Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Fourth Report


What effect would Montenegrin independence have on Serbia?

81. One possibly positive effect of Montenegrin independence identified by Tim Judah[153] would be that it would force the issue of the structure of government in Serbia. As we have mentioned above, there is a considerable duplication of functions at federal and republican levels, leading to rivalries between federal and Serbian politicians.[154] If Montenegro seceded, Yugoslavia would cease to exist in its current form as a federal state. The future structure of the government of Serbia would of course be a matter for the Serbian people. Short-term negative repercussions would be likely, with federal and Serbian politicians battling for authority, but so long as this is kept to the cut and thrust of democratic politics, there is every reason to hope that the eventual result would be a more sensible and efficient system of government in Serbia.

United Kingdom and international policy towards Montenegrin independence

82. We commented extensively on Montenegro in our recent report on Kosovo.[155] At that time Montenegro's moves towards de facto autonomy and desire for independence seemed to be hinged on the need to protect the republic from Milosevic and his policies, as much as motivated by nationalistic ideals. We in our report, and the Government in its evidence to us, were accordingly very positive in our attitude towards developments in Montenegro. The Government wrote at the time of the "international commitment to provide support to a democratic, autonomous Montenegro" and stated its belief that "the Montenegrin government's programme of democratic and economic reforms should be given strong international support".[156] Before the change of government in Belgrade, the threat that Milosevic might provoke military intervention and civil unrest was cited by the Government as a principal argument for Montenegro to avoid any move towards full independence.[157]

83. Since the fall of Milosevic, the perspective of some governments has altered. Montenegro is no longer a bulwark of democracy against a Serbian or Yugoslav dictatorship, and the focus of international praise has shifted from President Djukanovic of Montenegro to President Kostunica in Belgrade. Mr Djukanovic has, according to Elizabeth Roberts, moved from being "a hero of the West" to "facing criticism for his failure to implement economic reform and tackle problems of corruption and cronyism".[158] According to Zoran Kusovac, Montenegro has been "suddenly abandoned" by the West.[159] At the same time, the security threat from the Yugoslav Army has eased, making a violent outcome less likely should Montenegro declare independence.[160]

84. Although the United Kingdom Government is opposed to Montenegrin independence, it is not opposed to Montenegrin autonomy. As the FCO makes clear, "HMG believes that a single international personality will allow Montenegro and Serbia to exercise autonomous powers at the appropriate levels, without damaging consequences for the region".[161] As we note above,[162] the FCO explicitly identifies as a potential "damaging consequence" of Montenegrin independence that it would increase pressure from Kosovo Albanians for independence for Kosovo.[163] It may also be concerned that violence has generally been the result in the past when republics have seceded from Yugoslavia, although this violence is generally perceived to have been instigated by the Milosevic regime and is most unlikely to be a threat under the current Yugoslav administration, as the FCO admits.[164]

85. The EU is likewise opposed to Montenegrin independence, at times more stridently so than the United Kingdom. Tim Judah writes that France and Italy in particular "have been taking a much harder line against Montenegrin independence than the British". The General Affairs Council (GAC) concluded at its meeting in January 2001 that "an overall Federal framework"[165] should be maintained.

86. There has clearly been a dramatic change of attitude displayed towards Mr Djukanovic's Government by the GAC and the international community as a whole. Chris Patten told us that "we were strong supporters of President Djukanovic when he was, I think, extremely bravely standing up to Milosevic. We cannot because we rather disagree with his political strategy now simply wash our hands of him, it would be intolerable".[166] Yet this is precisely what the GAC has appeared to do in recent months. Whereas in July 2000 the GAC "reiterated its support for the democratically elected authorities in Montenegro, in particular President Djukanovic",[167] praise for Mr Djukanovic and his administration was starkly absent from the January 2001 GAC Conclusions, which commended President Kostunica alone for his readiness to play "a constructive role" in agreeing a new Federal structure—with no mention of Mr Djukanovic at all.[168] Nothing could demonstrate more clearly how, with the advent of democracy in Serbia, Mr Djukanovic is no longer the darling of the international community. This apparent cooling of support might have been easier to accept if criticisms had been voiced earlier by the international community.

