"Let the Montenegrins Have Their Say"
Comment by ICG Board Member Morton Abramowitz, International Herald Tribune, 31 December 2001
WASHINGTON Montenegro is a small land, but it is not a small issue whether it becomes independent or remains joined together with Serbia.
The European Union and to a lesser extent the United States have been notably vocal on the issue. They insist that Montenegro not only cannot be independent but also that its people should not have the right to have a referendum on that question. They have emitted some dire warnings on future aid if Montenegro goes down the independence route, and they have encouraged Montengro's people to repudiate their leaders.
Montenegro has been virtually independent for the past four years, and its authorities no longer recognize the legitimacy of a rump Yugoslav state created by Slobodan Milosevic in 1992, which now has no other republics except the far larger Serbia.
But the country is divided over the issue. There is a sizable opposition to independence, mostly former followers of Mr. Milosevic who have shifted their support to President Vojislav Kostunica of Yugoslavia, the leader of Serbian efforts to maintain the federation.
All parties agree that the status quo is unsustainable and that Montenegro and Serbia must find a new basis for their relationship. One side wants a new constitution for a changing relationship between the two entities but only within Yugoslavia. One side wants two independent states which would work out a mutually agreeable close relationship, perhaps even some sort of union.
Serbia's leaders say they do not prefer but would accept Montenegro independence.
The EU is trying to mediate but only along the lines of keeping Yugoslavia intact without a referendum. Its one-sided initiative seems destined to fail. The principal issue is not, as many Western governments contend, that Montengro's independence would cause some sort of upheaval among the independence-minded Albanians of Kosovo. Few analysts believe that, including the American intelligence community.
The risk is that the festering issue continue to prolong political uncertainty in two fragile countries. Democracy inside Serbia will not expand without major economic and political reform, but that is unlikely to occur in Serbia - or Montenegro, for that matter - while this existential question hangs overhead.
Moreover, the Serbian nationalist effort to continue the federation keeps Serbia rooted in the past and encourages leaders resisting reform. The Western stance serves to boost political leaders and party politicians in both countries whose nationalist credentials are stronger than their reformist interests.
The proper role for the West is not to tell the people of the two countries how to organize themselves, but simply to insist that the parties achieve a stable solution in a democratic way with a maximum of cooperation whatever the choice. That is not likely to be achieved without allowing the people of Montenegro to make a democratic decision between independence or another Yugoslavia.
Since the end of the Cold War, 19 new states have been established, all against Western opposition, including trying to keep the Soviet Union together. Many proceeded by referendum. Apparently the West wants to keep its consistently dismal record intact and, despite its democratic protestations, not allow a decision to be made democratically. The writer is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.