Montenegro: Referendum result ends ‘Union’ with Serbia

Capitalist independence will not end poverty and ethnic divisions

This week, the leaders of Montenegro announced that their small, mountainous country would take its place as the world’s 192nd “sovereign state”, following a very close run referendum on independence. Western leaders, the EU and NATO all quickly welcomed the result, which ends the ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’. But the very narrow percentages in favour of separation left many anti-independence ethnic Serbs in Montenegro highly suspicious of the outcome and demanding a recount.

The poll involved 86.3% of voters in a country with a population of just 650,000. Under EU-set rules, 50% of people had to vote in the referendum and at least 55% of them had to be in favour of independence for it to pass. The pro-Serb bloc argues the 55.5% majority in favour of splitting from Serbia was unfairly achieved with the help of a pro-independence government and media, and with Western interference. Certainly there will be no Western outcry over the extremely narrow and controversial Montenegro referendum, in contrast to elections in former Soviet Union republics, over recent years, where Western imperialist powers were keen to get ‘their people’ into power.

Media pundits and politicians blithely referred to the Montenegro referendum as the “final end of Yugoslavia”, with scarcely any reference to the terrible bloodshed, the creation of millions of refugees, and the social and economic destruction that went with capitalist restoration in the Balkans in the 1990s.

“’Yesterday we witnessed the end of the project Yugoslavia, which was formed…with good intentions’, said Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski” (Irish Times, 23 May, 2006).

But you will have to look long and hard in the mainstream, pro-capitalist media to find an honest account of what Yugoslavia was, how it arose, and how it was torn apart in the 1990s.


Present day Montenegro was populated with Slavs in the 6th century, evolving into a feudal state that went in and out of Byzantine and later Ottoman control. It proclaimed a kingdom in 1910 but was incorporated into Serbia after WW1. It was one of “six equal republics” – Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia – in the ‘Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’, formed after WW2.

On the basis of the planned economy under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, living standards rose across Yugoslavia and national and ethnic divisions were lessened for some time. People had access to decent healthcare, housing, jobs and education. But workers’ democracy did not exist. Living standards across the republics were uneven, as the Stalinist leaders of the bigger republics, like Serbia or Croatia, dominated the smaller republics. Ultimately, bureaucratic mismanagement, and the parasitical role of the ruling elite, led to the stagnation and collapse of the economy. The regime could not develop the productive forces any longer.

The Federation staggered on for 10 years after Tito’s death in 1980. Desperate to find a way out, former Stalinist leaders incited nationalist tensions in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, and so on. By war and plunder, these new gangster-capitalist forces carved out territory to rule over. But it was not just a matter of domestic forces causing the break-up of the old Federation. Outside imperialist powers, like Germany and the US, meddled in the region, backing different warring sides, as suited their imperialist interests.

“The break-up of Yugoslavia, moreover, began less with internal strife than with pressures from Austria, the Vatican and Germany, which had their own dubious interests for fragmenting the Balkans,” admits the International Herald Tribune editorial on 24 May 2006.

Capitalist restoration was a human, social, economic and cultural disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people died and living standards plummeted, while the new gangster elite made fortunes and imperialist powers meddled in the Balkans tinder box.

In the 1990s, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia broke from the Serbia dominated Yugoslavia. Under EU pressure, the rump Yugoslavia was renamed the ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’, in 2003. After a series of wars and NATO’s bombing of Serbia, in 1999, Western leaders forced the Union of Serbia and Montenegro to try to keep the lid of more destabilising conflicts. They hoped the Union would see off demands for independence from Montenegro, stabilise the region, and stop more changes to the Balkans map.

But the fragile ethnic make-up of Montenegro meant the Union – on the basis of capitalism – would never last. Of Montenegro’s population, 43.2% say they are Montenegrin, 32% Serb, 7.7% Bosnian, 5% Albanian and 4% Muslim. The official language is the Montenegrin variant of Serbian. Albanian is the second language. The main religion is Orthodox Christian, followed by Islam. The country is strategically important, bordering Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania, and Serbia’s breakaway province of Kosovo.

These facts on the ground meant the 2003 EU authors of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro were forced to stipulate that after three years the two republics could hold referendums on whether to keep the Union or end it.

