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30/05/2006 | Montenegro’s Referendum

International Crisis Group Staff

Montenegro’s successful independence referendum should on balance increase stability in the western Balkans. Following the pro-independence victory, Podgorica still faces significant transition challenges, but none should affect regional stability, and all can be resolved as the country moves forward with the Stabilisation and Association process towards European Union membership.

 

The EU and other international actors should do everything possible to speed its accession to international institutions. Most neighbouring countries are openly pleased with the outcome, which they feel marks the end of the Greater Serbian project. In Bosnia, however, there is loose talk about holding a similar referendum, but the international community must continue to make it absolutely clear that partition of Bosnia is not an option. Meanwhile, Belgrade is still in shock from the referendum loss and struggling to formulate rational policy.

OVERVIEW

Although there are some shoals still to be navigated, the narrow pro-independence victory in Montenegro’s 21 May 2006 referendum should, on balance, increase rather than diminish stability in the western Balkans. It is in the interest of the European Union (EU), now that its previous policy of keeping Serbia and Montenegro together has run its course, to welcome the new state and speed its accession to international institutions. Podgorica still faces significant challenges associated with transition, but none should affect regional stability, and all can be resolved as the country moves forward with the Stabilisation and Association process towards EU membership. Given the positive international response to the referendum, Montenegro can aspire to becoming a “boring” country moving toward integration with Europe. But its opposition, and Belgrade, need to be persuaded not to renege on their commitments to the EU to accept the referendum result, lest this generate new uncertainties in the region as a Kosovo status decision approaches.

Official Belgrade has sent mixed signals, with President Boris Tadic reacting positively and visiting Montenegro, while Premier Vojislav Kostunica and the nationalists pout and protest. Part of Montenegro’s unionist opposition – with the backing of nationalist circles in Serbia’s government – is publicly backing away from its pledge to the EU, although this may yet prove to be nothing more than posturing before the next round of parliamentary elections late in 2006. The Belgrade media is creating an atmosphere that will make it difficult for those who wield real power in Serbia to honour their pre-referendum promises. Many Serbian politicians appear shell-shocked: this rebuff by fellow Serbs of the dream of all Serbs living in one state should be a wake-up call for the political elite, but many are having difficulty adjusting to the new reality that Serbia, too, is now independent. Some in nationalist circles in Serbia, along with Republika Srpska Premier Milorad Dodik, are indulging in loose talk about holding a similar referendum in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska as compensation for the loss of Kosovo, and – as with the opposition in Montenegro – it remains to be seen whether this is more than election year rhetoric.

Serbia’s minority government continues to demonstrate that it does not understand the international environment in which it must operate and that it lacks the capacity to deal sensibly with impending Kosovo decisions. The government lacked a contingency plan for independence and must now reconstitute itself, pass new governing statutes, add ministries, redefine the state and possibly create a new constitution, all while relying on the increasingly powerful Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and vocal Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) for support. However, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is likely to stay in power, despite his government’s visible weakness, as no opposition party wants to be in office when Serbia loses Kosovo, probably at the end of 2006.

In the broader region, Montenegrin independence will probably lead to the rapid resolution of a fifteen-year old territorial dispute between Croatia and Serbia (Prevlaka peninsula), and increased regional cooperation with Croatia, Albania, Slovenia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia. Montenegrin independence makes it more difficult for the international community to deny Albanians a similar outcome in Kosovo. However, the Montenegrin referendum process is unlikely to serve as a model for Kosovo (or anywhere else), except in the highly improbable circumstances of an advance buy-in from Belgrade, the Kosovo Serbs and Pristina, mirroring that of the relevant players before the Montenegrin referendum.

 

International Crisis Group (Organismo Internacional)

 

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