The Balkan question
BSSB.BE https://dgap.org 12.05.2015
In less than a month’s time, Montenegro will celebrate the ninth anniversary of its independence. In a small, multi-ethnic country with a strong allegiance to its neighbor, the chances of an independence referendum leading to unrest seemed high – yet Montenegro remained peaceful and succeeded. What factors accounted for this?
It certainly was not easy at all. It was a decision of major risk. On the other hand, it was a well-thought-through decision, too. Four years before the referendum, Montenegro and Serbia had signed an agreement in Belgrade, under the auspices of the European Union, which laid down the foundation of the two-member state federation and established the right of each member state to organize, if wishing to do so, an independence referendum three years afterwards.
We took advantage of this option. Throughout this whole period, we closely cooperated with the EU High Representative, Xavier Solana, and other EU officials. Russia also played a very positive role, even though some western addresses were rather diffident in their expectations that Moscow might be against it.
We managed the process well at the internal level, too. We had an enviably positive experience; during the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, we preserved peace and consolidated our interethnic harmony.
We accepted refugees of all nationalities from the territories of ex-Yugoslavia. In the end, Montenegro proved to be the only ex-Yugoslav republic that avoided wars and war destruction in its territory. We also kept Montenegro safe from NATO bombings in 1999. Based on these sound foundations, and in close cooperation with the EU team headed by the now Foreign Minister of Slovakia, Miroslav Lajčák, we carried out a referendum. What actually happened was that, for the first time in the history of the Balkans, one country got to be established in a peaceful, democratic way.
Negotiating chapters 23 and 24 are crucial to the speed of Montenegro’s EU accession; in November 2014, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that despite access negotiations with Montenegro remaining a priority, “Montenegro needs to show that it has received the message of this year’s Progress Report by, inter alia, making progress in the rule of law.”
How will Montenegro steer clear of the “overall balance” clause and make progress in this area? Can the country count on being next in line for EU membership?
The new approach to the EU accession negotiations started with Montenegro through the opening of chapters 23 and 24 [on “Judiciary and fundamental rights” and “Justice, freedom, and security” respectively].
When implementing the action plans for these chapters, the focus was on the improvement of legislation, especially in the field of the judiciary and anti-corruption. In a rather short time we managed to establish a system meeting European standards. Now we will focus our attention on the work of institutions, on the better coordination of the authorities, and on creating conditions for an efficient implementation of new legislative solutions.
We know that we must have a sustainable track record. In the next few days, a public call for the post of the Special State Prosecutor will be announced. The Office of the Special State Prosecutor and the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption will be key in achieving measurable results.
We find our cooperation with the European Commission, other institutions in Brussels, and expert missions very important. The results achieved so far serve as a testimony to the quality of that cooperation. Therefore, we do not see the clause of overall balance as a threat, but rather as a stimulus for making additional efforts in the implementation of the reforms, which would lead us to achieving measurable results.
Support for NATO membership has grown in Montenegro, though the population remains divided on the topic; do you consider this split a problem? How would you remedy it?
The division of the Montenegrin public on this subject is part of wider divisions of society. In Montenegro, and in the Balkans, an antagonism between the new and the old is still present. Between a European way and a way of the Balkans.
What we have achieved so far strongly encourages us to continue to follow a European way. This is the reason why we do not see the level of public support for NATO membership as a problem, but rather as a challenge and an obligation to explain to our citizens, even more convincingly, what the advantages of membership in the Alliance for our country are, for the sake of our security, as well as for a safer and richer future for our citizens; even more so given the fact that in parliament we have almost a two-thirds support for this strategic national goal.
The government continuously undertakes information campaigns on the advantages of NATO membership, especially bearing in mind that we are a small country in the turbulent area of the Balkans.
In line with the conclusions of the Wales Summit, we have very much focused on the media, political, and overall social campaign aimed at increasing the level of public support. This process has involved, apart from the government and other public authorities, various political subjects, NGOs, media, business associations, and academia – the civil sector as a whole.
I have publicly, as the prime minister, invited all parties in parliament, regardless of whether their position toward NATO membership is favorable or unfavorable, to take part in this dialogue. All experiences thus far have demonstrated that in the case of newer member states, support of the majority came only after obtaining the invitation. I believe that we are capable of achieving the majority support even in the period before the invitation [to join NATO]. There is a special government team established for this purpose and I myself am personally engaged in leading the campaign.
In 2014, the then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Montenegro could count on the Alliance’s support, yet NATO delayed the decision about Montenegrin membership. Are you concerned that in the light of Russia’s annexation of Crimea the West has become reluctant to give new security guarantees, even to countries one step removed from Russia’s direct neighborhood?
We expected an invitation [to join NATO] from the Wales Summit. However, we are satisfied with the fact that the Alliance recognized Montenegro’s progress and enabled an individual process of intensified, focused dialogue, with the recommendation that the decision on sending the invitation to our country be made at the ministerial level, taking place between the two summits, by the end of this year.
We focus very much on further reforms and on fulfilling the obligations in the four key areas. We believe that our results will enable our partners to take a positive decision regarding Montenegro. We keep continuous contact with NATO headquarters in Brussels and with its member states. My recent participation in a meeting of the North Atlantic Council and my meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg assured us that our partners have respect for what Montenegro does. We have received encouraging messages from all, and we believe that we will be ready by the time a decision is taken in December.
We will complete our work. We are convinced that the invitation to Montenegro also means reinforcing the stability in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean. It is a major gain for Europe and the Atlantic community as a whole.
In the exchange with our partners, we keep explaining that our orientation toward becoming a full-fledged NATO member state is not motivated by seeking protection from Russia, or any other country. Moreover, we took our NATO path long before the Ukrainian crisis. Our NATO membership will, inter alia, significantly improve the image of the Alliance and confirm its credibility as the key security factor in Europe and in the world.
After having been in office for overall almost twenty years, are you planning to stand in the next election?
As you said, I have been engaged in politics for quite a while. Much longer than I intended. However, when I take a look back at the results, I have no regrets whatsoever. For the moment, I still do not think about the next elections. I focus on the invitation to Montenegro to join NATO and on a number of capital development projects. That will be subject of a later discussion.