Diplomat: Montenegro had to ‘regain’ independence for EU future

Vladimir Radulovic.jpg

Although many of its citizens still feel very strong ties to Serbia and the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro had to ''regain'' independence in order to preserve its European future, Vladimir Radulovi?, the ambassador of Montenegro to Germany, told euractiv.de in an interview.

Vladimir Radulovi? is Montenegro’s ambassador to Germany. He previously served as ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Denmark between 2004 and 2006.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Germany's Ewald König, Elisa Oddone, Daniel Tost and Alexander Wragge.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Are Montenegrins proud of their independence from Serbia? Are they proud of their identity?

This is a good and very natural question. But one thing should be made very clear: Montenegro has not seceded from Serbia. We have insisted on this phrasing: after the national referendum on 21 May 2006, Montenegro only regained its independence, which – just as a reminder – was lost at the Versailles Peace Conference 88 years earlier.

And, also for the sake of facts and our memories, Montenegro was internationally recognised for the first time at the Berlin Congress in 1879. So, in the context of international law and politics, this city [Berlin] is the birthplace of my country! True, we were the last of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia to 'secede' or, to be more precise, to move towards independence.

Montenegro was rather unique in the sense that, at the time of the referendum, it was a deeply divided society along many lines – including whether we should become independent or stay in the union with Serbia. This was for many reasons: cultural, historical, religious and language connections. In the history of our relations with Serbia, we had had our ups and downs, good and bad days and years. Therefore, it was not an easy decision.

In the referendum, which was held under strict monitoring by the EU and had an unprecedented referendum census imposed by the EU, 55.5% of Montenegrins voted for independence, while 45.5% voted against it. This clearly shows how deep and genuine that division was and, to some extent, still is.

It is true that a lot of Montenegrin citizens declare themselves to be Serbs – even though they were born in Montenegro, as well as their ancestors, their fathers and grandfathers. Some of them have never even visited Serbia! But still, they would always tell you: yes, we are Montenegrins, but we are also Serbs.

This rather unusual phenomenon may be better understood if one has knowledge of the national liberation movements and grand idea of pan-Slavic unification during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people in Montenegro still feel that they are part of this big, greater country that was known as Yugoslavia. There is a certain political, mental and psychological dualism that you will not find in any other country. There are lots of people who are very loyal or, at least, mindful of what Serbia says.

Yet historical parallels, sometimes very artificial, could easily misguide you towards wrong conclusions. In order to understand the complex relationship between Montenegro and Serbia, one could draw certain parallels with Germany and Austria: two close nations that speak the same language and have a common history, that were sometimes allies, sometimes rivals.

You can perhaps also find similarities with the Ukrainian case. Ukraine is deeply divided between those who are pro-Western, pro-independent and proud of their identity, and the 'Easterners' who are closer to Russia in a cultural and political context. Something of that pattern can also be found in Montenegro.

Today, four years after the referendum, the percentage of those who support Montenegrin independence is on a slight but steady increase. If a referendum was conducted today, somewhere between 60-65% of Montenegrin citizens would vote for independence. The results of local elections held a few days ago clearly prove this tendency. The more time goes by, the lesser feelings of frustration or betrayal will become.

The key to understanding our decision is found in what was going on in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. It was not so much a separation from Serbia, our Serbian friends or the Serbian people – it was separation from the Serbian regime at the time. Separation from the policy line of President Miloševi?. Separation from Serbia's decision at that time to isolate itself.

The demarcation line was clear: if we wanted to preserve our European future, if we wanted to catch up with the rest of the Western Balkans, then we had to get away from Serbia at the time.

Now the situation has changed and the Serbian government is pushing towards the EU. Perhaps there is no more reason for Montenegro to go its own way?

In the former Yugoslavia there was a very famous Slovenian sociologist who tried to enlighten us about the causes of disintegration. He wrote that ''…living in the zone of small differences is always difficult…''. And that is true. The former Yugoslavia was composed of six republics, six nations and many ethnic groups and national minorities – similar to each other but still different, always trying not only to preserve but also to hammer out their own identities.

It's not always easy to live together. The fact that Montenegro was an independent country for so many centuries shaped a sense of our own identity.

Ironically, Montenegro – being the smallest and perhaps not the most developed country in the EU accession process – is now at least a few steps ahead of other potential candidate countries, including Serbia. This is because of a clear vision and clearly anticipated goals, and because we are no longer fighting our demons of the past, which some countries in our region are still doing – with or without reason.

