Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Montenegro Maneuverings

Yesterday evening was the big TV duel in Montenegro prior to the referendum on independence on Sunday.

It was Milo Djukanovic versus Predrag Bulatovic. They have both been around for many years.

Opinion polls indicate a lead for the pro-independence supporters versus the pro-union ones, but whether it will be enough to secure the necessary 55% is unclear.

Although the election campaign is monitored by both the OSCE and the Council of Europe, it is obvious that all the tricks of the trade - and in Montenegro there are many - are employed.

A large number of Montenegrians live in Serbia and in particular in Belgrade, but they have to go physically to Montenegro in order to vote.

Well, suddenly Montenegro Airlines announced that it has to substantially cut down on flights from Belgrade, claiming that their aircrafts were needed elsewhere. It wasn't too far fetched to see this as a move to limit the number of people coming from Belgrade to Montenegro to vote.

But soon after the Montenegro Airlines announcement, there was one from the JAT Airline in Belgrade announcing a sudden increase in flights to Podgorica during the coming days.

In rough terms, you will see the North of the country going for continued union with Serbia, and the South and the coast going for independence. But there will be exceptions to this rule.

On the coast, the city of Hercog Novi on the border with Croatia is likely to vote for continued union with Serbia. After the wars, its population has a very high percentage of refugees, not the least from Bosnia.

And in the north, it's likely that Bijelo Polje and Rozaje will go for independence. Here, a substantial part of the population are Muslims calling themselves Bosnians. The region of Sandjak - Muslim rather than Orthodox - straddles the border between Serbia and Montenegro.

What happens in this region needs watching. There is a sudden conflict in its capital Novi Pazar, which is on the Serb side. Suddenly, the man I also associated with a more radical nationalist position, always closely linked with the more Muslim parts of the politics of Bosnia, has come out strongly in favour of a continued union between Serbia and Montenegro.

In the Balkans things are seldom as simple as they look.

The pro-independence voices in Montenegro are dressing many of their arguments in European terms. For many of them there is no doubt that this is sincerely felt.

But facts are partly different. It's not unlikely that there are shady Russian interests also supporting the pro-independence camp. The by far largest enterprise of the country - the aluminum works by Podgorica - has just been taken over by a Russian group of somewhat debatable reputation, and other Russian business interests are noving in, not the least on the property market.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it has to be respected.

But days after Sunday will not be easy - come whatever.