Montenegro vote opens separatist Pandora's box

Montenegro’s independence could open a Pandora’s box for other separatist movements in Europe and the former Soviet Union, with some already claiming the right to follow the same path.

Separatists in Spain’s Basque and Catalan regions were among the first to welcome Montenegro’s independence vote as a positive omen for their aspirations of loosening ties with Madrid.

But Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos stressed the situations in his country and Montenegro were “politically, diplomatically, juridically” incomparable and that making such a comparison would represent a “great irresponsibility”.

His view was supported by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said any such comparisons would be “delirious”.

A total of 55,5% of Montenegrin voters who took part in Sunday’s referendum opted for independence from the tiny Balkan state’s federation with Serbia.

Podgorica’s union with Belgrade was the last vestige of the former Yugoslav federation, consisting of six republics that broke apart in a series of wars in the 1990s.

However, after Montenegro the EU has to immediately tackle the issue of the United Nations-administered Serbian province of Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians are the majority. Kosovo Albanians hope to gain independence this year, a demand Belgrade fiercely opposes.

Tim Judah, a Balkans specialist at the Centre for European Reform based in London, said regional stability depended far more on Kosovo—“the final act in this 15-year drama”—than on Montenegro.

“Compared to Kosovo, Montenegro is easy,” he said, stressing that “Kosovo is a much, much bigger problem”.

“Although some refuse to establish a link, possible independence of Kosovo, which would be internationally recognised, would legitimise the ambitions of other separatists who never had their own state,” a Western diplomat based in the Croatian capital Zagreb told Agence France-Presse, wishing to remain anonymous.

Bosnian Serbs have already said Montenegro’s independence was a good model to be followed by their entity of Republika Srpska, which, along with the Muslim-Croat Federation, has made up post-war Bosnia.

For those fighting for the independence of the Germanic Tyrol region of Italy, and its annexation to Austria, the outcome of Montenegro’s referendum inspired dreams to organise a similar vote.

A senior Russian lawmaker estimated that Montenegro’s decision to separate from Serbia would spur debate on the status of Kosovo and could set a “heavy” precedent for other countries with separatist minorities.

Konstantin Kosachev, chairperson of the Russian Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, warned of setting a precedent over Kosovo.

“This will create a precedent heavy with consequences for other regions,” he said, citing in particular Turkish northern Cyprus and Spain’s Basque separatists.

But even in the former Soviet Union, several regions are hoping to follow the lead of Montenegro. They were unilaterally proclaimed during the bloody conflicts that followed its 1991 collapse and supported by Moscow, but not recognised by the international community.

Among them, the breakaway republics of Transdniestr in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia, were the first to say the vote serves as a model of “self-determination”.

“One can only welcome such a civilised method for gaining self-determination,” said the “president” of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapch, quoted by Interfax.

The “foreign minister” of Transdniestr, Valeri Litskai, said the outcome of Sunday’s referendum in the tiny Balkan republic was a day for celebration.

“The chief diplomats of all the unrecognised republics of the former Soviet Union were satisfied” with the referendum result, he said after a meeting with representatives of regional minorities in Moscow.—AFP

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