As for the NATO dimension, Montenegro has fully declared its ambition to become a NATO member state which, we know, is always delicate and is not always very popular. But we believe that this is not only in our national interest, but more importantly in the interest of long-term stability in South Eastern Europe and the European perspectives of the entire Western Balkans.

At the last NATO summit in Bucharest, Montenegro joined the so-called Membership Action Plan. This is the last stage before becoming a fully-fledged member state. If we continue with the successful implementation of our national agenda, I have very little doubt that an invitation for NATO membership will come soon.

Two months ago, the first small Montenegrin platoon – 31 soldiers, approximately 1% of our total army capacity – was sent to northern Afghanistan, to the Kunduz area, with extraordinary support from the German Ministry of Defence and under the German Regional Command North. We are very grateful to our German friends. A few months ago, our foreign minister attended the meeting of NATO ministers for the first time. A few weeks ago, our defence minister participated in the Berlin conference of nations contributing troops in Afghanistan.

Some of our neighbours are still thinking about what direction to choose at the end of the EU integration process and whether to stay away from the NATO component.

To me, building up some sort of neutral or non-aligned position in the Balkans seems to be neither possible nor rational. Yet we are all making our own decisions, our own choices. And taking responsibility for doing so, of course.

I'm just questioning whether it is wise or not. Whether you can live in the middle of the Balkans safely while all your surrounding neighbours are NATO members? Is it better to be in or out? This is a legitimate choice for all of us. And, ultimately, we shall all pay a certain price for our decisions – nothing more, nothing less.

Could you explain why Kosovo's status is not a problem for your accession perspective?

First of all, the Kosovo issue is very delicate and painful, especially for our Serbian friends. That was part of Serbian history, maybe also part of the Serbian myth. You will find a lot of people in Serbia who will tell you that for them, Kosovo has the same symbolic meaning as Jerusalem for the Jews, Mecca and Medina for Arab people, what Berlin may in many ways be for Germans. It is not up to me to judge where history ends and myth begins.

It was and is, obviously, still a very delicate and very difficult issue to deal with. At the end of the day, Kosovo was recognised as an independent country by 22 EU member states, the United States and many other countries; by all countries in the Western Balkans, including Montenegro, with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina. M

y personal opinion is that you cannot turn the historical clock back and it is not realistic to expect that Kosovo will ever again – or at least in the foreseeable future – be part of Serbia. I repeat: this is my personal opinion.

How interested are younger generations in the question of accession to the European Union and issues regarding Serbia and Kosovo?

One year ago, Montenegro recognised Kosovo. That was a very delicate and politically sensitive decision. There were different opinions and not everybody agreed with the government's decision. But again, we did it because we believed it was in our best interest and that it serves the cause of long-term stability and the European perspective of the region.

After we recognised Kosovo, Serbia asked our ambassador to leave Belgrade. Our Serbian friends were not happy with the decision. A small diplomatic crisis erupted for 6-7 months. Then a slow process of diplomatic reconciliation started and now we have a new ambassador in Belgrade.

In my personal view, it was yet another demonstration of regional arrogance and a remnant or a pattern of a kind of historical, paternal attitude. On the other side, I could understand that our recognition was psychologically and emotionally painful for Serbia.

Our younger generation are thinking about their own perspectives, about their own future, about the future of Montenegro in the European Union, about a better life. Their minds are not dwelling on the past.

A couple of months ago, we established diplomatic relations with Kosovo. This was a logical step forward. Of course, there was another reaction of disagreement from Belgrade. The reaction was very loud, especially over why we are doing so now – while they await the opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal status of Kosovo. However, this time our ambassador stayed there. The lesson was learned.

In many ways, we have to be careful about what Serbia – as the largest and in many ways the country with the most potential in the region – is thinking and planning to do. At the same time, we have to take care of our own interests, take our own path and make our own decisions.

Whenever you act independently as a small country that was once considered part of a greater union, this is not very popular with the 'older and bigger brother'. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Do you expect the accession process of the Western Balkans and Montenegro to take longer because of the eurozone crisis?

We now live in an interconnected and interdependent world. We are fully aware of the recent developments in the EU. And I am not only referring to recent developments in Greece – this is perhaps just the tip of an iceberg. There has also been a very long process of redesigning, reshaping and finally endorsing the Lisbon Treaty and before that, a failure of the Constitutional Treaty, some not so successful accession stories, the financial and global economic crisis and internal EU differences.

