Montenegro – in between Serbia and Kosovo

Montenegro must tread carefully in order to resolve its outstanding issues with Serbia and Kosovo, with the latter required to fulfill three key conditions – border demarcation, the sustainable return of displaced persons and recognition of the ethnic Montenegrin community – before full diplomatic relations will be established.

By M. Bogetic

The decision to recognize an independent Kosovo was by no means an easy one for the Montenegrin Government. Bearing in mind the strong historic, economic and ethnic ties between Montenegro and Serbia, and the fact that one-third of the population in Montenegro declares themselves as Serbs, it was certain that such a decision would provoke outrage from Serbia and the Serbs in Montenegro. When the decision was finally made, in October 2008, it led to mass protests in Podgorica, whilst the Montenegrin ambassador in Belgrade was declared a persona non grata. The Government of Montenegro nevertheless stood by its decision, saying that recognizing Kosovo meant simply acknowledging the reality, and that Podgorica wanted to have good-neighborly relations with all of the surrounding countries.

Over the following year, progress in relations between Podgorica and Belgrade has been slow, but steady. Serbian tourists kept coming to the Montenegrin coast – the main source of income for Montenegro’s economy – and economic cooperation continued as usual. Still, it was only in November 2009 that a new Montenegrin ambassador to Belgrade took-up his post and diplomatic ties were fully normalized. During the same period, relations between Montenegro and Kosovo remained rather low-profile, with several working-level visits between Podgorica and Pristina. There had been no official bilateral visits throughout 2009, only a few meetings on the margins of multilateral conferences. The Montenegrin Government had apparently been trying to carefully balance between not alienating Belgrade again too soon, and showing Pristina that it wanted to be a constructive neighbor.

On 15 January 2010, Montenegro and Kosovo made a further step in their bilateral ties by officially establishing diplomatic relations. This decision could have been expected, because it represented a natural next step after the recognition of Kosovo’s independence. It provoked sharp criticism from the opposition in Montenegro, but this time there were no street protests and the Montenegrin ambassador to Belgrade was not proclaimed unwelcome. Nevertheless, Belgrade, as expected, heavily criticized the decision, and recalled its own ambassador to Montenegro “for consultations”; which, at the time of writing, are still ongoing. Concurrently, Belgrade delivered a €1.5 million bill to the Montenegrin Government for use of the villa where the Montenegrin Embassy in Belgrade is currently located.

Whilst both the decision to recognize Kosovo’s independence and to establish diplomatic relations had been “strongly encouraged” by Montenegro’s key international partners, and afterwards warmly welcomed, the next step – an exchange of ambassadors between the two countries – might need to wait a bit longer, despite continuous international “recommendations” to proceed with it sooner rather than later. There are three issues which Podgorica would like to resolve with Pristina prior to the opening of diplomatic representations.

Firstly, Montenegro and Kosovo will need to demarcate and delineate their mutual, 79 km-long border. Both sides have so far stated that the border issue was a technical, rather than a political one, and that the basis for negotiations is the border defined in the 1974 SFRY Constitution, which was later reaffirmed by the conclusions of the Badinter Commission. Nevertheless, there might need to be some minor exchanges of territories in the bordering areas, in order to accommodate local populations, which could prolong the whole process. Similar negotiations between Kosovo and Macedonia lasted for more than a year.

Secondly, Pristina would need to make a more concerted, visible effort to provide conditions for a sustainable return of displaced persons from Kosovo still residing in Montenegro. Out of almost 11,000 people, close to 2,000 have so far expressed a readiness to return, provided that some basic conditions are met, such as the return of their property, safety guarantees and opportunities for employment. So far, the Kosovo Government has made many declarations of good will, but taken insufficient practical action and dedicated insignificant sums of money for the return of the displaced from Montenegro.

Finally, Podgorica wants the ethnic Montenegrin community in Kosovo to be recognized in normative legislation, and be awarded proper representation in the Assembly, as well as proportional employment in state institutions. On this issue, again, Kosovo officials have frequently expressed their support, but nothing has been yet accomplished. Leaders of the Montenegrin minority in Kosovo emphasize the need to have the community recognized prior to the next parliamentary elections, which are very likely to take place in late-summer 2010. Only this way will the Montenegrins in Kosovo be able to vote and elect their authentic representatives to the Kosovo Assembly.

While in 2010 Podgorica will be working on the outstanding issues with Kosovo, it will also need to be addressing a couple of questions which remain open with Serbia. The key issue remains that of dual citizenship, on which negotiations have been stalled for months, without realistic chances of progress. Another matter concerns succession of property of the former SFRY, primarily gold reserves and diplomatic buildings abroad.

Montenegro will thus find itself in a delicate situation, because undoubtedly any visible advancement in relations with Kosovo, and an eventual exchange of diplomatic staff, will lead to worsening of relations with Serbia, even if only temporarily. Therefore, it remains to be seen if the official Podgorica will be able to “have its cake and eat it too”. It is encouraging that the EU has been recently sending much stronger signals that good neighborly relations in the Western Balkans will be a true prerequisite for any further progress down the path of European integration, which should, in turn, motivate local leaders to demonstrate more good will and practical actions to follow. Montenegro, which will be chairing several regional initiatives and organizations throughout 2010, will thus have an additional chance to demonstrate its true dedication to having the best relations possible with all of its neighbors. Hopefully, the neighbors will reciprocate.

M. Bogetić is a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy Vienna and the Johns Hopkins University-School of Advanced International Studies.

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