Montenegro’s pro-independence parties seized the opportunity in 2006. They represent a section of the ruling elite in Montenegro that wants to end the ties with Serbia, so that they can carve out their own capitalist nation-state, carry through more privatisations, and get even richer. Although many of Montenegro’s leaders previously had close links to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, they now regard Serbia, whose talks with the EU over future membership broke down recently, as a barrier to their interests.

The pro-union parties represent the Serb wing of the ruling elite, which has close ties to reactionary ruling elite in Serbia.

No wing of the ruling class in Montenegro, despite their opportunist, populist, nationalist appeals, acts in the interests of the working masses of Montenegro, who are exploited by the bosses, whether under the Union or in an independent state.

Ethnic-based parties

The main political parties in Montenegro reflect and reinforce ethnic divisions in society. The ruling, pro-independence government is led by the Democratic Party of Socialists. The Social Democrats are also pro-independence, while the Socialist People’s Party and the Serb People’s Party are pro-union with Serbia. Despite the preponderance of terms like ‘socialist’ and ‘people’s’ in the parties’ names they represent neither socialist policies nor the mass of people (the working class). They are all pro-market, pro-capitalist parties, and act against the class interests of working people and youth in Montenegro.

Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, declared much better times are ahead for his Adriatic republic following the referendum result and set his sights on EU and NATO membership. But the economic and social situation is dire. Previous heavy industry, agriculture and maritime services were devastated by sanctions and wars in the 1990s. The country is infamous for mafia-ridden lawlessness.

Eventual EU membership will not bring about a transformation of living standards, as is promised by Djukanovic. Instead, EU leaders will demand more neo-liberal policies, which will mean social cuts and joblessness. If it gains EU membership, Montenegro’s population will be ruthlessly exploited as a source of cheap labour in the West, just like Poles and people from other East European states are today. Already, many workers from Montenegro are forced to work abroad.

Neither will membership of NATO lead to a safer or more stable Balkans. NATO, as a tool of the US and major Western imperialist powers, will exploit small countries, like Montenegro, to further their imperialist interests, at the expense of the working class, poor and oppressed of the world, thereby fermenting instability and conflict.

Serbia/Montenegro relations

Relations between independent capitalist Montenegro and capitalist Serbia are likely to remain fraught. Serbia’ president, Boris Tadic, reluctantly accepted Montenegro’s referendum result. But Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, who opposed Montenegro’s independence, and who is under pressure from right wing nationalists in Serbia’s parliament, said “not a single doubt” should remain over the referendum results.

There may be intense wrangling between the two states over the division of assets and debts and over the future of over 2,000 people employed by the dead ‘Union’. With ten times the population of Montenegro, Serbia paid for most of the Union’s common diplomatic corps, its defence and some other official state functions. However, independence for Montenegro will leave Serbia landlocked, cutting it off from the Adriatic Sea, a factor that can give the new state some leverage in its negotiations with Belgrade.

But the Serb leaders have no choice but to accept the Montenegro’s breakaway. The much weakened Serb state is already under intense Western pressure to “give up” war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. The EU froze membership talks with Belgrade until the bosses’ institution is satisfied on this issue. In late 2005, the EU began talks with Serbia on the possibility of reaching a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, but they called them off months later, citing the failure of Serbian authorities to capture war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

Status of Kosovo

Serb leaders are also desperate to influence Western-run talks on the future status of Kosovo, which is presently under imperialist control. In 1998, violence flared up in the ‘autonomous province’ of Kosovo (‘Kosova’ in Albanian), after decades of discrimination and repression of the majority ethnic Albanians, who demanded self-determination. The Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) – a reactionary nationalist Albanian organisation – started a rebellion against Serb rule. Serbia’s hard-line president, Slobodan Milosevic, ordered brutal repression against the majority Albanians in response. Western powers feared the conflict would re-ignite wider Balkans wars and launched weeks of NATO air strikes in Kosovo and Serbia, with the aid of the KLA on the ground. Western imperialist powers also used the conflict as an opportunity to put their forces into the Balkans for geo-strategic reasons. Eventually, Serb forces were driven out of Kosovo and the UN took over, backed up with Western military power. During this time, Western forces stood back as many thousands of Serbs were “ethnically cleansed” by the KLA, leaving a fraction of their previous population huddled in the north of Kosovo. Under UN rule, Kosovo is mired in poverty, corruption, mafia-style rule and deep ethnic divisions. About 50% live in poverty and unemployment is nearly at 70%. Most homes do not have sewage and many do not have clean running water. These conditions afflict all the people of Kosovo, be they Albanians, Serbs, or other minorities. All this in heart of ‘modern’ Europe and under the ‘guardianship’ of the UN and EU!