We know that these are not going to make enlargement easier. At the same time, I believe that the enlargement endeavour and process is the biggest success of the EU. The idea of the European Union was colossal, maybe the biggest political idea of the 20th century. Economy is important – very important indeed – but I don't like the idea that we, as human beings, are reduced to our profit dimension.

I hope that European citizens are not only European consumers. In the EU, you are not only sharing the common market but primarily common values. The basic idea of the European Union is the idea of a union of values: democracy, human rights, citizens' rights, pluralism, freedom of speech, basic and core values.

Enlargement, without any doubt, has been the fundamental and biggest success of the EU so far. So I have no doubt that, in spite of the problems and obstacles that are not to be underestimated, the process will and must continue.

It might be in three or four years, this is a very unpredictable process. At this time, it looks rather depressing and pessimistic. In one or two years, the situation might look better or worse, everything is on the move. We can only guess how long negotiations will take.

Recently, Greece – supported then by Italy, Slovenia and some other countries – expressed the idea that 2014 could be the year the rest of the Western Balkan countries could be ready to join the EU. That would be nice and a good message in a symbolical context – 1914 was when World War I broke out in the Western Balkans, in Sarajevo.

Given the circumstances, I think this is a noble but perhaps unrealistic goal. I think the time span between 2014 and 2018 could be the period in which the whole Western Balkans can join the EU. It is at the very heart of Europe, not only geographically. Europe would not be complete without the Western Balkans.

When you travel to Montenegro today, it's like anywhere in Europe. We are not that rich, not yet that developed. Although our GDP has significantly increased in the last 3-4 years, although Montenegro became the country with the biggest foreign investment portfolio per capita and although the recent Lisbon review of the World Economic Forum claims Montenegro to be the leading country among the 11 non-EU states – outperforming at least the four lowest-ranked EU members – we are not dreamers.

We know there's still a long way to go until we reach the EU level. But in terms of values and orientation, the former republics of Yugoslavia may be closer to the EU than some of the countries that have already become member states. No need to mention names.

We had bad luck at the critical juncture of our history – I am referring to the end of the 1980s and the period during the fall of the Berlin Wall – to have had a bunch of irresponsible, short-sighted, power-obsessed politicians. They didn't understand what was going on, they didn't understand the meaning of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They didn't understand the character and dimension of the global changes.

Instead of catching up with the rest of Europe, they started fighting each other, fighting for territories and manipulated people's national feelings and identities. We ended up in a nightmare. This is how we wasted our golden chance.

If they had been smarter, Yugoslavia in one piece – or some loose confederation of six independent and sovereign states – would have become an EU member state. Not in 2004, but ten years before! There were people who advocated such a solution – including myself – but at that time we were seen as national traitors. Everywhere: in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia.

But now this is history, this chapter has been closed. We must not look back. We have to look towards the future. For the first time their history, all the Balkan countries share one vision and one dream – being part of a united Europe. That is our strongest bond.

I believe Europe understands this. It is also in the best interests of the EU to have all these countries. After all, we are talking about new markets, new territories with 30 or 40 million people. This may further complicate the settings of the EU, but again: I believe, maybe naively so, that Europe is above all about values.

What would the Serbian reaction be if Montenegro were to enter the EU before Serbia?

I don't know. But I do hope they will be supportive and they will be happy, as we are delighted to see Croatia stepping up and approaching EU membership. This is an encouraging signal to all of us. Individual merits and the 'regatta' principle matter and must remain the pillar of the EU's accession policy, but I also hope that the region as a whole, including every single state, will continue its steady progress towards EU membership.

You mentioned national pride and myths. How strong are these national myths today?

It's difficult to give a general answer. Considering national pride and perceptions, you have mentioned the cases of General Mladi? and Radovan Karadži?: this is a question you should rather put to the ambassador of Serbia.

But generally, all across the Balkans you may still find many people who do not hide their support, enthusiasm and frustration about what has been done to their 'national heroes'. In some neighbouring countries to Montenegro, this phenomenon is much more complicated. Yes, some still consider those guys national heroes.

But I think this is fading away slowly. Very slowly indeed. A new generation of political and social elites is stepping up. Those who are living in the past are disappearing from the public scene, not only biologically. In terms of our society, 10 years is not that long a period. The wounds are still there but they are slowly healing.

