21st Oct 2016


Montenegrin independence: what does it mean for Kosovo?

On May 21 the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their country's independence without a single shot being fired. Predictions of civil unrest and interethnic violence proved unfounded and Montenegro displayed admirable democratic maturity.

While Serbian leaders hoped that voters would support past mirages of pan-Slavic grandeur, Montenegrins instead voted for a future in which they could determine their own fate. The small republic rejected doomsday scenarios of ethnic schisms and fratricide and chose the path to economic development and eventual EU membership.

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The question on everyone's mind now is what kind of resonance Montenegrin independence will have elsewhere, particularly in the neighbouring UN-administered territory of Kosovo. Both Montenegro and Kosovo have been constructing their arguments for independence for many years based on their individual merits.

If the ongoing international negotiations on Kosovo's final status create one more state, this decision will not be a consequence of the referendum in Montenegro, but rather a result of recognition by the international community that the stagnant status quo in Kosovo-Serb relations is untenable.

Positive impact

Nevertheless, the Montenegrin ballot will have a positive impact on negotiations over Kosovo's status. Fears of a negative domino effect are unwarranted, because Montenegrin independence actually sets a positive precedent. The political sophistication and patience exhibited by the government in Podgorica emphasized that the goal of self-determination can be achieved peacefully.

The EU's recognition of Montenegro has signalled that the creation of new states in Europe is possible, as long as they respect European values and standards. This will act as a model and incentive for the Kosovo-Albanian leaders to focus on constructive political dialogue.

Another lesson from Montenegro that should be applied to Kosovo is the fact that an ambiguous interim status only delays political progress. The ethnic Albanians and the Kosovo Serbs, have conflicting and mutually exclusive positions, but this should not be a reason to seek vague alternatives to independence, or to aim at lowest common denominator options.

Pragmatism rather than wishful thinking

Belgrade's unclear proposal for the territory, calling for "less than independence, more than autonomy" would only cause further complications over state structures, administrative responsibilities, and international legitimacy. Any attempts to rebind Kosovo and Serbia in an unstable confederation would precipitate new conflicts and drain resources for many years to come.

Montenegrin independence should finally cause pragmatism to prevail over wishful thinking in Belgrade's external and internal policy. Unfortunately, much of the political elite in Belgrade has been reluctant to bite the bullet by publicly consenting to Kosovo's independence and instead Serbia's prime minister and the president have issued threatening warnings.

The key international players should curb rather than accommodate the nationalist appetite of Serbian officialdom. It is time for politicians in Belgrade to realize that only full independence for Kosovo can lead to lasting stability and development, otherwise the territory will be plagued indefinitely by crime, corruption, radicalism, and emigration that will worsen Serbia's own isolation.

Serbia is not in a position to negotiate. Belgrade's reluctance to deliver the indicted fugitive war criminal Ratko Mladic to the UN tribunal in The Hague has left it with only two options: accept Kosovo independence and focus on rigorous domestic reform or decline further and suffer the consequence of international isolation.

Serbia's general elections

Serbia is preparing for general elections and the maturity of the electorate and the country's leaders will be severely tested. Either the country chooses moderation, reform, and international integration or a victory by radical nationalists will lead to ostracism, isolation, and impoverishment.

Montenegrin independence is also unlikely to provoke conflicts elsewhere in the Balkans. States such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia aspire to EU and NATO membership and are unlikely to succumb to the radical sentiments of a minority that would rob them of such prospects. Military conflict is a thing of the past in the Balkans and doomsday scenarios should not be manipulated by Serbian officials for the sake of strengthening their nationalist credentials.

Instead, Belgrade should begin planning for its own reform initiatives once it unburdens itself of Kosovo. Upon settlement of Kosovo's status, Serbia will finally be able to pursue more rigorous structural reforms and prove that it is a responsible and democratic member of the European family.

With Montenegro's independence now a reality, it is time for an unequivocal settlement for Kosovo. Only through an independent, multi-ethnic Kosovo, guided by the rule of law and democratic values can the legacy of violence in the entire region be overcome. Only then can Belgrade, Podgorica, Prishtina and their neighbours move toward EU and NATO integration and attract much needed foreign investment.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Europe Programme of the Center

for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC and Milena Staneva is a research associate at CSIS.


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