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Montenegro - Referendum on independence

Referendum on independence in Montenegro, 21st May 2006

Referendum on independence in Montenegro, 21st May 2006

21/04/2006 - Analysis

Three years after 4th February 2003, when the State of Serbia and Montenegro was officially substituted for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Montenegrins are call to vote on their future. On 21st May 466,000 voters will have to answer "yes" or "no" to the following question, "Do you wish the Republic of Montenegro to become an independent State with full legal and international recognition?".

If those in favour of independence win, the State of Serbia and Montenegro will cease to exist, a death which at the same time will sign the definitive dismantling of the former Yugoslavia, the four other Republics in which (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia) have all declared their independence over the past fifteen years.

The position three years after the creation of the State of Serbia and Montenegro

The State of Serbia and Montenegro, presided over by the Montenegrin Svetozar Marovic, has a President and a government composed of five ministers, as well as a single chamber Parliament with 126 members, 91 for Serbia and 35 for Montenegro. This State was established under pressure from the European Union to pacify the position in the Balkans at a time when Kosovo, with its Albanian majority, wished to separate unilaterally from Serbia. The Belgrade agreements, signed by Serbia and Montenegro on 14th March 2002, authorised the two Serbian and Montenegrin entities to decide, after a probationary period of three years, on whether they wished to pursue their union or separate. This three year period is now over.

The two Republics do not really form one and the same State. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has, for example, allowed the two entities to join separately and be considered as two economic spaces. Although Serbia and Montenegro speak the same language and have undeniable historical, cultural and religious ties (both peoples are mainly orthodox), each country has its own currency (dinar for Serbia and euro for Montenegro which chose the deutschemark in 1996), their own administrative-political organization, tax system, laws, etc. The union between the two countries, termed a "corpse" by the Montenegro Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic, is going through a difficult period and is subject to much malfunctioning to the extent that many are questioning the future of this alliance of States, should the unionists win the referendum on 21st May.

The independence question in Montenegro

Whereas all Republics in the former Yugoslavia claimed their independence at the beginning of the nineties, it was only in 1997-1998, when the President of the Republic (1997-2002), Milo Djukanovic distanced himself from Slobodan Milosevic, in power in the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, that the Montenegrins made their first demands for independence. In 2000, President Milo Djukanovic's democratic union of socialists, opposed to the dictatorial regime of Slobodan Milosevic, decided to boycott the Yugoslavian federal legislative elections. On the other hand, the Popular Party (SNS) and the Popular Socialist Party (SNP), in opposition, chose to take part in the election. In favour of an alliance with the Serbian Democratic Opposition (DOS), which did not have absolute majority, the Popular Socialist Party entered the governmental coalition and was given the posts of Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. It was at this time that the Democratic Union of Socialists chose to play the independence card, with the Popular Socialist Party backing those in favour of maintaining the union between Serbia and Montenegro.

According to the last census taken in 2003, 40% of the Montenegro population declares itself to be Montenegrin, 30% Serbian (compared with scarcely 10% during the 1991 census), 14.5% Muslim, 7% Albanian (80,000 Albanians took refuge in Montenegro in 1999 during the Kosovo war), 1% Croatian and 0.5% Rom (many Roms also took refuge in Montenegro during the Kosovo war). Although the population is not territorialized in Montenegro, most of the Muslims live in Sandjak, most Albanians live in Ulcini (Adriatic coast), in Tizi and in the north of the country on the Kosovo border, and most Croatians live in the gulf of Kotor and in Tivat (Adriatic coast). Serbians live across the whole of Montenegrin territory, but there are slightly more of them in the northern part of the country, in Herceg Novi, a town which welcomed Serbian refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war that ravaged their country in the nineties.

The political parties in favour of independence have always paid particular attention to minorities living in the country. These have often acted as a quite considerable extra strength when governments have been formed. To such an extent that some parties that are in favour of maintaining the union with Serbia suggested at one time that minority groups should not be given a vote in the referendum.

