Montenegro’s Referendum on Independence

Montenegro’s Referendum on Independence

A referendum on Montenegro’s independence could redraw national boundaries in the Balkans. It could also strain tensions in an already volatile region.

May 19, 2006 3:37 pm (EST)

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Montenegro, the only constituent of the former Yugoslav republic that still has official ties to Serbia, will vote May 21 on whether to secede. The referendum will mark the first chance for the tiny republic to choose its political future, and polls show a narrow majority set to vote for separation. Experts say a "yes" vote could initiate a final phase in the crumbling of the former Yugoslavia. The outcome of Montenegro’s vote is no sure thing, experts say. Under rules proposed by the European Union and approved by Montenegro’s parliament, a 55 percent majority is needed to mandate secession. But Montenegro’s pro-separation prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, has said he will try to move ahead with secession, even if the "yes" vote is only 50 percent. Such a move could heighten tensions in an already delicate political climate.

What is Montenegro’s political status?

Montenegro is part of a federal union with Serbia named "Serbia and Montenegro," which was formed in February 2003. The two republics are all that remain from the former Yugoslavia, which originally had six republics (including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia) and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina). The histories of Serbia and Montenegro are interwoven, and over 30 percent of Montenegrins identify as ethnic Serbs. Still, recent polls showed a slim majority of Montenegrins favoring independent sovereignty. Currently, Montenegro has its own president (Filip Vujanovic) and prime minister (Djukanovic), but there is also a president of the federally united Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, a Serb. Experts say Montenegro already operates much as an independent country, though it does not have an independent army or diplomatic corps.

How will the vote on independence work?

In order to win EU recognition of the legitimacy of the referendum, Montenegro agreed to structure the vote such that a 55 percent majority is necessary to legally secure independence. Under the terms of the 2003 agreement that bound Serbia and Montenegro federally, Montenegro could not appeal for secession for three years, making this is the first chance for separatists. Should the vote fail, they would not be allowed to appeal again for another three years.

What is the significance of 55 percent?

That number was officially set by the Montenegrin parliament in February, when they laid out the terms of the referendum. But the EU had strong influence over the decision to insist on a 55 percent standard, which experts say is a "high bar." Some question whether the EU might have chosen this target because it would rather to see the referendum fail. Secession could stir tensions in an already precarious region, and peacekeepers, occupied as they are in Kosovo and elsewhere, want to avoid any new flare-ups.

Still, other experts dispute the idea that the EU’s push for a higher standard indicates a preference for Montenegro to remain federally linked to Serbia. "I think the main reason they put it at that was to guarantee that the opposition took part," says Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at CSIS. "There was a danger that they would have boycotted, and this would have delegitimized the election." Timothy William Waters, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, adds that there’s no clear standard for such votes, and that the EU could equally well have set the number at 50 percent or 60 percent. "The standards are incredibly vague, they’re all over the map," he says.

What is expected to happen in the May 21 vote?

The most recent polls show between 50 percent and 55 percent planning to vote "yes" for secession, though experts add that these polls should not be considered very reliable. Still, there is a distinct possibility that separatists will win a majority but not the full 55 percent. Experts say this could cause a host of problems. Though most agree that significant outbreaks of violence in Montenegro are unlikely, a "gray zone" vote would undermine the mandate of the federal union between Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro does not have an independent military or foreign service, so it could face a scenario where its federal union is weakened but it has no legal authority to establish independent national systems. Waters says one possible situation is that some countries would recognize Montenegro as a nation, and others wouldn’t. What is important, he says, is a mandate: "You need a stable solution."

Should it gain independence, what would Montenegro’s prospects be for joining the European Union?

Separatists argue that an independent Montenegro would stand a much better chance of admission to the EU than a federally united Serbia and Montenegro. Proponents of this idea say the recent controversy over accused Serbian war criminals has only strengthened their case. In April, the EU cut off talks with Serbia and Montenegro when Belgrade was perceived to be dragging its feet over the arrest of the former Bosnian Serb military leader, General Ratko Mladic, and others. "It’s one of the easier logics to work out, that canceling the talks has boosted the pro-independence side in Montenegro," Waters says. "Some feel that they’re shackled to a country that’s dead in the water." But even if Montenegro successfully wins independence, EU integration is no sure thing. Experts say Montenegro’s admittance would hinge on its meeting a list of conditions, or minimum standards, much like those put forth in recent negotiations over the inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania.

How is the dispute over Kosovo’s final status entering into all this?

The Kosovo situation does not appear to be directly related, experts say. International overseers have reiterated that Montenegro’s referendum will not affect how they approach the situation in Kosovo, a Serbian province also seeking independent sovereignty. A 2005 report by the International Crisis Group emphasized the importance of maintaining this separation. Any political spillover, then, will be unofficial, though it could still be significant. The Economist forecasts that, should Montenegrin separatists fail to get 55 percent of the vote but nevertheless push for independence, "the region will enter a period of renewed instability."

What effect are Montenegrin domestic politics having on the referendum vote?

Montenegro has parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2006. Experts say the incumbent political elite are deeply invested in passing this referendum. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has been particularly outspoken among separatists, and has said he will resign if less than 50 percent vote for independence.

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