The recent history of Yugoslavia and, in general, of countries in transition in Eastern Europe, seems to tell us that being a republic of a "socialist federation" is a necessary and, perhaps, sufficient condition for secession. All 15 former Soviet republics are now independent states; the Czech Republic and Slovakia have separated; Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia are no longer constituent parts of the Yugoslav Federation. So far, the exception has been Montenegro, which has remained, with Serbia, one of the two federal sub-units of "rump Yugoslavia." What will happen next? Will Montenegro remain the "exception that proves the rule" or opt for independence?
More than resemblance
Montenegro's president, Milo Đukanović, who proposes an EU-style loose confederation for Serbia and Montenegro, has officially called for parliamentary elections in the Republic, elections which will take place in April and are expected to be followed by a referendum on independence. Recent polls show that a majority of the Montenegrin population is now in favour of independence and that a "Montenegrin Bloc" coalition, composed of those parties advocating independence, could obtain a two-thirds majority in the next elections.
Javier Solana, the EU high representative for foreign and security policy, recently warned Đukanović against "unilateral steps," he stressed, however, that the European Union would not break off relations with the Montenegrin leadership over the issue of independence. Some readers might think they have already seen all this. And, in fact, recent events in Montenegro strongly remind one of how other republics, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, have ventured onto the path of independence.
Power of the elite
Looking more carefully at what has been going on in Yugoslavia recently, one can find more reasons, other than a superficial resemblance with the past, to believe that Montenegro will eventually secede. The local Montenegrin leadership in the past few years has been able to mobilise considerable (although not overwhelming) support, both using the issues of Montenegrin sovereignty/independence and advocating democratic reforms against Milošević's regime.
In this way, the local political elite gained the support of the international community and transformed Montenegro in a de facto independent entity. The institutional context in which this has happened is provided by the 1992 Yugoslav Constitution. This basic law, in many respects, is in the same tradition of old socialist federal constitutions: it defines an unviable and chaotic federal system. This means that, in the absence of any sufficiently strong central power, what is the federation and what is the relationship between federal units is constantly a matter of negotiation between different sectors of the elite.
The institutional context, in other words increases the incentive for the Montenegrin leadership, to play the "anti-centre" card. Playing this card when Milošević was still in power meant advocating democratic reforms and demanding more powers for the Montenegrin periphery; today, now that a more democratically oriented leadership has replaced the old regime in Belgrade, the issue of independence is at the top of Đukanović's agenda.
What might obstruct Montenegro's path to independence? A few facts have to be taken into account. First of all, the problem of a Montenegrin national identity. Although public opinion polls suggest that independence is today supported by a majority of the Montenegrin population, this remains far from a large majority.
Attempts to construct a separate Montenegrin national identity have not been completely successful and, for many Montenegrins, it would be very difficult to see Serb as the "other." In addition, the results of the forthcoming elections will be crucial in determining the future status of the Republic, and in the (not very likely?) case that "Yugoslavist" parties manage to form a coalition and to win the elections, any referendum on independence will be unlikely to take place.
Another factor that needs to be considered is the international context. In the past, the international community has paid lip service to the preservation of borders and national unity while, in some cases, actively supporting centrifugal forces. Today, things may be a little different. In Belgrade, Milošević has been substituted by Koštunica and the West, strongly involved in the Balkans, is committed to helping him in this delicate transition phase. This means that nobody really wants Koštunica to be weakened by Montenegro's drive towards independence.
Making predictions is difficult (and making predictions in the Balkans is almost impossible). I have just pointed out some facts, such as the institutional context and the structure of incentives affecting the choices of the Montenegrin