What impact can the international community have in Montenegro?


87. Zoran Kusovac regards United Kingdom and EU policy towards Montenegro as "clumsy". He writes that "Montenegro was suddenly abandoned the moment Western diplomats could freely travel to Belgrade".[169] Jonathan Steele told us that "Montenegro has been partly ignored and even, to some extent, snubbed" which he regards as a "very damaging and incorrect policy".[170] We note that, in its response to our Report on Kosovo, the Government stated that "no-one should doubt the international community's resolve to support Montenegro's progress towards democracy and prosperity".[171] There are no such statements of support in the Government's written evidence in connection with this inquiry.

88. The issue here is not whether actively discouraging the secession of Montenegro is or is not the right policy—we discuss this below—but whether the international community has adopted the right diplomatic stance to achieve its policy ends. We agree with Elizabeth Roberts that the Montenegrin government cannot expect to be exempt from criticism by the international community where it "fails to live up to expected democratic norms".[172] However, there is nothing inherently undemocratic in holding a referendum on independence, if it is properly conducted.[173]

89. There seems to have been a recognition in recent months of the need for the international community to be sensitive, at least by some of the politicians and diplomats involved. Mr Crawford was much more pragmatic about the prospect of Montenegrin independence[174] than either the written evidence we received from the FCO[175] or what we were told by Mr Vaz[176] had given reason to expect. We are also heartened that Chris Patten understands the need for the international community to make its representations with some sensitivity. We agree entirely with him that "it would be politically maladroit in the extreme for us to appear to be lecturing the electors of Montenegro on what they should do. If they are like most electors in other places they would, I guess, if one gave those sort of lectures, promptly do exactly the opposite just in order to demonstrate their independence".[177]

90. Montenegro did not take heed of the international community's warnings against introducing the deutschmark as a parallel currency nor against boycotting the federal elections in October 2000. In the light of these precedents, international opposition to independence, coupled with a sudden change from a supportive to a critical approach to the Montenegrin government, could well harden resolve within Montenegro to take unilateral action—quite the opposite of its intended effect. We conclude that heavy-handed opposition by the international community to Montenegrin independence is likely at best to have little effect, and at worst to be counter-productive.


91. Some commentators, contrary to the views of the international community, believe that Montenegrin independence would be a good thing. Zoran Kusovac argues that "the necessary condition for the reactivation of regional co-operation at any level more sophisticated than simple bilateral trade is the complete dismantling of former Yugoslavia".[178] Tim Judah suggested along similar lines that "with Montenegrin are down to ground zero, you are down to all the constituent parts, and once you are down to all the constituent parts you could start to rebuild the whole area".[179]

92. We are not convinced that Montenegrin independence is the only or necessarily the most desirable way forward, but we believe that any successful regional solution must be worked out regionally. We welcome Mr Vaz's recognition that "it is not our position to dictate what should happen",[180] and we agree wholeheartedly with Chris Patten that "what is important at the end of the day is that Montenegro should remain democratic".[181] Given that the Serbian and Yugoslav governments have said that they will accept a legal and peaceful unilateral declaration of independence by Montenegro, we recommend that the United Kingdom Government should be prepared to recognise Montenegro in the event that it has achieved its independence through a referendum which has been conducted freely and fairly.

93. This is not to say that a Montenegrin declaration of independence would necessarily be a positive regional development. There are serious issues about the conduct of a referendum on independence which have not yet been resolved. Internal dissent within Montenegro might be a real threat. Lack of co-operation between Serbia and Montenegro, at least in the short term, might be another. We turn now to these issues.


