Montenegro – the other side

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.

“It’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.

“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.”)”

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 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.”

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.

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%.

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.

26 thoughts on “Montenegro – the other side

  1. 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.

    Why different rules for Kosovo and Vojvodina? They are both equally part of, or not part of, Serbia proper.

  2. Brussels Gonzo clearly has a distorted view based on obvious propaganda and lack of knowledge. I strongly urge Brussels to follow the current Milosevic trial in the hague via internet. This will help to seperate fact from fiction. After four years, Slobodan Milosevic is clearly proving his innonence and exposing the truth. As for the people of Serbia and Montenegro, one thing is for certain. They are majority south slavic orthodox christians. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out its in there best interest to stay united. However the new world order will do the dictating, not the people of Montenegro!

  3. Alexander, quite apart from the fact that very few of its inhabitants are interested in secession, last time I checked Vojvodina was not governed by an international administration set up by a UN resolution which also mandated a process of resolving its status. It is actually ruled by Serbia; Kosovo has not been since 1999. I think that there are significant differences.

  4. Todd, I regret to inform you that not all observers of the Milosevic trial share your assessment. You (and any other interested readers) might benefit from looking at the coverage at http://www.iwpr.net or even the piece on Slate a few months back.

  5. Main problem with Montenegro lies in the fact that Montenegrins are split roughly in half between pro- and contra-indepedence camps.

    Pro-indepedence minded ones live in south half of the Montenegro and regard themselves distinct nation.

    Pro-union half inhabits mainly northern part and consider themselves part of Serbian nation (like Njegos thought himself). Montenegrin identity for them is regional one — they actually think that they are
    creme-de-la-creme of the Serbs!

    Problem is that whatever side wins, it will win with slight majority, not with triumphant 90% and other side would have to reconcile themselves with defeat (which will be hard). I predict that result will be between 50% and 56% for indepedence. Either way, you will have half of the population feel victims.

    And, by the way, Djukanovic was in position of power since 1991 — when he became Prime Minister of Montengro. Actually, his first full time job since graduating from University was Prime Minister one (he was 29 at the time). During college, he was prominent communist activist and head of University section of Communist Party.

  6. Not Milosevic per se, but his henchman Bulatovic, the President who was defeated by Djukanovic in 1997 (not 1996 – my mistake). Indeed Djukanovic had been PM since 1991 but it was Bulatovic as President who pulled the strings, largely in line with Milosevic’s policies

  7. Not Milosevic per se, but his henchman Bulatovic, the President who was defeated by Djukanovic in 1997 (not 1996 – my mistake). Indeed Djukanovic had been PM since 1991 but it was Bulatovic as President who pulled the strings, largely in line with Milosevic’s policies

  8. Well, we disagree.

    Shall we make this AFOE’s first point/counterpoint? If nobody objects, I’ll do a response to your rebuttal as a separate post in the next day or two.

    Doug M.

  9. I will address one issue here in the comments, since it’s not directly relevant to Montenegro.

    Brussels Gonzo writes that “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.”

    I have to disagree with both these points. Or rather, disagree partially with the first, and largely with the second. (We’re in the Balkans now, where little is ever clear-cut.)

    Was the breakup of Yugoslavia the EU’s “fault”? Of course not. But that’s a straw man question. The real issue is, was the subsequent war in Yugoslavia — with an estimated 130,000 dead, almost all civilians, and nearly two million people displaced, most of them permanently, and tens of billions of dollars of economic damage — in some measure the EU’s fault? That’s a much harder question, and I think the answer is “yes”.

    There was no reason for that war to last as long as it did. Most of the major actors — in particular Milosevic — were opportunists rather than ideologues; they kept the war going because they thought it was in their interests, not out of a deep rooted desire to claim the ground of Holy Mother Serbia, or some such. When firmly confronted, in Bosnia or Croatia, Milosevic always backed down. (Not in Kosovo, no. But that was something else again.) The problem is, he was never firmly confronted until every other avenue had been exhausted.