Today’s leaders in Serbia, looking over their shoulders at growing nationalist sentiments amongst poverty-stricken Serbs, are desperate to prevent the formal independence of Kosovo, which many Serb nationalists regard as their ‘spiritual homeland’. Serbs are appalled at the systematic discrimination of Kosovo’s Serbs by Albanian nationalist-dominated authorities. Other minorities, such as Roma, are possibly even more oppressed, with many living in inhuman conditions in UN refugee camps.

Kosovo is a de-facto international protectorate but still legally part of Serbia. Its majority Albanians want independence, while the small Serb minority want to maintain a union with Serbia. UN-run talks between Kosovo Albanian and Serb representatives, to decide the country’s “final status”, started in February, this year, but broke down in early May, after the two sides could not agree over powers to local Serb-run municipalities. The West wants a stable Kosovo so they can get on with exploiting the country’s people and natural resources. But a formal declaration of independence for Kosovo, backed by the UN, risks provoking new turmoil. The powers may try to fudge the official status of Kosovo and force a ‘semi-independence’ or so-called “enhanced autonomy” solution on both parties. This will satisfy neither Albanians nor Serbs and would only prepare the way for future conflict. The UN has already ‘cantonised’ much of Kosovo, allowing the KLA and its offshoots to force Serbs and other minorities into specific areas. This may suit short-term imperialist interests, but it creates deeper ethnic divisions that will lead to future conflicts, unless the united working class of Kosovo builds a mass political alternative to local right wing nationalists, and the regional and imperialist powers.

Stark warning

Kosovo is a stark warning to the working people of Montenegro that separation and formal independence on a capitalist basis will bring no salvation to their lives of poverty, low wages, deteriorating social services and ethnic tensions. Continuing social and economic crisis, and the political dominance of right wing, ethnic-based parties, means ethnic divisions will continue and can worsen, even eventually threatening conflict and a slide towards civil war.

After the referendum result, Montenegro’s president admitted, “I agree that the divisions run quite deep”. He went on to acknowledge the “deep resentment felt by the large Serb minority in Montenegro…” according to the Irish Times (24 May 2006).

While welcoming Montenegro’s referendum result the International Herald Tribune (24 May 2006) admits, “Yet here we are literally celebrating Balkanisation, a term that has always carried the connotation of insurmountable tribal and geographical feuds…”

United workers’ struggles

Only the united working class of Montenegro, in alliance with the working class of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and other parts of the Balkans, can resist ethnic and national divisions, and struggle to overthrow the gangster-capitalist regimes, and to expel interfering, super-exploiting imperialism. To achieve this means building independent workers’ organisations, including unions. In the last few years, encouraging examples of workers’ resistance to social cuts and Western meddling took place in several parts of the former Yugoslavia. This is the starting point to develop workers’ unity, to create mighty class organisations and a new political alternative to capitalism – mass socialist parties with an internationalist outlook.

Socialists oppose all forms of discrimination and oppression and support the right to genuine self-determination for the peoples of the Balkans, including the people of Montenegro. However, we oppose, under the cynical banner of “self determination”, imperialist meddling and the arch reactionary policies of the local capitalist parties, which are intended to divide and to exploit the working class.

We call for full rights for Serbs, Albanians, and other minorities in Montenegro, who fear discrimination in the newly independent country, just as we call for democratic, linguistic and cultural rights for all minorities in the Balkans.

These basic democratic rights cannot be guaranteed under capitalism. A united workers’ movement needs to fight against discrimination and for full rights for all, as part of a struggle for a socialist society, to end poverty, joblessness and exploitation. Only a genuine socialist federation of the Balkans – pooling together the resources of the region on the basis of workers’ democratic planning – can guarantee rising living standards, jobs for all, homes for all, democratic rights, and a free, fully-funded health, education and welfare system.

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