- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 10, 2001

The long awaited, painfully won and widely celebrated demise of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade has not, as yet, brought genuine stability to the Balkans. Despite the expectations of the international community for a stability dividend, we have instead seen an escalation of conflict in southern Serbia and Macedonia, while Bosnia remains potentially unstable. Montenegro, however, is well on its way toward independence and the preparation for a new dialogue with Serbia about their future relations.
Montenegro remains calm because it is pursuing its self-determination process in a democratic manner. Opinion polls have demonstrated that over 80 percent of our citizens believe in their right to self-determination, as exercised by every other non-Serbian republic of the former Yugoslavia. That does not mean that they all support independence. While polls show the number of pro-independence voters at over 50 percent and rising, the government acknowledges that many Montenegrins either oppose independence or have yet to make up their minds.
That is what the April 22 parliamentary elections are all about, an open campaign in which proponents and opponents make their cases to the electorate. If the pro-independence parties obtain a majority of seats in parliament, they will establish a date for a referendum on independence this summer. Thus, the supporters of independence must clear two democratic hurdles, and will abide by the decision of the majority of voters. Ballots, not bullets, is the path Montenegro has opted for. It is the path of the Western democracies that we have chosen as our models.
This is not an insignificant event in a region that has known so much recent violence and seems likely to endure yet more. What makes it relevant is that Montenegro is a multi-ethnic society. About 7 percent of its citizens are ethnic Albanians. They have their political parties, participate in our parliamentary politics and the institutions of our expanding civil society, and share in our commerce. They broadly support the independence initiative because they believe that it offers them their best chance for durable political freedoms, human rights and economic advancement in a stable environment.
They have witnessed firsthand our governments commitment to multi-ethnic values tested in the cauldron of war and violence. During the Kosovo war, nearly 100,000 Albanian refugees from neighboring Kosovo fled to Montenegro. Despite the presence of large numbers of Serbian troops in Montenegro, harsh and unremitting pressures from Belgrade to join the conflict against NATO, and no security guarantee from the West for our lonely stand against Mr. Milosevic, we provided the Albanians with a safe refuge. They, like the rest of Montenegros citizens, be they supporters or opponents of our independence course, will benefit from the prosperity that we expect to build as an independent state integrated into European and transatlantic political, economic and security institutions.
We are confident that Serbia too will ultimately benefit from the results of our democratic self-determination process. We do not claim independence as an automatic right, but have accepted the burdens and responsibilities of earning it. While some in the federal Yugoslav and Serbian Republic governments dispute our independence course, large numbers of Serbs inside and outside their governments seem relieved that we have chosen the course of dialogue and that we have offered a close and mutually beneficial relationship with Serbia following independence.
Like every other community around Serbias periphery, we understand that we can change our political relationship with Belgrade but not our geography. Independence is the beginning, not the end, of our new post-Milosevic relationship with Serbia. Montenegros proposal to make, together with Serbia, as two independent and internationally recognized states, an alliance and start afresh transferring some responsibilities, as a sign of new confidence and cooperation in the former Yugoslavia, is testimony to the positive role Montenegro can play in enhancing new relations, confidence and stability in the whole region. This would offer citizens of both countries, as well as businesses, ample opportunities to travel, and maintain property.
This may represent an example of what needs to be done elsewhere in the Balkans in order to start building new relations and stability.
I am confident that the voters in the April 22 parliamentary elections and subsequent referendum will back the quest for independence and internationally recognized statehood. Having cooperated fully with the international community since President Djukanovic took power in elections over four years ago and broke with Mr. Milosevic, provided crucial support to the Serbian democratic opposition in ousting Mr. Milosevic, preserved peace and multi-ethnic stability in Montenegro and begun to build a democratic system respecting the rule of law, Montenegro deserves more understanding from the United States and the European Union. This is the best way to make Montenegro a positive model for the Balkans.

Branko Lukovac is the foreign minister of Montenegro.

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