94. The threat of internal dissent within Montenegro—which we discuss below—makes it all the more vital that any referendum should be absolutely free and fair, and perceived to be such. As Elizabeth Roberts writes, "there will be negative consequences if the process is not judged to be fair by some sections of the community in Montenegro (e.g. pro-Yugoslav elements in northern Montenegro). It would also be damaging if independence were to be pushed through...with the suspicion that it had been achieved by unfair means—through manipulation of the media, in the wording of the referendum, or in the voting process."[182] Mr Crawford likewise told us: "There is the question of whether there is a convincing majority for independence and the question of whether there has been a convincing process...It is one thing there being a vote; it is another thing being a vote which in a way has been stacked by certain interests or certain politicians in a way which enhances divisions to a dangerous degree. It is one thing there being a clear consensus that this should happen; it is another thing it being rather artificially forced".[183]

95. The international community has a role to play here, which blunt opposition to independence may be preventing it from fulfilling. We agree with Chris Patten that it is reasonable for the international community to point out its concerns, "as friends" who have provided significant political and economic support to Montenegro.[184] Ideally, the conduct of the referendum should be in close co-operation with international bodies such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe. We recommend that the Government should work to ensure that any elections and referendums held in Montenegro are free and fair and conducted to international standards, and that the rights of all social and ethnic groups within Montenegro—particularly those known to oppose independence—are fully respected.

96. Charles Crawford also told us that "There are issues about what you might call the propaganda quality of the media on both sides down there as to whether or not the issues are being given a fair hearing, and I think there are grounds for concern on that."[185] Chris Patten has expressed the hope—which we share—that "the media in reporting any campaign before a referendum will be a little more balanced than it is at the moment".[186] The Government has given substantial support to the independent media in Serbia. We recognise the work done by the BBC World Service in Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo.[187] With a referendum likely in June 2001, any action will have to be extremely swift if it is to help provide balanced media reporting of the independence question. We recommend that the Government both look at ways of increasing support to the independent media in Montenegro with immediate effect and make representations to the Montenegrin Government about the importance of balanced media reporting of the independence question in the run-up to a referendum.


97. One of the reasons for the international community's opposition to Montenegrin independence is that the Montenegrin people are less universally in favour of independence than their government. While ethnic Albanians and Slav Muslims, who together constitute about 20 per cent of the population, favour independence, Orthodox Montenegrins appear to be almost evenly divided between those who favour closer links with Serbia and those who would prefer greater autonomy.[188] Much of the pro-Serbian sentiment in Montenegro is concentrated in the poorer north of the country. Pro-independence Montenegrins who met us in Belgrade were keen to point out that in general younger Montenegrins are in favour of independence, with most opposition coming from the older generations.[189]

98. It is uncertain what might be the extent of the political fall-out of independence and the campaign preceding a referendum. Elizabeth Roberts has warned of the danger that the "distribution of opinion over the constitutional question could lead to a highly charged atmosphere in the build-up to the referendum, resulting in a still more polarised society".[190] A number of commentators point to a danger that independence might be approved by a bare majority of the electorate—and not therefore by a majority of Orthodox Montenegrins.[191] It may be that, given how opinion is divided in Montenegro, it would be wise for a Montenegrin government seeking independence to set a qualified majority threshold in a referendum. But this is a matter for Montenegro to decide: it would not be reasonable for the international community to deny recognition to Montenegro because it had achieved "only" a 51 per cent majority in favour of independence.


99. Commentators differ in their opinions on the question of whether Montenegro would benefit economically from independence. Tim Judah assures us that it would not be a "hostile independence"[192] and Zoran Kusovac suggests that a fresh start would promote regional co-operation.[193] According to Gabriel Partos, the Montenegrin leadership sees long-term economic benefits in separation, notably a revival of tourism.[194] Elizabeth Roberts, on the other hand, fears that unilateral action by Montenegro might lead to acrimony and new barriers between it and Serbia.[195] Tim Judah has previously suggested that "Serbia's politicians will simply tell Montenegro to find its own way in the world",[196] a possibility supported during our recent visit to Belgrade by Prime Minister Djindjic, whose view was that Serbia, shorn of its existing federal links to Montenegro, might find it more profitable to integrate with larger regional players such as Romania and Bulgaria.

100. It was impressed on us many times during our visit to Belgrade that political issues such as Montenegrin independence are a distraction preventing the governments of the region from tackling the most important problem for their people: the economy. We therefore have no hesitation in agreeing with Zoran Kusovac that the status of Montenegro requires early resolution one way or another, to "allow the population of the region to concentrate on economic rather than political issues, which is the only way in which self-sufficiency can be guaranteed."[197] The question of Montenegrin independence requires a speedy resolution to allow Serbia and Montenegro to concentrate on the economic problems that they face. Independence—though not a solution without its problems—would be far better than an imposed, cumbersome and resented federation.

