By Janusz Bugajski
18 January 2006
(Copyright (c) 2006, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
It's decision-time in the Western Balkans. As the final status of Kosovo will be determined over the coming months, Serbia and Montenegro are approaching a formal divorce once the smaller of the remaining Yugoslav republics holds a referendum on independence in April.
International involvement is needed to help these three quasi-states resolve all this peacefully and successfully. Attempts to prevent democratic choices for national self-determination would exacerbate conflicts in the years ahead. The alternative to establishing legitimate states is growing nationalist resentments that will be increasingly directed against the EU, NATO and others on the ground in the Balkans.
Although the status of Kosovo took center stage last year with the appointment of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari as the UN mediator, it is tempting but wrong to link this issue to Montenegro, the mountainous coastal republic of less than a million people, where no international mediation is necessary. Unlike Kosovo, Montenegro was a federal republic in the defunct Yugoslavia with the same right to independence as all countries emerging from this failed state, including Slovenia, now an EU and NATO member.
Montenegro postponed its independence vote three years ago after EU representatives pressured the government in Podgorica to temporarily sacrifice the republic's national aspirations in the hope of pacifying Serbia. But the Serbia-Montenegro Union has proved to be a dysfunctional and expensive arrangement that has worsened relations between the two capitals and slowed down their reform programs.
Some EU diplomats calculate that pressing Montenegro to annul its planned referendum on statehood will compensate Serbia for the loss of Kosovo. But manipulating the destiny of Montenegro will not assuage regional nationalisms. It is likely to further embolden radicals in Serbia and distract attention from the country's internal reforms. It will also generate resentment among the pro-European and pro-American portion of the Montenegrin population that supports independence. Although a narrow majority is in favor of statehood, opinion polls show this to be the most educated, reformist and entrepreneurial part of the population that sees Montenegro's future in the EU and NATO.
Montenegro's governing coalition, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, includes post-communist reformers, social democrats and representatives of the Albanian minority who seek to build a multi-ethnic state based on civic principles rather than ethno-national identity. However, the reform process has been stalled because of Montenegro's isolation from Western institutions and its continuing links with an even less reformed Serbia. Additionally, Belgrade has sought to discredit the independence movement by charging the Montenegrin authorities with criminal connections.
During the Milosevic era, Podgorica kept itself afloat by bypassing international sanctions on ex-Yugoslavia and building its own state institutions in opposition to Milosevic. Montenegro's independence will help to make the government more transparent and its aspirations to join the EU will enable it to meet the required international standards for good governance.
Montenegro's plan to hold a democratic referendum was legitimized by the EU when it established the current State Union. The arrangement stipulated that either republic had the right to hold an independence referendum after three years, and this period expires in February. The EU troika also acknowledged Montenegro's right to a plebiscite once the recommendations of the Venice Commission on voting principles were issued in December. Having validated its compliance with international standards, Podgorica is planning to announce the date of the referendum in the coming weeks.
Paradoxically, one of the longest existing states in the Balkans is poised to be one of the last to restore its independence. While the rest of the peninsula was under Ottoman control for almost 500 years, Montenegro preserved its sovereignty and its royal family was linked by marriage to almost every European monarchy. Serbia deposed the Montenegrin king when it gained control of Montenegro after World War I and manipulated the close ethnic affinity and common language of the two nations to claim that Montenegro was simply a province of Serbia.
Montenegrin officials point out that a reaffirmation of statehood will serve to improve relations with Serbia by removing fears of domination and assimilation. At the same time, borders will become increasingly redundant as both states move toward membership in Europe's institutions.
The greatest benefit to Serbia from casting off Kosovo and Montenegro will be its own independence, which has been thwarted by three failed Yugoslavias. Freed from incessant disputes with Podgorica and Pristina over state structures, administrative responsibilities and financial obligations, Belgrade will finally be in a position to build a strong Serbia, pursue more rigorous structural and economic reforms, and move forward on NATO and EU membership.
The surest path to international integration is through legitimate statehood. Only sovereign countries can enter NATO and the EU, not unstable entities, joint states or international dependencies. If the EU disqualifies any legitimate Balkan state from the European project, it will lose credibility and effectiveness as a democratic bloc. Delaying the status question would increase opportunities for cross-border criminal networks, encourage depopulation as locals escape to the richer EU countries and radicalize a younger generation with diminished prospects for employment. It would be less costly and less disruptive to accept three new countries that commit themselves to a process of Europeanization.
Mr. Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is co-author with Ilona Teleki of the "Atlantic Bridges: America's New European Allies," forthcoming from Rowan and Littlefield.