Serbia and Montenegro A Forced Marriage Heads for Divorce

Montenegro's voters have chosen independence over union with Serbia. But as the tiny republic's population celebrates, is a separatist hangover on the way? Worries about smuggling and the Russian mafia loom.

By Renate Flottau in Belgrade


Supporters of Montenegrin independence celebrate in Podgorica on Sunday.
DPA

Supporters of Montenegrin independence celebrate in Podgorica on Sunday.

The union between Serbia and Montenegro has ended after existing unsuccessfully for three years. But what exactly will follow the celebrations in the streets of Podgorica is unknown both in the new mini state's capital and in Belgrade. Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic promises there will be no war of roses and says he expects Serbia to behave "in a European manner." But if Serbia were to go ahead with the measures it announced during the referendum campaign, the festive mood in the small coastal republic could be over very quickly. Several thousand Montenegrins studying in Serbia free of charge would face tuition fees for foreigners. Patients in Serbian hospitals would also suddenly be treated as private patients and be charged accordingly.

Around 260,000 Montenegrins, many of whom have lived in Serbia for generations, might face problems at work, without having the option of finding comparable employment opportunities in Montenegro. Only 120,000 Montenegrins are formally employed; the others work off the books or earn their living as smugglers. Moreover, numerous ministers and politicians, including the Serbian interior minister and the head of Serbia's intelligence agency, would be forced to exchange their Montenegrin citizenship for Serbian in order to retain their positions. Belgrade has stated clearly that foreigners will not be allowed to hold political office in Serbia.

Until now, the reactions to Montenegro's rejection of the union have been blasé. It almost seems as if Serbs were relieved that the three-year tedium of their forced marriage to Montenegro, characterized by ongoing arguments and a protracted exchange of insults, is finally over. Belgrade doesn't need to worry about its membership in international bodies such as the United Nations, since it automatically inherits these positions as the successor to the union-state.

One of the main points of contention in Belgrade could be the appointment of the commander in chief of the future Serbian army -- a position that has been held until now by Svetozar Marovic, the Montenegrin president of the Serbia-Montenegro union. On Tuesday, Marovic announced he would step down. Both Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and President Borislav Tadic have staked a claim to the position of commander in chief. The armed forces had already divided into two virtually independent units long before the referendum, despite its formally unified command structure. Most of the roughly 3,400 professional soldiers serving in the Podgorica corps were Montenegrins. Serbia evacuated all heavy armaments and military equipment from the region long ago, aware that the desire for secession was growing.

Keeping the Serbs happy

The political leadership in Podgorica will now have to negotiate an intermediate path between the current euphoria over Montenegro's independence and the need to cultivate a friendly relationship with Serbia, its jilted former union partner. There is nothing selfless in the desire for such a friendly relationship. Serbian tourists fill Montenegro's pensions and hotels every holiday season to enjoy two weeks on the Adriatic. The economic ties between the two members of the former state union have also been highly beneficial to Montenegro, despite the fact that financial transactions were handled by  German banks after Montenegro started using the euro in 2002.

The government in Podgorica is offering an alliance of independent states, with open borders and duty-free trade. It has also promised to grant Serbians who own real estate in Montenegro -- there are an estimated 30,000 of them -- all the property rights guaranteed by the European Union. President Vujanovic vigorously denies that any of this is related to the fear that the new state of Montenegro may not be able to survive on its own. He predicts that given Belgrade's ongoing problems with the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, Montenegro will become a member of the EU and of NATO more quickly than Serbia -- after all, Montenegro also offers "strategic incentives."

To that end, Padgorica will use its resources -- tourism, the sea and quality food -- to full advantage. Montenegro's oil supply has already been ensured by an agreement with Libya. Tripoli will receive bottled water in return for oil. Montenegro's relations with its neighbors Albania and Croatia have long been friendly; a possible elimination of border controls is on the table. The father of the current US president, George Bush senior, has even announced his intention to invest €500 million euros ($643 million) in Montenegro in order to build harbor facilities for yacht owners and a golf course near the airport in Tivat.

Yet if the hopes of raising the standard of living in Montenegro and of prompting more Western investment should be disappointed, Podgorica may be forced to recall the philosophy of Montenegro's forefathers. During the second half of the 19th century, the budget of the Montenegrin royal family was bankrolled by the Russian Czar.

Mafia moving in?

Many, including Erhard Busek, coordinator for the EU's Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, fear that Montenegro will soon become a stronghold of the Russian mafia and a hotbed of gambling and smuggling. Russian millionaires have already purchased entire stretches of Montenegro's coast and Russian charter planes constantly fly tourists to the Adriatic. The only functioning industrial site in Montenegro -- the aluminium plant KAP, which is responsible for 80 percent of Montenegro's exports -- was bought by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. The Montenegrin newspaper Monitor is worried that Deripaska is planning further takeovers with the goal of ultimately controlling half of Montenegro's domestic economy.

The other major pillar of Montenegro's economy is smuggling -- a black market that is dominated by illicit cigarette trafficking and sales. For years, this illegal trade allowed Montenegro to prepare financially for independence. It is not just the political elite that has profited from the untaxed cigarettes that leave Montenegro by speedboat in order then to be shipped all over the world. The police have also been financed in this way, as was an intelligence service that operated independently of Belgrade. Even Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is suspected of involvement in cigarette smuggling.

The EU repeatedly put pressure on Djukanovic, the main proponent of severing the union with Serbia, not to hold the referendum on independence. And before it was held on Sunday, he repeatedly announced that he would not be a candidate in the parliamentary elections scheduled for the coming fall. Even supporters of Djukanovic's own party have accused him of despotism in the past.

The most important tasks the Montenegrin government faces now are reconciling with the political opposition and reassuring those Montenegrins who voted against independence. Prior to the referendum, some radical representatives of that camp even threatened the secession of northern Montenegro.

In the long term, the new state will have to confront the problem of its Albanian minority, which makes up between five and seven percent of the population. Albanians played a decisive role in the success of the referendum. In return, they are asking for autonomy for the Ulcinj region, where they make up 80 percent of the population.

And there is one bitter element in Montenegrin independence that the current celebrations can't eliminate. Montenegro's legacy includes one man that many would rather have left to Serbian history books: Slobodan Milosevic. Not only was he Montenegrin himself, he also secured his power largely thanks to other countrymen such as the head of the intelligence service, Jovica Stanisic, who currently faces war crimes charges in The Hague, and Milorad Vucelic, the former director of Serbian national television and one of Milosevic's most ardent demagogues.

Correction Appended: Translation and editing errors in the original version of this story have been corrected in this text.

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