BHHRG

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The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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Independent Montenegro: Liberation or Balkanization
HITS: 2241 | 12-01-2007, 15:57 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

Montenegro's example could have far reaching consequences if others seek to emulate its successful drive to independence.


A pro-independence poster displayed in an empty shop window in Cetinje: its message is that a 'Da' (Yes) vote is a vote for Europe

On 21st May, the people of Montenegro voted for independence by the narrow margin of 2009 votes (55.5%) in a referendum which puts the final nail in the coffin of what was Yugoslavia. Since 2003 Montenegro and Serbia have been joined in a loose federation established with the assistance of the EU and which demanded a three year moratorium before either side could choose to opt out. However, Montenegro a small country of c.620,000 has operated as a de facto independent state since the late 1990s when it broke most of its ties with and economic dependency on Serbia, even adopting the DM in 1999 and, later, the Euro in 2002. It also developed its own diplomatic relations and quasi-embassies in important foreign capitals like Brussels and Washington.
The more ardent proponents of Montenegrin exclusivity also pointed to the existence of a separate, autocephalous branch of the Orthodox church and a distinct Montenegrin language.[1] They refer to the not so distant past – between 1878 and 1918 – when Montenegro was internationally recognised as an independent country, ruled by the Njegoš dynasty. Compare this, they say, with Croatia which had to delve back into the Middle Ages to resurrect independent statehood, or Bosnia, regarded by many as a hybrid collection of communities both within the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and later in the Yugoslav Federation.
The problem with this argument is that most Montenegrins have great difficulty making a clear distinction between themselves and Serbs. They speak the same language and families in both republics are intermingled. Unlike neighbouring Kosovo (an autonomous province within Serbia) where it is estimated that over 90% of the Albanophone population wants to break with Belgrade, the Montenegrins were uneasy about independence and what it might mean for their future. The authorities in Podgorica, Montenegro’s small capital, had a ‘hard sell’ on their hands, yet, the referendum always looked set to succeed, if only narrowly, as the government had all the administrative resources and most media outlets in its hands. Also, the pro-independence lobby could count on the votes of ‘captive’ workers in the public administration which, according to local observers, employs c.240,000 as well as support from the country’s Albanian and Bosnian minorities. As for the unemployed, especially the young, independence was sold as a way to forge closer ties to the EU where they will – no doubt - go to seek work at the first possible opportunity.
But will Montenegro be truly independent? Since breaking most of its ties with Serbia the country has been kept afloat by subventions from both Brussels and Washington – in both 2000 and 2001 the US and EU provided $90 m. in aid. There is little economic activity in the republic where there is high unemployment (officially 30% but likely much more) and widespread poverty.[2] One of the few areas of visible activity is a number of road-widening and improving projects, all sporting banners proclaiming their dependence on EU grants. In fact, the EU oversaw the whole referendum process having imposed both the rules and guidelines for its conduct while the prospect of EU membership was closely intertwined with pro-independence propaganda.
In other words, people were not being invited to vote for going it alone but rather for the comfort zone that (reputedly) will be provided by Brussels. They were voting to leave the frying pan of one bloc (Yugoslavia) to enter the fire of an even larger one (the EU).[3] Such ‘conditional independence’ has a long pedigree in the Balkans. One commentator noted how Slovenia also wanted ‘dependent independence’ when it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991: “Slovenian nationalism” she writes “was indeed a new sort of nationalism” which exalted “EU membership over national sovereignty…. Joining the club was indeed the overriding motive of Slovenian separatism.”[4]
While the EU and US hailed the outcome of the vote many observers were disquieted by what they see as further balkanization in South East Europe. Already, the Serbian provinces of Vojvodina and Novi Pazar are demanding increased autonomy from Belgrade while Kosovo will probably gain its independence, even later this year. Inevitably, breakaway regions in the post Soviet space like Transnistria and Nagorno Karabakh fail to see why they too should be denied their independence. And, in parts of Western Europe, like Catalonia and the Basque country, further demands for increased autonomy from the centre are already being made.[5]
On the other side of the world a little noticed shadow was cast over the victory celebrations in Montenegro as East Timor, the last country in the world to be proclaimed independent, erupted in violence. Poverty and unemployment following the departure of the UN Milch-cow has led to internal friction and the breakdown of law and order in Timor, a small, poor state also kept afloat for a long time by international subventions. At the moment, the people of the Balkans are cowed and subdued, but will this last for ever? What will happen to these micro-states in the former Yugoslavia if the international community and its flotilla of NGOs departs leaving them to their own devices?
The British Helsinki Human Rights Group’s observers visited Montenegro in the pre-referendum period to gauge the campaign and they returned a fortnight later to witness the conduct of the vote.


[1] There is an Institute for Montenegrin Language in Podgorica; President Vujanovic’s web page is in both Crna Goran and Serbian (as well as English) See, http://www.predsjednik.cg.yu/,
[2] For details on Montenegro’s economic development, see Florian Bieber (ed.) “Montenegro in Transition”, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, Baden-Baden, 2003,
[3] The only journalist to point out this contradiction was Neil Clark “Never mind the Balkans” The Guardian, 23rd May, 2006,
[4] See, Diana Johnstone “Fools’ Crusade” Pluto Press, 2002, p.137,
[5] “Montenegro referendum spurs separatism in Spain”, New Europe
http://www.new-europe.info/new-europe/displaynews.asp?id=125147 28th May-3rd June, 2006.

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