There is no doubt that the level of support for radical political orientations is going down. In Montenegro, we no longer have problems of that kind.

The genuine problem of our societies, and this is very much my personal opinion, is that generally we still lack a good, credible, European-style and genuinely democratic opposition. This is my concern. Opposition to the Montenegrin government is composed – not only, but mainly – of the remnants of the pro-Miloševi? political parties.

It's not only that they continue to question Montenegro's independence. The problem to me, as a citizen of Montenegro, is to be able to cast my vote without being afraid that everything that has been achieved so far might be undermined and put at risk. It is my feeling that the situation in Serbia is, in this context, even more complex.

Money laundering seems to be very easy in Montenegro, partly because it uses the euro…

Very few people actually know that Montenegro is de facto part of the euro zone and uses the euro. Switching to the euro has proven to be an excellent piece of wisdom. As said before, there are still many differences among the citizens of Montenegro – but there is a total consensus among all Montenegrins that the euro was the best possible choice at that time.

You are right – here and there, there are some money laundering suspicions. Newly formed anti-corruption and anti-money laundering institutions have been set up. They are dealing with these issues. Some of the perpetrators have been taken to court, still not to the extent that the EU or I would like to see, but genuine progress has been recorded in reports by all relevant EU and UN institutions and agencies.

Of course, there still is a long way to go before we will be able to claim to have a perfectly functioning and fully efficient, rule of law-based society. Actually, I think this is a never-ending process. Yet, Montenegro is such a small place. Financially speaking, it's almost nothing. In no way can it undermine the stability of the EU's monetary institutions.

According to media reports, there is confusion about the banking system in Montenegro because of alleged loans to criminals.

Let me make this clear: the banking system in Montenegro is fully privatised. All banks in Montenegro except one are international banks. The process of privatising the financial markets has been successfully conducted. There is one bank – the First Bank – that is still partially owned by some Montenegrin entrepreneurs and private citizens. Some owners come from the family of the prime minister and therefore there has been a lot of speculation and suspicion, but nothing has been proved so far.

All countries of the former Yugoslavia are suffering from these problems, which are typical for post-transitional, post-communist, post-war societies. Montenegro is such a small place, so it is difficult to talk about real organised crime. What was really organised crime is what was seen in Serbia before the assassination of Prime Minister ?in?i? – that truly had the structure of organised crime. In such a small place as Montenegro, where literally everyone knows everyone, it is almost impossible to have the structures of organised crime as defined in the books.

Of course, in spite of the continued process of harmonising our legislation to match the EU's standards and criteria, an objective observer will, from time to time, easily notice an insufficient level of transparency, weak, fragile or incomplete institutions or a judicial system that needs to be further upgraded and made fully independent. Nobody is hiding the attempts to influence the judicial system. There is also a culture of monopolies, of too close ties between the political, financial and new entrepreneurial elites.

However, if you had asked me this question five years ago, I would have said: yes, this is a significant problem. Today, the situation is incomparably better. We are under very strong scrutiny of the EU's bodies, expert teams and missions are present on an almost daily basis and all 25 ambassadors are sitting in Podgorica and reporting back to their respective governments.

The chances of manipulation and misuse are much lower than before. Our judges and court system have been significantly improved. In the last three years, the percentage of so-called backlog cases has been reduced by 80%.

The salaries of judges have been increased and their independence is growing stronger. A number of new institutions have been created in line with EU standards. You will find many stories in the press – some documented, some less documented, some not documented at all.

But the media are free to investigate and report about our flaws and shortcomings. This proves that Montenegrin society is not perfect, but also that it is truly a democratic society. A lot of these stories are blown out of proportion. Some are being politically used, or misused, either by the opposition or by neighbouring countries to point out that Montenegro is not as good as we say.

Which is not really very different from what you can see or hear in any of the EU member states, if I am not mistaken.

To sum it up: when I compare Montenegro today to Montenegro at the end of the eighties or in the nineties, we are talking about two completely different societies. We are not perfect, we are considered to be on the 'periphery' of Europe, insignificant to everybody but ourselves. But the progress that has been made in only four years is absolutely remarkable.

I have no doubt that we will become a EU candidate country – either in December of this year or early next year – and that accession negotiations can be opened in the course of 2011. Let us also hope that at the next NATO summit in Lisbon, we get an invitation to become the 29th NATO member. Obviously, though we still have a long way to go, something good has been achieved since we regained our independence.

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