AIM: start

THU, 29 NOV 2001 01:22:14 GMT

Stalling the System

The question in Montenegro is no longer whether there will be elections or a referendum, but what type of referendum will be held. However, this does not make the situation on the political scene any clearer.

AIM Podgorica, November 20, 2001

Since the forming of Vujanovic's minority cabinet with support from the Liberal Alliance, Montenegro has been a classical example of what political scientists call a "stalled system." Half a year after early elections for the Montenegrin Legislature, nothing has budged -- Montenegro has neither advanced towards independence nor has it gotten closer to Belgrade. This was confirmed by a recent survey done by the Damar agency, according to which the electorate is divided 53:47 percent in favor of independence, as was the case during the April 22 elections.

Both practice and theory suggest that a referendum or elections should be used as an efficient, democratic way to make the system work again, since a coup or a revolution, despite their appealing populist overtones, do not appear to be the best tools for carrying out this complex political operation. But not even on this point is there accord among the various political forces. The ruling coalition has clearly marked the referendum as its path towards independence. The same is the case with the Liberal Alliance of Montenegro. The strong opposition Together for Yugoslavia bloc, however, still believes elections would be a better option, and that after them, a referendum would no longer be needed.

At this point the pro-Yugoslav parties are at least not rejecting the idea of holding a referendum on Montenegro's future status. This time around the pro-independence bloc is the hindrance, because of a strong disagreement over a proposed referendum bill between the Democratic Party of Socialists on the one hand, and the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Alliance on the other. While Djukanovic's Democratic Socialists advocate that 50 percent plus one of all registered voters need to participate in the referendum to make its results valid, the other two groups don't want any threshold and have managed to impose their will on a commission discussing the bill. Thus, the proposal will be placed on the Legislature's agenda without any hope of being accepted. OSCE experts have already described it as "a step back" compared to existing legislation, the For Yugoslavia coalition likes to call it "a dictate," and the Democratic Socialists determinedly say they will not vote for it.

Together for Yugoslavia would rather have elections, but their partners from Belgrade have lost their patience and are pushing for a referendum. At this point nothing is happening in the Montenegrin Legislature -- the Socialist People's Party, the People's Party and the Serb People's Party, staged a walkout, disgruntled because the speaker refused to extend the mandate of a commission formed to investigate allegations made by the Croatian newspaper Nacional, which claimed that senior state officials were involved in cigarette smuggling. Neither side is willing to budge, and a debate that is supposed to pave the way for the referendum has yet to begin. Time, beyond doubt, is on the cabinet's side, which is making the pro-Yugoslav coalition increasingly unhappy. "I am afraid the Liberals are right and that this stalemate is indeed a result of a deal between Bulatovic and Djukanovic," a People's Party senior official said, accidentally and off the record.

In an interview with the Belgrade Borba newspaper, President Djukanovic described next April as a good time for holding the referendum and said for the nth time it is necessary. Still, the Liberal Alliance, the ruling coalition's accomplice out of necessity, keeps blaming the current stalemate on a deal struck by the Democratic Party of Socialists and the Socialist People's Party, which is to further their separate interests.

"Making the referendum purposeless and buying time" are the alleged goals of this conspiracy involving two groups which, according to the Liberals, differ only in name. These accusations are beginning to bear fruit, and the two leaders, particularly Predrag Bulatovic, are having a hard time as a result.

This is but an outline of the complex political entanglement in Montenegro, and one almost has to be an expert to understand what is going on. Should the government (Democratic Party of Socialists) reach an agreement with the opposition (Socialist People's Party) before its coalition partner (Liberal Alliance) withdraws its support and topples it? And, we should recall, the opposition prefers early elections and considers the referendum a necessary evil. The cabinet, on the other hand, cannot endorse a referendum bill proposed by the Liberals, because it would thereby disgrace itself before the international community, which would not recognize independence gained in such a manner.

The situation, as is a frequent occurrence in the Balkans, is additionally complicated thanks to the international community, which wants to act as the highest authority. Although unified in its stance that the winning combination is "a democratic Montenegro inside a democratic Yugoslavia," according to well-informed sources, it, in fact, has two factions: the U.S. is in favor of a referendum that will not be boycotted; and Europe wants elections as a way of avoiding the referendum. There is, indeed, a third approach -- the OSCE's, based on a fair and competent analysis of the referendum bill, and containing recommendations for resolving all disputed issues.

Since no solution is possible to a problem that is open at both ends, the only firm conclusion is that Djukanovic prefers a referendum a little more than Bulatovic prefers early elections. First of all because of its timing, which could prove crucial in finding a way out. The overall destruction of Montenegrin society is undermining government and opposition alike, and it appears that at least the leaders of major parties have understood that it is about time to draw the line and put an end to the matter. It is up to Djukanovic to act first, and his move will be a referendum. But this is not likely to be a landslide victory; he is hoping for survival alone. To ensure this, he is likely to make compromises. But compromises will be harder for Bulatovic, because he will have to put off victory over his bitter opponent for some other time.

If the referendum is to be called around New Year, then all necessary conditions will have to be specified by then. The central issue the question of a valid majority -- according to some intimations has been a matter of internal negotiation between the two parties for quite some time. No agreement has been reached, but it is rumored that an agreement on a 55:45 ratio (of the number of voters who cast their votes) could be reached. Such a majority, even if not accepted by the opposition, would certainly force the international community to recognize Montenegro's independence, especially if the turnout is significantly over 50 percent. The pro-Yugoslav coalition will contribute to the compromise by asking that all citizens be allowed to vote and that a qualified majority be 50 percent plus one voter. "It is a somewhat neo-colonial request and the OSCE cannot accept it," said an OSCE expert on condition of anonymity. The ruling coalition, as its contribution, will have to reduce its monopoly on the police and state-run media outlets.

The term of a future technical cabinet is also a matter of dispute. For the Democratic Party of Socialists, the period should be up to two months. The opposition wants at least twice as much. This will also be open to bargaining, but the cabinet will certainly not abandon its demand for a document guaranteeing the holding of the referendum and the recognition of its results before a new cabinet is formed. The opposition cannot avoid this if it wants to leave an impression of being constructive.

Such a denouement looks very complicated even on paper. In practice, it is even less feasible, particularly because it is difficult to say what the Liberal Alliance, which the solution depends on, will ultimately do. And right now it is not doing anything. Time, however, is running out, and the people who tied this knot will have to untie it themselves.

Darko Sukovic