Thursday, February 16, 2006

Montenegro Mess?

Montenegro is hardly a big place. Somewhat more than 600 000 people living on the Adriatic coast as well as in the mountaneous hinterland between Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Albania.

It undoubtedly has a distinct history. The coastline is one thing - the Venetians were the most important - but the mountaineous land of the Black Mountain was never really conquered by the Ottoman Empire - there wasn't really a need for that either - and can accordingly claim a long history of independence.

Montenegro has always been torn between those seeing it as an independent nation and those seeing it essentially as aligned with Serbia. The dispute is hardly a new one.

And the demographics is complex. There are almost certainly more people claiming some sort of Montenegrian heritage in today's Serbia than there are people describing themselves as Montenegrian in Montenegro. In the last census, Montenegrians were a minority in their own country.

Nevertheless, living together with the more than ten times larger Serbia has been difficult. Getting such a profoundly assumtric federation to work is not an easy thing, and so far it has been more of a failure than anything else. It's not difficult to find people in Belgrade who would gladly dump Montenegro.

But Montenegro is profoundly divided on the question of independence or not. A referendum has been promised for this spring, and the European Union is now busy trying to engineer an agreement on the conditions for such a referendum. As one of the constituent replublics of old Yugoslavia, international law gives them the right of independence if they so decide.

But the critical decision is how such a decision is made. In view of the sharply divided - and fairly balanced - opinion on the issue that is a dramatically important decision.

The EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajcak has now brought a compromise proposal to the Montenegrian capital Podgorica trying to bring the pro-independence government and the pro-union opposition to agree on the rules of the game.

I won't go into the details of the proposal - it looks fair and balanced to me - but it aims at assuring that a decision on the critical question of independence or not is taken with solid support. It's not any decision - it's a critically important one.

The initial reports is that the EU proposal has been rejected by the government while the opposition is not yet declaring its hand. But we'll see what happens during the next few days. A session of the Montenegrian parliament next week might take the decision to hold the referendum early May.

This might all sounds simple - but there are all sorts of problemds down the road.

If a referendum is not organized according to the EU criteria now decided it is highly likely that it will be boycotted by a substantial segment of the Montenegrian electorate.

The independence option will then win - but the result will almost certainly not be recognized by Serbia. What will the European Union do then? To recognize such a Montenegro as independent will hardly be possible. But where are we then?

In such a scenario there is also the possibility of the northern parts of Montenegro organizing their own referendums on whether they want to be part of Serbia or part of Montenegro. They will certainly vote for Serbia. The occasional city down by the coast - Herzog-Novy in particular - might also go for the Serbia option.

And it should not be forgotten that there is a substantial Albanian minority centered on the southern coastal city of Ulcine. If things start to fall to pieces, they are unlikely to say nothing.

It could all get rather messy rather fast if not handled properly.

And since this happens in the year of Kosovo and vast other challenges for Serbia one can not exclude that a mess here will have wider and more serious repercussions in the region.

I do hope that Miroslav Lajcak will succeed in his mission during the next few days. He's a knowledgable and balanced man who should enjoy the thrust of both sides. His words on the outcome of the efforts will certainly carry great weight in Brussels.

Those that tries to break away and take unilateral decisions on unilateral roads are unlikely to create more than a very major mess for their country and for the region.

But this is no guarantee - we have seen numerous examples of political leaders in the Balkans doing just that.

So we better keep our eyes on small Montenegro - and give firm support to the European Union efforts there. Posted by Picasa