The Referendum Election Campaign

The referendum on 21st May will take place according to rules drawn up with the European Union. The Slovakian Miroslav Lajcak has been nominated as mediator and personal representative of the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana. "I have the advantage of coming from a country that is a new member of the European Union and which, in a short time, has taken the path from a difficult period of transition through to the creation of a modern State", he declared. So, for the referendum to be declared validated, turnout must, in accordance with Montenegrin electoral law, be over 50% of those on electoral lists. Also, independence must be approved by at least 55% of voters which, according to Miroslav Lajcak, "is best suited to the situation in Montenegro and gives legitimacy to the process" (sic).

Nevertheless, one may question this precedent and this incredible condition (55% of votes cast) in terms of universal democratic standards. The majority rule is thus subject, for diplomatic reasons that are clear, to a major exception that risks resulting in future difficulties. By accepting this condition imposed by those who refuse independence, European diplomacy, in contempt of the elementary rules of representative democracy and the right of people to decide for themselves, could be accused of having created an inextricable situation.

Indeed, if over half of voters – but less than 55% of them, were to vote in favour of independence, Montenegro would remain united with Serbia and the minority would win over the majority! In order to win, partisans of the union with Serbia are not therefore obliged to carry off the referendum, it will be sufficient for them not too lose with too large a gap. "The recommendation from the European Union is dangerous for stability. The 55/45 ratio is contrary to the very principle of democracy. The final decision should lie with the majority and not the minority. In my opinion this is unfair, but we will accept the European Union's proposal", declared the Prime Minister and former President of the Republic (1997-2002), Milo Djukanovic (DPS) for whom this battle is of capital importance since he has made the pledge to resign should he fail in the referendum. "There are two disadvantages to this model: it make voters unequal electors and disadvantages the camp of those in support of independence. However, things must be done as Brussels wants, because the European Union is Montenegro's future" declared the President of the Republic, Filip Vujanovic. "In any case, the Montenegrins will decide themselves and will choose independence by more than 55%", he added.

On 1st March 2006, the Montenegrin Parliament adopted the law for organising the referendum on independence by 60 votes for of the 70 members present, 10 voting against. Five parliamentarians were absent when the vote was taken. Debates at this extraordinary session lasted for over eight hours. Parties in favour of independence, the Democratic Union of Socialists (DPS) led by the Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and the Albanian Democratic Union (DUA), and parties in favour of maintaining the union with Serbia, the Popular Socialist Party (SN), the Popular Party (NS), the Serbian Democratic Party (DSS) and the Serbian Popular Party (SNS) all voted in favour of the referendum. The Social-Democrats Party (SDP), the Civic Party, the Liberal Alliance (LSCG) and the Democratic League of Montenegro (DSCG) all voted against.

Unionist parties stress the proximity that exists between the Serbian and Montenegrin peoples, claim that union with Serbia is still the quickest way to joining the European Union, and say that independence would deprive Montenegro of its access to Serbian markets. "The only road to the European Union and away from the current economic crisis involves a joint State with Serbia. Montenegro as a "privatized" State, a paradise of illegal activities, will never become a member of the European Union if it becomes a black hole of Europe", declared the leader of the Popular Socialist Party, Predrag Bulatovic. A position against which the Foreign Minister, Miodrag Vlahovic, makes a stand, "It's not true that we will join the European Union quicker if we remain united with Serbia since it's the strengthening of institutions and not the criterion of unity or separation that is the condition for membership".

On 3rd April, the unionist parties, which had not managed to reach an agreement for the vote on the referendum law in Parliament, decided to unite for the purposes of the electoral campaign. "We're starting a joint campaign for this referendum, we're united around this question and have the support of all politicians in favour of maintaining the joint State", declared the president of the Popular Party, Predrag Popovic. The Movement for the Union of States, a group of non-governmental organisations, and other parties not represented in Parliament, have joined the unionist parties in their campaign.

