, though not only, the Serbian political leaders. The fact is that we can plan all we like for international do-gooding, but the forces in action on the ground will always be the crucial factor. And so it is in Montenegro.
I’m sure Doug agrees with me on most of that. Now let’s get to the points of our disagreement. It’s important to realise that Montenegro has been effectively independent since 1997, when Djukanovic, then Prime Minister, threw the pro-Milosevic elements out of the ruling party and won the Presidential election against his former patron. Montenegro has had a separate customs area since roughly then. It adopted the Deutsch Mark (now the Euro) as currency in 1999, while Serbia retains the dinar to this day. The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, established in 2003, remains largely fictional apart from the foreign ministry. Montenegro’s referendum, if successful, will merely formalise the reality of its independence. In fairness, Doug states most of this as well. Yet he seems to think that rolling history back is both possible and desirable.
Specific points of Doug’s with which I take issue:
“Was an independent country until 1919, when it got swept up into Yugoslavia.” Until 1918 when Serbia annexed it.
“Itâ€™s heavily subsidized by Serbia.” No it’s not. All that direct budgetary support was cut in the Milosevic era. Montenegro is economically self-sufficient. (After all, it has been functionallty independent since 1997.)
“The region has enough countries already.” Surely an issue for the Montenegrin people to decide?
“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.
“Montenegroâ€™s government, while decent in several respects (theyâ€™ve been admirably slow to play the race-baiting card, despite Montenegroâ€™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 betterâ€¦ and independence is likely to make this worse yet, by imposing significant additional costs and burdens, while giving the nationâ€™s elites new toys to play with. (â€œHey, who wants to run the new State Investigative Bureau? No, not you, youâ€™re already ambassador to Italy.â€)”
This actually is the key point. The Montenegrin government is the only multi-ethnic coalition in the region which did not emerge from conflict. Their reward for being nice to their minorities is that Serbs call them stupid and foreigner call them nationalists. 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.
But more importantly, independence will increase transparency and the ability of international forces to exert conditionality, not the reverse. Montenegro already has both a foreign ministry, and the equivalent of a state investigative bureau, so the specific example is irrelevant. But the general principle is wrong as well. At present, both Montenegro and Serbia can hide behind the responsibilities of the largely fictional state union structures, and indeed reward their supporters with plums from that particular bureaucracy (including, as it happens, the position of Ambassador to Italy, which is indeed held by a Montenegrin). Abolish it, and you remove one layer of spoils. You also remove the ability of Podgorica to say, “Well, we’d love to adopt that piece of EU-recommended legislation, but apparently it is a state-level responsibility so you’ll have to go and talk to someone in Belgrade whose phone number we seem to have lost.”
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?
More concretely, what Serbia needs is for its border questions to be sorted. That means resolving both Montenegro and Kosovo; but it also means everyone in the international community should be clear that there will be no messing with the borders of Serbia proper, whether in Vojvodina, the Presevo Valley or the Sandzak. Uncertainty is what feeds paranoia.
“Did I mention that it would be an economic basket case?” You did, and you are still wrong!!!
There would be endless fiendish details to work out. There are fiendish details to work out in the current dysfunctional state union, and no political will -from either Montenegro or Serbia – to work them out. At least with a formal separation the agenda becomes clear.
Djukanovic — the current Prime Minister of Montenegro, and the dominant political figure there since 1991 that would be 1996.
Independence has been a disaster for most of the republics of theformer Yugoslavia. They should have stayed in a Milosevic-dominated federation?
“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 anyâ€¦ not a lot of people outside the region care) has focused on the 55% requirement. Djukanovic and his supporters call it â€œundemocraticâ€. Me, I think itâ€™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.”
Indeed. I think we are both reasonable; and I think we differ on this. In particular, I deplore the EU’s strong-arm tactic of threatening to withhold international monitoring of the referendum unless their conditions were adopted. When one considers the dodgy elections and referenda which are monitored elsewhere, and the fact that the Venice Commission had rated Montenegro’s referendum law as at least adequate (and certainly legal), this really was a disgraceful threat – made by an unelected EU official without reference back to the member states, as far as I can tell.
But, conditionality works when you are an independent state, or trying to be one, and the Montenegrin government (and opposition) accepted the EU’s conditions.
Itâ€™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%.
You leave out the rather important fact that those votes were all subject to a boycott, formal or informal, by significant political forces. The excuse the EU gave for its heavy-handed intervention in Montenegro was precisely to avoid any boycott – and that appears to have worked, in that all political parties have accepted that they will campaign for a vote one way or the other in the referendum. In any case, turnout in Montenegro has historically been pretty high.
“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.