On May 21st 2006, Montenegro chose by referendum to become an independent state, splitting up the state union with Serbia, forged in 2001 in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia. However, the « yes » campaign won by only a narrow majority (55.5%), and political antagonisms reflected a genuine divide within society. Yet, almost 5 years later, the country seems to have done better than expected.
The aftermath of the referendum
The European Union (EU), which was monitoring the process, had set a 55% threshold to validate the 2006 referendum. The outcome was difficult to predict, given Montenegro’s political background and its historical and cultural ties with Serbia, over 30% of the population being of Serbian nationality (as of 2003). Given those facts, concerns were raised about the country’s future, some arguing that the state was too small to be economically self-sustainable and too politically unstable to be viable.
Yet five years later the situation is quite different from these predictions. Montenegro has been recognised by the international community and has joined international bodies such as the UN. On the domestic stage, the country seems to have reached political stability, while parties used to be extremely divided and quite reluctant to mutual dialogue.
5 years on: a focus on Euro-Atlantic integration
For Montenegro’s foreign policy, the core objective is about integration into the Euro-Atlantic system, referring to the relationship with « the West » as well as membership of the main institutional settings, i.e. NATO and the European Union. As a result of its proactive policy, Montenegro has moved closer to NATO over the past years, signing a number of agreements.
The relationship with the EU is probably the top priority for Montenegro’s external policy, and the EU has given positive signs in this regard. It has recently granted visa-free travel in the Schengen zone for Montenegrin citizens. The relationship has also been officialised through a Stabilisation and Association Agreement signed in 2008. Successive endeavours of Montenegro’s officials were eventually rewarded when the country was officially granted candidate status in 2010, only two years after it had formally applied for EU membership.
A Balkan success story?
Given the quick steps of Montenegro towards the EU, It could be argued that, from a regional point of view, the EU needs a « success story ». This small and open country may seem easier to integrate than neighbouring states like Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina or Albania. Praising the initiatives for inter-ethnic dialogue in the region, President Van Rompuy recently reckoned that “in many ways, Montenegro serves as an example for the region”. Montenegro’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence (in 2008), despite major domestic divisions around this issue, was probably a positive point in the eyes of the EU and some of the big Member States.
In the context of the 2006 referendum, the pro-independence elites arguably believed that Montenegro could move more quickly towards EU membership without Serbia. Indeed, although the country is clearly part of the « Western Balkans », a policy/concept forged by the EU, the EU has also made clear that, although all Balkans states were understood as fully « European », European integration would not happen on a collective basis, unlike the process for the Central and Eastern European states. Hence, there is a belief among the Balkan states that each country shall be judged on its own merits, and not from a regional point of view. This has triggered competition among the states of the region.
The economy before and after the crisis
On the economic side, Montenegro did pretty well before and after the referendum, but it was hit by the global economic downturn. There was an economic boom in the period of 2002-2008, partly due to the creation of an independent state, openly free-market oriented, which encouraged foreign investments. This attractiveness was reinforced by Montenegro’s choice to use the Deutschmark and then the Euro as its legal currency.
Yet the optimism that characterized the economic environment in the aftermath of the 2006 independence faded away quite rapidly, with economic recession in 2008 and 2009. Montenegro, as a small and open market economy with underdeveloped institutions, turned out to be very vulnerable to exogenous shocks. Consequently, foreign investments dropped dramatically. Nevertheless, the economy is expected to recover quite quickly over the next few years.
Given Montenegro’s capacities and ambitions, integration into the Euro-Atlantic system is likely to remain the cornerstone of Montenegro’s foreign policy for the next few years. Regarding NATO and EU potential memberships, the country needs to demonstrate that it does effectively tackle organised crime and corruption. This is a major hindrance for the country to move forward, particularly regarding the requirements set out by the EU to join the European « club ». Moreover, there is no wide political consensus yet about NATO membership. Still, the perspective of joining the EU remains even further for Montenegro, despite its official candidate status.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
BARLETT, W., MONASTIRIOTIS, V., “South Eastern Europe after the crisis: a new dawn or back to business as usual?”, Research on South Eastern Europe, LSE, 2010.
MORRISON, K., “Change, continuity and consolidation: Assessing five years of Montenegro’s independence”. LSEE Papers on South Eastern Europe. Issue 2, February 2011.
CATTARUZZA, A. “Montenegro: la marche vers l’indépendance”, CERI/Alternatives internationales, Mai 2006.
On the Internet
« Relations Montenegro-UE », Euractiv, June 15th 2010
Source : Flag of Montenegro over Kotor Bay, by lassi.kurkijarvi, on flickr