Bosnian and Albanian parties in Montenegro are trading on their position as masters of "swing votes" on key issues in order to promote their own agendas
Author: Sead Sadikovic
Source: Balkan Insight
Montenegro's Bosniak and Albanian minorities are using their potentially significant influence over the future of the republic's state union with Serbia, in an effort to get promises from the pro-independence authorities to improve their position.
When independence is put to a referendum on May 21, 55 per cent of voters who go to the polls will need to support separation from Serbia in order for the vote to be seen as valid.
The Albanian and Bosniak communities as a whole are thought almost certain to vote for a break from Serbia.
But with the opposing camps on the question of independence finely balanced and their own votes potentially crucial to the outcome, representatives of the minorities have decided that now is a good time to seek concessions from the authorities.
With a population of 670,000, Montenegro has a complex national structure, comprising 41 per cent Montenegrins, 30 per cent Serbs, 14.7 per cent Bosniaks, seven per cent Albanians and one per cent Croats.
In the Nineties, with the ascendance of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, the movement for independence grew stronger in Montenegro. For several years now it has been led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, under the current prime minister, Milo Djukanovic.
However, citizens remain sharply divided on the issue and when it comes to the ballot, every vote will count.
Djukanovic's party rules Montenegro together with a smaller coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, which has also always advocated independence. Since 1998, when Djukanovic distanced himself from Milosevic, these two parties have received the votes of 90 per cent of local Bosniaks and more than half the votes of the Albanians. The remaining Albanians have typically voted for their own national parties, which are also against the union with Serbia.
According to a survey by the Centre for Democratic Transition, CDT, taken last December and published on March 10, only 2.2 per cent of Bosniak voters plan to vote against independence. The same poll said that 70 per cent of Bosniaks planned to vote for independence. In other words, it appears that a pool of around 30 per cent of Bosniak voters remain undecided.
Some are swayed towards continuing union with Serbia by family and business connections to its mainly Bosniak Sandzak region, or because they feel disappointed by the broken promises of the Montenegrin leadership.
According to the CDT poll, only 2.4 per cent of Albanian voters were against Montenegrin independence, while those who are undecided account for around ten per cent.
By comparison, about 120,000 Montenegrins say they plan to vote for independence, and 29,000 against, while 104,000 ethnic Serbs living in Montenegro will vote for union with Serbia, and less then 7,000 for independence.
According to these figures, a narrow overall majority of about 56 per cent of voters would vote for independence - one per cent above the threshold.
The 55,000 Bosniaks and around 25,000 Albanians who are expected to turn up at the polls, if turnout remains at an average of 80 per cent, may tip the balance. The sum of their votes is double 40,000 - the difference that the pro-independence parties have to achieve in order to secure success in the referendum, in case of a record turn-out of 85 percent. The difference needed could be even less if the turnout is smaller.
A key factor could be abstention on the part of minority voters. Although the Bosniak and Albanian minority would in general prefer an independent Montenegro, there is also no doubting their dissatisfaction with the current government.
Political analyst Mustafa Canka says Albanians and Bosniaks who live and work abroad are especially unlikely to try and vote. Though their number is not large, even a few thousand missing votes might decide the outcome of the referendum.
"If they fail to secure a majority of 55 per cent, the authorities will blame the Bosniaks and Albanians," he said. "They will say that they could have tried harder".
Over the last 15 years, the cause of Montenegrin independence has been increasingly linked to the republic's minorities. This has enabled their parties to seek concessions and trade-offs from government, although they have often been let down.
Some minority leaders are now trying to capitalise on their position and nail down what had been promised - and then promptly forgotten - in the past.
On 26 February, a new Bosniak party was formed as a union of all the major Bosniak parties. After talks with Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of the main pro-union party, the Socialist People's Party, and with Milo Djukanovic, the leader of the independence movement, this new bloc decided to join the latter.
Their requests include passage of a proposed new Law on Minorities before the referendum takes place, and proportional representation for minorities in all levels of public life.
Mehmed Bardhi, president of the Democratic Union in Montenegro, the more hard-line of the two Albanian national parties (the other is the Democratic Union of Albanians, DUA), also said Albanians should support a sovereign state of Montenegro.