    European fussiness and timidity bears much of the blame for this. Do I need to retell this sorry story here? The fascination with process? the willingness to seize on any sign of “progress”, even as cease-fire after cease-fire was violated? The pretense that the tools of “legitimate” diplomacy — sanctions, demarches, memoranda of understanding — were accomplishing anything worth doing? The willingness to allow the agony of Sarajevo to continue, month after month and year after year, while the diplomats came and went?

    I apologize if this seems a bit overheated. But while /yes/ the breakup of Yugoslavia was driven by local actors, and /yes/ those same actors bear most of the responsibility for the subsequent war, I do not believe that Europe escapes legitimate blame.

    No. If Europe had acted firmly and in concert, that war could have been ended in six months. The power was there. The will was not. Brussels Gonzo writes that “outsiders tried to ameliorate”; but the plain fact is, they didn’t try all that hard.

    Second issue: “the fact is that Yugoslavia was broken up by the policies of the Serbian leadership”.

    There’s so much blame to go around that it hardly seems worth arguing at this point. Still, history is what it is. And while Belgrade gets the single biggest helping of blame, plenty accrues to Zagreb, Sarajevo, and even Knin. You can’t tell the story of the breakup of Yugoslavia without bringing in Slovene, Muslim, and above all Croat nationalism. Nor without noting that in Tudjman — mean-spirited, narrow-minded, arrogant and greedy — Milosevic found the perfect enemy, foil, and partner.

    Thought experiment: pop a cap in Milosevic in 1987, and replace the rest of the Serbian Party leadership with mild-mannered Yugophiles. Otherwise, keep all the other actors constant. Does Yugoslavia survive? Heck no. It might get a softer landing, okay. But there will still be at least four different countries when the dust settles.

    Right. On to Montenegro, as time permits.

    Doug M.

  10. This is a very interesting debate. I agree with both of you on some things (and logically and obviously not on others).

    “I have to disagree with both these points. Or rather, disagree partially with the first, and largely with the second.”

    I think I mainly agree with Doug M here.

    “The fact is that Yugoslavia was broken up by the policies of the Serbian leadership.”

    Wasn’t it broken up by a dynamic which was unleashed by the death of Tito, very much in the way that (dare I say it) Iraq is being broken up by the removal of Saddam. (Or the USSR was broken up by the death of Breshnev, or should that be Stalin, history sometimes has a long arm).

    And blaming ‘nationalism’ is really a kind of circular argument, since the real question is why the nationalism is there in the first place, and why it rouses so much hate. Why, for example, are things so god damn bitter in the North of Ireland and so comparatively tame across Offa’s Dyke. And why were things never (apparently) so bitter with the Slovenes. I would have thought this comes down to more than ‘leadership’.

    So I really don’t think you can pin the breaking up of artificially created states down to individuals, however bad or weak they may be on all the various sides. What you can almost certainly do is hold people responsible for the bloodshed.

    Did EU inaction lead to more rather than less bloodshed? I would say that it almost certainly did. Would avoiding such bloodshed have meant that footsoldiers from EU member states would have died in the place of some of those whose lives were saved? Again almost certainly it would have. This is why we didn’t go, or at least didn’t go in the strength to put a stop to things.

    But even then, when people really want to get at each other, even heavy troop presence may do little to dissuade. I hope I am wrong, but I suspect we may be about to see all these theories tested in Iraq, where of course, as we all know, the US troop presence is not inconsiderable.

    “European fussiness and timidity bears much of the blame for this. Do I need to retell this sorry story here? The fascination with process? the willingness to seize on any sign of “progress”, even as cease-fire after cease-fire was violated? The pretense that the tools of “legitimate” diplomacy — sanctions, demarches, memoranda of understanding — were accomplishing anything worth doing?”

    You are obviously right. But then handling a crazed dictator is hardly easy (I have the word of herr hitler!) – incidentally I wouldn’t exonerate Milosevic from the cardinal role in anything like the way you seem to do. Of course Yugolslavia would have broken up, it was always going to do that (am I talking about Iraq here too???), but it might have broken up with less viciousness and less loss of life if there hadn’t been a crazed fanatic at the front of one of the parties. Again I hate to say this, but aren’t we all, and I include the US and Condoleeza Rice here – doing exactly the same with the current case of Iran. Amedin-Nejad is every bit as crazed and dangerous as Milosovic was, but we don’t seem to be learning any of the lessons. Iran is simply using the diplomatic process to play, and in the meantime they are getting on with whatever it is they have it in mind to get on with. At the very least there are now public hangings on a daily basis.

