Sunday, May 14, 2006

The World Will Little Note (Nor Long Remember?)

On May 21, 2006, Montenegro will be holding a referendum on whether or not to become independent from the Serbia-Montenegro federation. The federation within the Republic of Serbia is all that remains of what was once the six republics that formed Yugoslavia.

Whether or not Montenegro should be independent is a question that goes back at least 87 years. In 1918, as World War I wound down, the Serb-approved Montenegrin legislature voted to join Serbia. Montenegrins loyal to the deposed king Nicholas refused to recognize the union and led an armed struggle. Nicholas appealed to the Council of Four at the Paris Peace Conference (Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando), but other issues captured their attention and the conference ended with the Montenegrin question unanswered.

In Paris 1919, the eminently readable account of the Peace Conference, written in 2001 by Margaret MacMillan, there is a colorful description of the events during the conference involving Montenegro:


Much greater problems were waiting for the peacemakers, but there was something fascinating about Montenegro. The country, a spot on the map between Croatia and Albania so small that few people could find it, was absurd, remote and beautiful... They were perhaps the tallest people in Europe, handsome, proud, brave and indolent...Their rulers until the middle of the nineteenth
century, had been warrior bishops. The modern dynasty was established by the last bishop of the line in 1851, when he tired of being celibate...There was a whiff of the Middle Ages about Nicholas: his insistence on leading his own troops in battle, on dispensing justice from his seat under an ancient tree, even the magnificant medals he awarded himself and his friends so copiously...He had dreamed of Montenegro's absorbing Serbia; it was not meant to happpen the other way around. He still hoped, in 1919, he could regain the throne he had lost during the war...He did not get a response; there were after all more pressing issues than the fate of a country of 200,000 people. Fresh votes were taken, under Serbian supervision, which seemed to show that Montenegrins wanted to be part of Yugoslavia... Nicholas died, still in exile in the spring
of 1921... Montenegro remains, as it has done since 1918, an uneasy part of Yugoslavia.

If the 2006 referendum suceeds, then the 650,000 Montenegrin people will become separate from the 7 million people of Serbia. But the structure of the referendum carries the unfortunate possibility that it will be inconclusive. In order for the referendum to succeed, at least 50 percent of eligble voters must participate and at least 55 percent must vote in favor of independence. These vote requirements have left the possibility of an outcome in the "grey area" where the votes for independence fall short of either minimum but still representing a substantial part (or even a majority) of votes cast. If the vote falls within the grey area, Montenegro will remain, as it has done since 1918, an uneasy part of a partnership with its larger neighbors.

Update: On May 21, 2006, amid massive voter turnout that far exceeded the requirement that 50% of eligible voters participate, 55.4% of voters voted in favor of independence, exceeding the minimum required favorable vote by a slight but sufficient margin. Montenegro will now turn its attention to seeking EU membership. It is also hopeful of fielding a fielding a team for the 2010 World Cup. The issue for resolution is the question of what will become of Kosovo.

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