AIM: start

SAT, 02 FEB 2002 00:34:07 GMT

Montenegro and Serbia after Solana's Mediation

Are Negotiations a Goal or a Memans?

Another round of negotiations on the future relationship between Montenegro and Serbia ended in Belgrade last Friday (Jan. 25). Top government officials from Belgrade and Podgorica accepted an invitation from Javier Solana for yet another meeting of expert teams in Brussels at the beginning of February, leaving a final decision up to the politicians.

AIM Podgorica, January 27, 2002

Yet another meeting of top Montenegrin, Serbian and Yugoslav officials, held under Javier Solana's watchful eye this week, has failed in bringing Belgrade and Podgorica any closer. Despite this, however, all of them left Federation Palace more optimistic than when they entered it. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica after half an hour of plenary debate said he was awaiting the continuation of negotiations "with more optimism and hope." Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic found reasons for content in the fact that "dialogue is proceeding at the planned pace" and with a high degree of tolerance. Finally, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy got what he was looking for: yet another round of expert talks, in Brussels on Feb. 4, with the participation of international experts, as well as (hopefully) a final round of political negotiations by the end of the month.

How will this new delay reflect on conditions in Montenegro?

"The EU wants the Yugoslav federation to become a member, and we are not indifferent to what is going on in it. Our plan is to end all meetings by the end of February and to realize the final goal to have all of you as part of the EU; we will do everything in our power to make this happen," Solana said before leaving Belgrade, and added that "separation is not a speedier, but a slower road towards the EU."

The powers of Brussels, it is to be believed, are not small. The government in Belgrade and the opposition in Montenegro trust them more than they trust their own strength. Many officials from the two groups said they expect, or rather hope, that Solana will finally give Djukanovic a paper and a choice: take it or leave it. But this did not happen, not even on this occasion. This is why pro-Yugoslav circles found comfort in the fact that at the upcoming meeting in Brussels EU experts will not only listen to what their Balkan colleagues have to say, but will enlighten them on numerous points from the angle of the European Fifteen. People's Party leader Dragan Soc, one of the loudest advocates of giving Brussels' a bigger role in the Yugoslav crisis, remarked that Djukanovic had failed to even mention an independence referendum in his statement after the latest meeting. Soc also said that the Montenegrin president had finally realized that the international community was against Montenegro's independence, and that support for it was dwindling in Montenegro itself, and had consequently concluded that the referendum was unlikely to be organized at all, particularly not this spring.

By saying this Soc diverged from his vice president, Predrag Drecun, who said a plebiscite on Montenegro's status ought to be held at the beginning of spring, thereby growing closer to Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of his coalition partner, the Socialist People's Party, and his stance that regardless of how the negotiations between Belgrade and Podgorica end, there will not be any referendum before next autumn. The third party of the Pro-Yugoslav coalition, Bojovic's Serb People's Party, remains where it has been all along -- preferring early elections.

The Serb People's Party is probably the only party on a course the EU would prefer. Although Solana himself mentioned the end of February as the deadline by which negotiations between Montenegro and Serbia should end, many in Montenegro believe that the timetable will not be respected. They expect the dialogue in Montenegro, which should define the conditions for holding the referendum, to drag on. Montenegro's economic woes, coupled with anti-government propaganda, such as the Nacional scandal, in their view will work to help the federation.

If the referendum is not organized before the tourist season starts, public attention will focus on local elections. According to pro-Yugoslav sources, this would be a welcome opportunity to further undermine Djukanovic's power. A poll recently published by the Podgorica-based Center for Democracy shows that supporters of independence are loosing ground to the pro-federalists, and that the Together for Yugoslavia coalition is leading by a three-percent margin over the Victory is Montenegro's coalition. Brussels, therefore, is avoiding a risky and compromising approach of direct pressure and sanctions against Montenegro, but is doing everything it possibly can to prevent Montenegro's independence.

The intentions of Solana and the circles behind him could easily be comprehended even by politicians less skilled than the Montenegrin president. It does not suffice, however, just to know what your opponent has in store for you; one has to find an adequate response as well. If the EU demands that the talks continue even after the end of February, Djukanovic will have to decide whether to continue playing the game or not. To continue would mean to delay the referendum, while interrupting negotiations would mean risking accusations of "unilateral move." By saying at a joint press conference with Solana and Kostunica that "the second half is already in progress," that the expert negotiations "have exhausted a number of issues," and that "by the end of February the talks on the future of Montenegro and Serbia will end in a democratic manner," the president of Montenegro has shown that he was well aware that the talks have become a goal unto themselves and are no longer a means for achieving compromise.

Judging by what his closest assistants had to say, and they all reiterated that the referendum will be held in the spring, Djukanovic has already decided to withdraw from negotiations if need be. It is uncertain, however, whether Solana is prepared to participate in this hypocritical political move. Especially having in view that Belgrade is having a hard time concealing its nervousness over the procrastination of negotiations with Podgorica. Drecun's claims that the referendum will be organized soon are generally interpreted as his willingness to act as Kostunica's mouthpiece. But Cedomir Jovanovic, a trusted ally of Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic, has also said that "Serbia has suffered too much and too long because of unresolved relations with Montenegro." Finally, Vladan Batic's Democratic Christian Party of Serbia can hardly wait for an opportune move on Montenegro's part to begin gathering signatures for a plebiscite in Serbia ("Serbia should also have a say in the matter"). Belgrade analyst Dusan Janjic believes that Serbian Premier Djindjic is behind the initiative. Recent polls show a dramatic division in Serbia over whether Serbia should be independent or a part of a federation with Montenegro -- 42:41 in favor of the federalists!

The nervous Liberals are further reducing Djukanovic's maneuvering space. Liberal Alliance of Montenegro leader Miodrag Zivkovic believes that a new round of expert negotiations is an ill omen for Montenegro's independence. "Brussels and Belgrade are taking advantage of Montenegrin negotiators' indecision to indefinitely postpone a solution. This is weakening the forces advocating international recognition for Montenegro," says Zivkovic. Montenegrin premier Filip Vujanovic says: "We'll see what the two meetings in February will bring and whether it will be necessary to organize a referendum. We can make a deal only if Serbia accepts a union of two independent states. I am convinced that this is the best model and that we can resolve the crisis by doing what Czechoslovakia did. If Belgrade fails to show understanding for our offer, we will organize a referendum," Vujanovic firmly said.

According to the Montenegrin constitution, the Legislature is in charge of calling a referendum at the proposal of the Montenegrin president. A plebiscite has to be held 45-90 days from the day of its scheduling.

Darko Sukovic