Serbia is, of course, opposed to the independence of its neighbour. And the date of the referendum does not suit Belgrade either, since it is engaged in negotiations regarding the future status of Kosovo, a province administered by the UN whose population, which is mainly Albanian, is demanding independence. Serbia fears that a possible victory for independence in Montenegro might set a precedent for Kosovo or even Voïvodine where a high percentage of Hungarians live. "In our government and with our model of a multi-ethnic Montenegro, we're a model for Kosovo", declared the President of the Republic, Filip Vujanovic.

Last year the Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, attempted to get Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia registered on electoral lists in Montenegro, which is against the law, as Blagota Mitric, professor of constitution law in Podgorica, explains, "Their country is Serbia", he said, referring to Montenegrins living in Serbia (around 263,000 people, that is almost half the population of Montenegro), adding, "according to the Constitution, they are Serbian citizens. The same is true for Serbians living in Montenegro. Consequently the fate of expatriates is linked to Serbia, just as Montenegrin citizens have bound their fate to Montenegro". Some nationalists from this Serbian minority have threatened, in case of a victory for independence, to create a Serbian entity in that part of Montenegro where most Serbians live.

For a long time the European Union has appeared to be somewhat in favour of the maintenance of the State of Serbia and Montenegro and opposed to independence in Montenegro, which it considers dangerous for the stability of the Balkans, acting as a precedent for other regions (Kosovo, Voïvodine) or other populations (Albanians in Macedonia, Republika Srpska).

"I understand that the existence of a new little State will make decisions within an entity like the European Union more complicated. But the Montenegrins have the right to choose their future and they are in favour or independence", declared the Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has promised Montenegrins that he will lead them to independence. The President of the Republic, Filip Vujanovic, has always stated his will to organise, at the end of the three year period, a referendum on independence in Montenegro, "so that the citizens can vote on the future they want for the country". "If you look at the economies of the two countries, union makes no sense. The Serbian economy is based on agriculture, whereas that of Montenegro is based on tourism", declares Milo Djukanovic. The Prime Minister believes that "relations with Serbia cannot be transparent, lasting and stable unless the two States are independent. All types of union have already been attempted in the past." "I would remind you that Montenegro was an independent State for centuries," he stated. He was keen to specify however, that "The referendum is a necessity but it must be organised in such a way as to ensure that there is no display of euphoria on the part of the winners". The President of the Republic does not intend to resign, however, if independence is refused by the Montenegrins, "

On 7th April the government called on Montenegrins to vote in favour of independence for their country. "An independent State is the condition that allows citizens to decide alone on their future. Montenegro will be built up as a democratic State which will respect Human rights and freedoms, international standards and equal rights for its citizens. The independent State of Montenegro will continue to work in close, friendly cooperation with Serbia and will maintain an open border with that country to ensure all forms of freedom of trade and will maintain friendly, peaceful relations with all other States, particularly its neighbours", states the government declaration.

On 10th April, the first televised debate on the referendum was held. The Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic and the leader of the Social-Democrats Party, Ranko Krivokapic, debated with the leader of the Popular Socialist Party, Predrag Bulatovic, and the president of the Popular Party, Predrag Popovic. The Prime Minister underlined the fact that Montenegrins have been waiting for restoration of their national sovereignty since 1918 and that this referendum was a historic moment in the sense that it would be the first time in history that the question of sovereignty would be decided without the use of force. According to opinion polls taken after the televised debate, Milo Djukanovic and Ranko Krivokapic were more persuasive than their opponents. Two thirds of viewers (67.5%) thought they were convincing, compared with 19.6% who thought the reverse and 11.3% who were unable to form an opinion. For their part Predrag Bulatovic and Predrag Popovic left a positive impression on only 17.5% of television viewers. Around 80% of Montenegrins watched this first televised debate.

The latest opinion polls give a slight advantage to voters in favour of independence. 43% of voters were going to vote "yes" on 21st May, compared with 31% who intended to vote "no". Finally, a quarter of Montenegrins (24%) say that they are still undecided and these voters are being targeted by both camps.

The referendum issue will depend in large part on turnout. According to a poll taken for the "Center for Monitoring Opinion Poll Agency", turnout should reach 84%.
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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