    I think I’ll leave poor little Montenegro till after Dougs reply, though I am definitely more sympathetic to what the Gonzo has been saying here.

  11. I don’t think the EU is so pro the union as you make out.

    In the recent Energy Community Treaty with the EU, Serbia and Montenegro signed separately (energy is not a union competence) and both countries send separate representatives to all meetings with the EU.

  12. Iraq was already broken up in 1992 when Kurdistan got is unofficial indepence but i can’t see the Arab part being broken up more. I know that this is hoped for in Washington, London and Tehran but i fear that the reverse will happen (That Iraq will suck up Jordan, Kuwait and maybe Arab Syria and Lebanon)

    Also there were historic reasons why Europe couldn’t send troops at the start of the war. You could think about Germany but the other major European players have also issues. Besides the ceasefire didn’t happen because of the sending of European troops but the shipment of weapons to the weaker party

  13. This is the core of a much longer post for another time, but for the record, I completely disagree that the break-up of Yugoslavia was inevitable. Had the Serbian leadership of the day decided to cut a deal with the Slovenes, Yugoslavia could have joined the EU last year.

  14. “I completely disagree that the break-up of Yugoslavia was inevitable.”

    Interesting. So now it’s a three way split :). I look forward. My difficulty with the arguments which focus principally on leaders is that they miss the large part of the iceberg submerged below the water. I think there are much more complex identity related processes at work here, and as Amin Maalouf says, there are ‘identities’ that kill.

  15. You think the breakup could have been avoided purely if “the Serbian leadership had decided to cut a deal with the Slovenes”?

    Our differences sharpen: I think that’s just totally wrong. To put my cards on the table, I think the breakup was very likely after about 1986, and inevitable by late 1989.

    Would this deal have somehow caused Croat nationalism to disappear, and Tudjman to go back to retirement? Would it have silenced both sorts of Kosovars?

    — BG, are you familiar with the recent history of Croat nationalism? It’s every bit as virulent as the Serb sort. Not quite as well armed… but this was little comfort to Croatia’s large Serbian minority.

    To shut down the feedback loop, you need to somehow shut down both the major parties. Quieting just one isn’t enough. Remember, the “Revolt of the Logs” was a local thing, even if Belgrade promptly seized on it. In your makes-a-deal world, it would still happen. With similar tit-for-tat effects.

    I really don’t think the history supports your position. I’d be interested to see you play it out, though.

    Doug M.

  16. Warren Zimmerman, the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia, told me that he thought the breakup was inevitable too. Not that the Bush I administration was right about everything there (or indeed even right about many things there). I think that both ‘Europe’ and the US could and should have done much more to lessen the bloodshed much earlier. I suspect that the Bush people were constrained because of deeply held beliefs about the way the state system works, or rather worked. Remember the Chicken Kiev speech. Though it’s probably hard to recognize a genuinely revolutionary moment after decades in government.

    I suspect that in the end, Yugoslavia went away for the same fundamental reason that Weimar did: too few people with real power truly supported it.

    Now the sources of that power and the reasons for leaders’ indifference to (or hostility to) Yugoslavia are interesting and subtle questions. But when push came to shove, almost no one was willing to go to the mat for Yugoslavia. And thus the Balkans were even more Balkanized.

  17. There’s a question of contingent and long-term responsibility here. The hon sec of the British Milosevic fan club, John Laughland, was inevitably in today’s Guardian with his usual apologia. I was especially annoyed by the assertion that “Milosevic is accused of upsetting the constitution’s internal balance, but no-one thought Yugoslavia could long survive Tito”.

    Yeah, perhaps the breakup was inevitable. But if you crash a car into a bus queue and kill a dozen people, don’t expect to get off on the grounds that the car was too powerful. If the Yugoslav constitutional structure was shaky, that is no defence for jumping up and down on it until it collapsed.

