'Montenegro Poll a Setback for Independence'

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Supporters shout 'Victory belongs to Montenegro'

President Milo Djukanovic's coalition won Montenegro's election, but by a narrow margin. How will the result affect his plans to seek independence from Yugoslavia?

Dejan Anastasijevic: Djukanovic will stay on course for independence, but it will be a lot more difficult now. Essentially, these results show that the country is deeply divided between those who want independence and those who want to remain part of the Yugoslav federation. Djukanovic's coalition came out only a few thousand votes ahead of the parties that want to remain in Yugoslavia. Of course the support of the liberals tips the balance in his favor, but that also makes his life more difficult because the liberals will also push him to move faster on independence than he would like.

Forging a coalition with the liberals certainly gives him a parliamentary majority, and the legal right to call a referendum on independence — which the liberals, who are even more strongly pro-independence than Djukanovic, urge him to do. But the pro-Yugoslavia parties have vowed to boycott a referendum, and judging by the latest election results, the turnout at such a referendum may not enough to achieve legitimacy for independence.

Djukanovic had hoped his own coalition would emerge strong enough to form a government, but the fact that he needs a coalition with the liberals leaves him in the crossfire. On the one hand he'll have the liberals pressing for immediate independence and making compromise with Belgrade difficult. On the other hand, he has to talk to Belgrade as well as to his domestic opposition, which proved far stronger than expected. Finding a balance is not going to be easy, and there's a good chance the referendum will be delayed until later this year.

The West had originally supported Montenegrin independence as a way of weakening Slobodan Milosevic, but now that Milosevic has gone it has little enthusiasm for the creation of new borders in the Balkans.

Yes, the West is no longer at all enthusiastic about independence. Last time there were elections in Montenegro, every Western chief of mission in Belgrade was sent to Podgorica on election day. This time, they were told not to attend, which was a message in itself. The international community hopes to persuade Djukanovic to reconsider — he's been saying the Yugoslav federation should be broken up, and then some looser relationship negotiated with Serbia. But the West wants to convince him to stay in the federation and negotiate a new relationship with Serbia. And against that will be the pressure from the liberals, who will try to push him in the opposite direction — and without them he will find it difficult to govern.

With Milosevic gone, why does Djukanovic still want independence so badly?

Some would say because Djukanovic embraced independence as the only way to resist Milosevic, and that making a U-turn on that position now would simply be too risky. But a second explanation would be that during Milosevic's reign, it was too dangerous to move for legal independence because Milosevic would use that as an opportunity to start a civil war there, too. So Djukanovic is simply making the move now because it's finally safe to do it.

Economic aid has become the West's main weapon for influencing events in post-Milosevic Yugoslavia. Presumably that would create major obstacles to independence plans if the West chose to make it difficult for Djukanovic to break away.

Yes, either the West's message has not been heard clearly enough by Djukanovic, or else he calculated that if the majority of Montenegrins want independence and Belgrade accepts this, the West would have no choice. Of course, Belgrade is not keen to see Montenegro break away. And these election results are really a setback for Djukanovic, because he wanted a much larger margin of victory for the pro-independence parties. The bottom line is that these elections have not solved anything: Montenegro as a nation is very divided, and the elections have simply cemented those divisions.