Serbia and Montenegro

New Yugoslav Federation Draws Mixed Response

Yugoslav leaders (from left), Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica listen to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana (C) at a news conference in Belgrade, March 14, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

While former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic was in a courtroom at the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, his opponents and former aides in Belgrade were working on consigning the country he had built, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, to history. On March 14, Serbian and Montenegrin leaders signed an agreement in Belgrade, brokered by the European Union (EU), to form a new joint state named "Serbia and Montenegro." Leaders from both sides stressed the agreement’s importance in providing a symbolic break with the past and in forming a completely new basis for the relationship between the two republics.

Serbian commentators suggested that the deal benefits the European Union more than any other party concerned. "The departure of Yugoslavia from the international scene is the first practical evidence that the European Union can finally solve problems in its own yard, and that it has passed the first of many tests it will need to pass in order to call itself a real power in international relations," Momcilo Pantelic wrote in the March 17 edition of the pro-government Serbian daily Politika. The deal is expected to soothe tensions, inherited from Milosevic's era, between Serbia, which tends to favor federation, and Montenegro, which is home to a lively independence movement. "For the first time, the EU, supported by the United States, has managed to calm down one of the permanent storms in the Balkans," Pantelic said.

Apparently, the most attractive carrot offered to both sides during long and difficult negotiations was the promise of expediting membership in the EU if the two republics stayed together. If there was a stick, it was not announced publicly. In this case, the EU decided to eschew redrawing the map yet again for fear of sparking a new series of conflicts in the region. By reaching an agreement delaying any referendum on Montenegro’s independence for at least three years, the EU gave itself some breathing room to focus on other trouble spots in the region such as Kosovo and Macedonia, and to focus on fostering economic development to mollify nationalist movements.

Not all Serbian commentators looked so sympathetically at the EU’s mediation. On March 15, the editors of Belgrade’s pro-government Vecernje Novosti objected to the fact that the principal EU mediator was its foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who, "as NATO secretary general pulled the trigger for the start of the NATO bombing campaign on Yugoslavia in 1999…. If it had cared for moral values at all," the editors continued, "The international community at least could have spared us from the cynicism that informed their decision to send the same man to save our state as destroyed it for 78 days." Despite such unfavorable press, Solana went back to Brussels with the accord in his pocket and, it seemed, his mission accomplished.

But those familiar with the details of the accord immediately realized that things were not that simple. The "original [clever] solution," as Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica calls the new state, will be a loose union of the two republics, with one president, a five-member council of ministers, a parliament, a joint army, and one chair in the United Nations and other international institutions. But it will have two markets, two currencies, and two customs systems---in short, the accord preservers the current economic structure.

"What kind of state is it when it doesn’t have a single currency?" asked a taxi driver who may have been the first person outside the press corps to hear the news as he drove our group of bedraggled journalists away from the conference at 4 a.m. "We wanted a state---Serbia or Yugoslavia, whatever---but a state, not this. This is something in between," he said angrily.

Many people in Serbia echoed his disappointment. "This is a big nothing. It is neither a normal federation nor two separate states. They just postponed the solution for a while, so our agony would continue," Milka Cajic, a 41-year-old mother of three said. "My oldest kid, who is 12, has lived in two countries so far; she will live in third one now, and in three years, a fourth one. How many passports will she have before she can live the normal life she deserves? It doesn't make sense at all," she added, referring to former Yugoslavia, which dissolved in 1991, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which replaced it in 1992.

"The agreement should be an expression of aspirations for unity," Stojan Cerovic, a prominent columnist for the Serbian independent weekly Vreme argued on March 21, "But indeed it only ensures a certain break [between the two republics] and gives [Montenegrin] separatists a chance to work out their strategy a little bit more." Recent opinion surveys in Serbia suggest that many Serbs share this disappointment. Almost all Serbian polls have shown that almost two-thirds of respondents support a federal Yugoslavia.

This stands in contrast to surveys conducted in Montenegro, which suggest that a narrow majority of the population favors creating an independent state in the republic, an opinion seemingly shared by the Montenegrin press. In Montenegro's pro-independence stronghold, Cetinje, "the new state was not welcomed," Pogorica’s privately owned, pro-government Vijesti reported on March 15. "It is quite clear that there will be no referendum, no happiness, and no Montenegro," the daily quoted Aleksandar Zoric, a resident of Cetinje, as saying. His fellow townsman, Bojan Martinovic, a young pianist, said, "A huge opportunity for Montenegro was gambled away; the country’s enormous potential energy was destroyed," the daily reported.

Others used stronger terms. Stanko Radoman, also a resident of Cetinje, said the agreement "could not be more shameful than it is…. We believed we would get an independent Montenegro, and look what we've got. This is a scandal. I am in shock," Radoman told Vijesti. But even in Cetinje, the historic capital of Monenegro, Vijesti’s reporters found, the agreement found supporters. Darko Babic, for example, said he believes the accord is "a reasonable move," while Daliborka Dulic, a student, said only, "fine with me."

Montenegro’s politicians seemed as divided as the populace over the agreement. The Separatist Liberal Alliance, on whose support President Milo Djukanovic's minority government depends, bluntly called the accord a "betrayal of Montenegro." The Alliance revoked its support for Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, casting doubts on the government’s political future. These doubts were amplified when another pro-independence party in Djukanovic’s coalition, the Social-Democratic Party, also threatened to quit following the president's u-turn on federation. Since he successfully distanced himself from Milosevic to win the 1997 presidential elections, Djukanovic has gradually moved Montenegro toward independence, promising a referendum on the issue this spring. Returning from Belgrade after the accord was reached, Djukanovic said the agreement was "the best we could reach at the moment. The people of Montenegro have no reason for discontent."

But Montenegro’s liberal weekly Monitor was apparently not convinced. In a March 22 editorial, the weekly blamed the "weakness of the political elite and Montenegrin society" for what it called the "failure of Montenegro to win its independence right now," and placed the blame for this weakness on a "lack of real democratic reforms." In an editorial from the same issue, Monitor concluded that "something between [two independent states and a complete federation] was created, ...a political solution that satisfied federalists and preserved hope for those who favor independence. " But this ambiguous state of affairs did not put Monitor’s editors at ease: "Instead of a renewed commitment to independence, we got an uncertain future," the paper’s editors concluded.

The discontent of both Serbs and Montenegrins showed that the crisis between the two republics did not end with the federation agreement. The dispute has been suspended for three years, during which time each state will likely hold a referendum on its future. Despite its shortcomings, the agreement signaled a welcome departure from the era when conflicts within the region of the former Yugoslavia were solved by guns at the cost of human life. Whether Serbia and Montenegro will join the European community of democratic nations together or separately, the chance that they will do it peacefully now seems better than ever. That is the real triumph of the accord.