    Even if it was inevitable, there remains the 250,000 corpse question – was it inevitable that it would be accomplished by war?

  18. Doug, I agree with Warren Zimmermann. Mind, he’s got axes of his own to grind; there’s reason to believe that he may have been responsible for killing the Lisbon Agreement in ’92. Other hand, Lisbon might not have done much good anyhow. Anyhow, he was there, and is worth listening to.

    Yes, the Bush administration was slow to respond. Chicken Kiev, exactly right. And just as they were finally getting their act together, they got replaced by the Clintons, who spent the next couple of years reinventing the wheel.

    Other hand: in defense of Bush, Chicken Kiev looks a lot wiser in retrospect than it did in 1990. Bush seems to have realized that the West didn’t have to do anything in order for Eastern Europe to fall out of the Soviet orbit. All that was needed was to be patient and play it cool. Which were among Bush I’s particular strengths. So, wrong on Yugoslavia, but right on the rest of the former Warsaw Pact and fUSSR.

    Alex, nitpick: estimates of the death toll in the Yugoslav wars have been gradually creeping downwards. They’re currently in the 110,000 – 150,000 range.

    But otherwise I completely agree. Yugoslavia was doomed by the late ’80s, but the breakup did not have to be nearly as protracted and violent. I think a mostly-peaceful breakup was at least possible. A breakup-with-war was IMO more likely, but even then, the war could have been much shorter and less bloody.

    Oh, and John Laughland is indeed a prat. British Helsinki Human Rights Group, my ass.

    Doug M.

  19. At what point do you think there could have been a change of course? 1991; “the Hour of Europe” pace Poos? Late 91, post the botched invasion of Slovenia but before Croatia went down the tubes? Between Croatia and Bosnia?

  20. At what point do you think there could have been a change of course?

    To save Yugoslavia? Impossible by 1989.

    To make the breakup much less bloody? Oh my goodness. That could have been done at any time.

    As late as spring 1992, it would probably have been possible to make the Lisbon Agreement stick. It would have required a high degree of diplomatic coordination, both within Europe and between the EU and the US; it would also have required a convincing show of force, probably by NATO, when shooting inevitably started. (It’s traditional in the region, after signing a treaty, to see if you can push just a little further on the battlefield. Failure to grasp this was one of the biggest flaws of Western diplomacy in Yugoslavia.)

    But it was totally possible. The Bosnian war could have been a wet firecracker.

    There’d still be Kosovo, of course, and the Republic of Serb Krajina… but the total casualties could have been reduced by many tens of thousands.

    All that was lacking was the will.

    Doug M.

  21. 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.

    Hardly nonsense. That is exactly what happned. Indeed this was the position of many in the Clinton administration including many the hawks on later military intervention against Serbia. Clark and Holbrooke have taken this poisiton as well.

    The war was certainly WIDELY predicted to occur (Milosevoc or not) should Yugolsavia parts be recognized as countries under Tito’s borders with no serious gaurantees.

    Fact is the Balkan wars over the past centruy and a quarter are not about ethnic hatred, they are about great powers interests. That is no tin foil conspioracy theory but something acknowledged fully the non-Balkan Balkan historians.

    Even if it was inevitable, there remains the 250,000 corpse question – was it inevitable that it would be accomplished by war?

    I guess you are not read up much on the Balkans or the wars in question. Or you are intentionally doubling or tripling actual numbers.

    About 400,000 Serbs were massacred by the Albanian, Bosnian and Croatian forces that sided with the Nazis in World War Two. Somewhere between 100,000 to 120,000 Bosnians, Serbs, Croatians and Albanians died in the 1990’s iteration of the Balkan wars. The Serbs did most of the killing this time, but they were hardly alone in either targets or methods.

    Doug, you said: (It’s traditional in the region, after signing a treaty, to see if you can push just a little further on the battlefield. Failure to grasp this was one of the biggest flaws of Western diplomacy in Yugoslavia.)

    In the region? you meant, “everywhere.”

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