The Albanians, who make up seven per cent of the republic's total population, also have clear objectives that will be presented to the pro-independence government, starting with proportional representation of Albanians in government posts. Bardhi also wants to see a new municipality centred on the mainly Albanian area of Tuzi, which currently forms part of the city of Podgorica.
Improvements in the position of minorities in Montenegro have been regularly mooted in the past.
In an agreement signed in March 2001 in mainly Albanian Ulcinj, all the republic's parliamentary parties committed themselves to supporting a range of measures to boost the position of the Albanian minority. They pledged a new maternity ward for Ulcinj, an Albanian language faculty in the town, easier validation of diplomas acquired in Albania and Kosovo, and assistance in the establishment of a new municipality in Tuzi.
But it turned out that while the authorities were willing to make these promises, they were not keen to realise them.
Instead of a new faculty in Ulcinj, the authorities opened an Albanian-language department in distant Niksic. It received no students, as Albanians did not wish to study there. Two years later the department was relocated to Podgorica but most Albanians still insist it should go to Ulcinj. As for the maternity ward, the authorities claimed that there was not enough money for it.
Rather than gaining full municipality status, Tuzi instead became a city municipality within Podgorica.
Bosniaks in the north of Montenegro were similarly let down after being promised a new municipality called Petnjica, to be established out of the territory of the municipality of Berane. The Montenegrin parliament eventually rejected the plan a year ago.
The minority parties are now seeking a way to capitalise on their role in the coming referendum to secure these forgotten concessions.
However, Miodrag Perovic, director of Monitor, a pro-independence weekly, says this kind of blackmail may be a mistake. He says the rows over concessions are damaging the pro-independence bloc, and that such requests should wait until Montenegro is independent and can properly deal with minority rights.
Ferhat Dinosa, leader of the DUA, agrees. He says it would be easier to introduce European standards on minorities once Montenegro becomes a sovereign state. Dinosa told the daily Vijesti on March 23 that it was not in the interest of Albanians to blackmail the leadership if it put at risk the goal of an independent Montenegro.
During the Nineties, minorities found themselves trapped between two sides in Montenegro. One was the Serbian block, supported by Slobodan Milosevic's military might, and the other was Djukanovic's block, which opposed Milosevic and so won the hearts of all minorities.
Fear of possible revenge by Milosevic escalated in 1999, during NATO's air war over Kosovo, when more than 20,000 Bosniaks and Albanians left Montenegro for Bosnia and western Europe.
At the same time, many Bosniaks and Albanians joined the Montenegrin police, which was loyal to Djukanovic, while ethnic Serbs in Montenegro flocked to the military reserve, then loyal to the Serbian regime and to Milosevic.
Smajo Cikic, president of Gairet, a Bosniak cultural non-governmental organisation, says minorities are fearful of again being caught in a pincer between pro- and anti-Serb forces. "Those who are 'heroes' for one side automatically become 'traitors' for the other," he said.
Some believe the minorities could suffer as the tension mounts before the referendum day. The fact that both sides expect to win and also to count on the votes of the minorities indicates there is a risk of their being dragged into a conflict that is not of their own making.
Ranko Kadic, leader of the Democratic Serbian Party, which advocates union with Serbia, says he expects Albanians and Bosniaks to help defeat the independence option.
"The independent-ists remain in power thanks to divisions, but the time of divisions is now in the past and this is the beginning of the end for Djukanovic's regime," he said.
"More and more people in Montenegro come to realise this," he added, including members of ethnic minorities.
But whatever their fears, it seems highly unlikely that the minorities are at this stage going to switch to the pro-union camp.
Rifat Veskovic, former leader of the Party of Democratic Action, now president of the Democratic Union of Muslims-Bosniaks, said most Bosniaks and other minorities feel it will be much easier to achieve their goals in a sovereign Montenegro.
This, he said, was partly down to mathematics. "In an independent Montenegro we [Bosniaks] will account for 15 per cent, but in the union of Serbia and Montenegro [without Kosovo] not more than 2 per cent."
Sead Sadikovic is a freelance reporter, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and a journalist with the independent Montenegrin weekly Monitor. Balkan Insight is BIRN's online publication.
This article was published with the support of the British embassy in Belgrade, as part of BIRN's Minority Media Training and Reporting Project.