101. There are reasons for optimism, and to think that in the medium term economic integration between Serbia and Montenegro will prove to be in everyone's interests: they share a language and culture, there are extensive family ties and large expatriate communities in both, and it is easier to maintain established markets than to find new ones. Carl Bildt identifies the "wish to 'join Europe'" as one of the few factors uniting the Balkan states.[198] It is important that both Montenegro and Serbia realise that without regional integration this goal will not be achievable. We conclude that the maintenance of a positive neighbourly relationship between Montenegro and Serbia will be an important factor in the stability and prosperity of the region—and particularly of Montenegro—however the issue of Montenegrin independence is resolved. We therefore recommend that the United Kingdom Government impress on Montenegro—and on Serbia—that isolation is not an option, and that international assistance and European integration will depend on neighbourly co-operation and integration.

United Kingdom diplomatic representation in Montenegro

102. In our previous report, we recommended that the FCO's visiting representation in Montenegro be upgraded to a representative office, which should include the facility to issue visas.[199] The FCO did not accept this recommendation, referring to "wider resource constraints."[200] Regardless of the outcome of negotiations between Podgorica and Belgrade, the case for some form of post in Montenegro remains strong. As we pointed out in our China report, it was possible to establish a Consulate-General in Chongqing at a cost of £400,000, with annual running costs of £325,000. This covered two United Kingdom-based staff and a number of locally engaged staff.[201] While costs would be different for Podgorica, they are likely to be of the same order, and perhaps lower. Compared to the cost of the United Kingdom involvement in the region, these are very small sums. We conclude that the need for the FCO to have a permanent post in Montenegro is urgent. We note that the FCO has promised to look carefully at this issue. We wish to have the earliest possible response from the FCO on this conclusion; if possible in advance of the Department's response to the remainder of our Report.

153   Q2. Back

154   See para 15. Back

155   Kosovo report, paras 249-285. Back

156   Kosovo report, Vol II, HC (1999-2000) 28-II, p. 179. Back

157   ibid; Cm. 4825, pp. 16-17. Back

158   Appendix 2, p.82. Back

159   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

160   Ev. p.35. Back

161   Ev. p.25. Back

162   See paras. 70ff. Back

163   Ev. p.34. Back

164   Ev. p.25. Back

165   European Council Press Release No. 10085/00. Back

166   Q243. Back

167   European Council Press Release No. 10085/00. Back

168   European Council Press Release No. 5279/01. Back

169   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

170   Q43. Back

171   Cm. 4825, p. 17. Back

172   Appendix 2, p.84. Back

173   The proper conduct of any referendum is indeed vital if the result is to be deemed legitimate by the international community. We return to this issue below: see paras. 94ff. Back

174   QQ215-6. Back

175   Ev. p.35. Back

176   QQ157-164. Back

177   Q242. Back

178   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

179   Q47. Back

180   Q159. Back

181   Q237. Back

182   Appendix 2, p.85. Back

183   Q215. Back

184   Q243. Back

185   Q215. Back

186   Q237. Back

187   Appendix 5. Back

188   Appendix 2, p.83; Goodbye to Yugoslavia, p. 6. Back

189   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

190   Appendix 2, p.83. Back

191   QQ 55-56; Appendix 2, p.85; Goodbye to Yugoslavia, p. 6. Back

192   Q57. Back

193   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

194   Appendix 8, p.95. Back

195   Appendix 2, pp. 84-85. Back

196   Goodbye to Yugoslavia, p. 6. Back

197   Appendix 9, p.99. Back

198   Foreign Affairs, A Second Chance in the Balkans, January/February 2001. Back

199   Kosovo report, paras 283-284. Back

200   Kosovo: response of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, paras 77-78.. Available on the Committee web site: Hereafter "Government response." Back

201   Tenth Report, Session 1999-2000, HC 574-I, para 131. Back

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