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Friday, February 24, 2006

Montenegro: independent or not?


The authorities in Montenegro, one of the two republics in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, are preparing for a referendum on independence that is expected to take place in May. The terms of the referendum are proving contentious. The EU has recently recommended that the pro-independence forces will need to secure at least 55% of the vote in the referendum for the result to be domestically acceptable and internationally recognised. The Montenegrin government would like a lower threshold but may in the end have to go along with the EU's recommendation. The most likely scenario at present is that the pro-independence camp secures a majority but falls short of 55%. Such an outcome would prolong the uncertainty regarding Montenegro's future status and most probably leave the union with Serbia in a dysfunctional state.

Decision time

The EU-brokered Belgrade Agreement of 2002, which paved the way for the creation of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, allowed for either of the two constituent republics to hold a referendum on independence no less than three years after the common state's Constitutional Charter took effect. The charter came into force in February 2003, meaning that the moratorium on holding an independence referendum expired in February 2006.

Montenegro’s pro-independence government, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, had for some time made it clear that it would hold a referendum at the earliest possible moment after the moratorium expired. However, as February 2006 approached, it became clear that Mr Djukanovic’s government and the largely unionist opposition would struggle to agree on the conditions for the referendum—in particular, the required minimum turnout, the majority in favour, and the percentage of registered voters required to make a “yes” vote valid. In December 2005 the EU’s High Representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, appointed Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovak diplomat, as special envoy charged with helping the two sides reach agreement.

In mid-February, after consultations with the government and the opposition, Mr Lajcak recommended that at least 55% of those voting in the referendum favour independence in order for the result to be valid. Mr Lajcak also proposed that the referendum be held on May 14th, to coincide with scheduled local elections, and consist of a single question asking voters whether they want Montenegro to be an independent and fully internationally recognised state.

Can't please everybody

There are elements of compromise in the EU proposal. Mr Lajcak has stopped well short of meeting the opposition's demand that 50% of all registered voters in Montenegro opt for independence in the referendum. (Mr Djukanovic had previously suggested that the bar should be set at 40% of the electorate.) Indeed, by stipulating a majority of those voting on the day, rather than a percentage of all registered voters, Mr Lajcak has encouraged Montenegrins to vote in the referendum by removing the possibility that a boycott by the pro-union opposition could render it invalid. Furthermore, the EU proposal endorses the recommendation of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which ruled in late 2005 that Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia, most of whom would probably oppose independence, will not be allowed to vote in the referendum.

Nevertheless, the EU proposal enraged Mr Djukanovic’s government, which felt that Mr Lajcak was setting an unfairly high threshold. Pro-independence Montenegrins allege that the EU’s proposal is a backhanded attempt to scupper Mr Djukanovic’s chances of victory in the referendum, which, they argue, would simply formalise the existing situation, remove uncertainty and thus bring stability.

Serbia and Montenegro have operated as de facto independent states for some time—the state union has only five ministries, most of which are virtually idle, and the two republics service their public debt separately. The IMF conducts essentially separate negotiations with the two, and the EU has openly split Serbia and Montenegro’s negotiations over a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the first step toward candidate status, into two discrete tracks. The common state has clearly not been functioning, and diverts the energies of both Serbia and Montenegro from other tasks.

But the Montenegrins’ referendum drive comes at an awkward time, with Serbia having only just begun negotiations with the ethnic Albanian authorities in Kosovo on the latter’s future status. Given the extreme sensitivity of the Kosovo talks, it has been alleged that some elements within the EU would prefer to allow Serbia to “keep” Montenegro to soften the blow of its likely loss of Kosovo. There are also widespread concerns about the viability of Montenegro as an independent state and about corruption within its administration—not least Mr Djukanovic’s alleged involvement in smuggling of contraband goods during the period of western sanctions against former Yugoslavia. Together, these concerns have led some EU member states to calculate that an independent Montenegro could cause instability in the region.

Devil in the details

It is still not clear whether the Montenegrin government will accept Mr Lajcak's recommendation of a 55% majority. Mr Djukanovic and other senior pro-independence politicians are urging the EU's Council of Ministers to lower the threshold at a meeting scheduled for February 27th, and are proposing that the referendum be valid if 41% of all registered voters opt for independence. However, Mr Lajcak has refused to consider altering the proposed terms, and all the signs are that the member states will endorse the 55% threshold (although it remains to be seen how strongly they will do so).

The Montenegrin parliament is scheduled to discuss the terms of the referendum at a special session on February 25th, and the pro-independence forces may yet disregard Mr Lajcak and set the conditions they want. However, snubbing the EU in this way would be a high-risk strategy for Mr Djukanovic and would also raise tensions with the unionist forces in the republic, increasing the likelihood that they will boycott the referendum. This in turn would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and raise potential risks to the republic's internal stability were the government to declare independence in the aftermath of a disputed referendum. The Montenegrin authorities are therefore under considerable pressure to accept the 55% threshold. The pro-union forces probably have an even stronger incentive to accept these terms, and abandon their insistence that the requirement should be 50% of all registered voters, since the pro-independence camp may struggle to reach the 55% mark.

Possible outcomes

Assuming that the referendum is conducted in accordance with the EU's recommendations, there are three different scenarios that could unfold. A pro-independence vote of more than 55% would indisputably set in motion the demise of the state union, although this would take some time to complete. A clear failure—high turnout and a pro-independence vote below or around 50%—would mean the end for Mr Djukanovic and may well bring forward the parliamentary election scheduled for later in 2006. Such an outcome would also lend some legitimacy to the state union, but Serbia and Montenegro would then face the very difficult task of trying to shape a new, functional common state out of the dysfunctional status quo. For example, it is unclear whether Montenegro would hold direct elections to the state union parliament simultaneously with its general election, as it is obliged to do under the terms of a separate EU-brokered agreement reached in 2005.

At present, however, the most likely scenario is that the pro-independence forces secure a majority in the referendum but fall a little short of 55%. Recent opinion polls conducted by independent monitors suggest that this will be the outcome if turnout exceeds 75%—which it has done in the last three national elections in Montenegro and is likely to again on a question of such importance.

Montenegro has about 467,000 registered voters. If 82% of these voters turn out—the same proportion as in the April 2001 parliamentary election—then the pro-independence forces will need about 210,000 votes to gain the necessary 55% majority. This is considerably above the 194,000 votes that pro-independence parties received in the 2001 election. Should 85% of voters turn out, the pro-independence camp would face the even more daunting target of about 218,000 votes. Even with a lower turnout of 75%, Mr Djukanovic and his allies would need 192,000 votes to pass the EU threshold. This may prove difficult, since some opposition forces that are not especially opposed to independence, such as the Group for Change, will campaign against Mr Djukanovic.

A pro-independence vote just below 55% would enable Mr Djukanovic to claim a victory of sorts. At the very least, the Montenegrin government would say that it had no mandate to invest extra energy in the state union (for example, by organising direct elections to the joint parliament), and would strongly resist EU pressure for such a course of action. This would in turn leave the union in a dysfunctional, or indeed non-functional, state. The outcome of the upcoming general election in Montenegro would then help to determine how soon a fresh bid for independence might take place.

With less than three months to go before Montenegro's independence referendum, the outcome is uncertain and the stakes are high. Opinion polls indicate that a sizable number of voters are still undecided, and in such a small republic the result may yet be determined by a few hundred votes.

SOURCE: ViewsWire Eastern Europe
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