interview 08 Sep 16

Montenegro Doesn’t Want Kosovo’s Land, Djukanovic

Veteran leader of Montenegro tells BIRN about his concerns over the border dispute with Kosovo, the need for dialogue in the region and his ’formula’ for staying in power for so many years.

Jeta Xharra
BIRN
Pristina
Montenegrin PM Milo Djukanovic. Photo: BIRN.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic says Montenegro does not need a single metre of Kosovo’s territory - nor does it expect Kosovo to give up any of its rights in favour of Montenegro.

In an interview for BIRN, Djukanovic said Kosovo and Montenegro had formed good relations over time, and: “We should not question those relations now:

“We just want to make it clear that when certain political debates in any community happen, in this case in the Kosovo community, we understand the need to develop a spirited political debate. We need to make sure that this dialogue does not ruin Kosovo’s relations with its neighbors. This is very important,” Djukanovic said.

 

On September 1, Kosovo postponed a vote in parliament on ratification of the controversial border agreement with Montenegro, following months of protest by opposition groups who claimed the deal would deprive Kosovo of 8,000 hectares.

The ferment has caused the biggest political crisis in Kosovo since it declared independence in February 2008 as well as violent clashes in the capital, Pristina.

On Thursday, Kosovo Prime Minister Isa Mustafa launched wider consultations aimed at finding a consensus with opposition parties over the burning issue.

But Djukanovic insisted that Montenegro had already done its part after the two countries signed an agreement in August 2015 in Vienna, which the Montenegrin parliament ratified in December 2015. “Both were done with the precise guidance of the government that I lead and the party I represent,” he recalled.

“We think the job was done carefully. Two [border] commissions worked on the three-year process, and they respected everything that had been at the starting point,” he said.

One of those starting points, he noted, was the findings of the Badinter Commission, which in the 1990s set the context for the demarcation of the former Yugoslav republics.

 

It declared that their future borders should be in line with the internal borders of the republics and provinces of the former Yugoslav federation.

“We understand that on the Kosovo side there are some doubts,” Djukanovic said. “It seems like this was first of all a question of political disagreements inside Kosovo. We would like to get this resolved in a democratic manner,” he said.

Asked whether the Kosovo government had initiated any new diplomatic talks with Montenegro on the issue, Djukanovic said no new talks had been launched.

“We in Montenegro do not expect gratitude for what the country did in 1999, when it opened its borders to our neighbours,” he said, recalling when Montenegro allowed many Kosovars fleeing the war there to take refuge in the country.

“We do not need anyone to make territorial concessions. Montenegro does not need a single metre of Kosovo’s land,” he added.

"Secondly, we do not want anyone to condition Kosovo - if you want this or that at the international level, that you should give up some rights, especially not to give them up in favour of Montenegro. Montenegro does not need that,” he said.

Decades in office raises tricky questions:

Responding to criticism that his longevity in office does not speak in favour of a high level of democracy in the country, Djukanovic said: “I can agree with you that, especially for countries in the early stages of democracy, changes of governments could be important”.

However, turning to the coming elections, he said the most important thing about them is that they are free.

Meanwhile, it is in the “natural interest” of all those who participate in the elections to want to win, he remarked.

“So, it is in my interest to win. And I believe I won [in the past] in a regular way,” he said.

Over the previous 25 years, he continued, “we lost the joint state of Yugoslavia”, went through wars, tough sanctions, the NATO bombing of Serbia – “thanks to Belgrade's policy” - while  Montenegro regained the independence it lost after the First World War.

Today, ten years on from independence, the country is at the threshold of joining NATO.

“In that quarter of a century, history really happened,” Djukanovic remarked.

 

But, asked whether adoption of the border agreement with Montenegro should be a condition for Kosovo to obtain visa liberalization with the EU, Djukanovic observed that it was not unusual for the EU and US to set such demands.

“Of course, they do not perceive this as conditionality but as a reminder to us in the Balkans to respect certain rules that will recommend us to becoming part of their community, or to becoming users of the benefits they offer, like visa liberalization,” he noted.

Djukanovic explained that Montenegro had also been obliged to meet conditions to obtain visa-free travel to the EU, which had involved “convincing the EU” that its territorial dispute with Croatia over the Prevlaka peninsula, near Dubrovnik, did not threaten regional security.

Djukanovic did not meanwhile rule out the possibility of international mediation and taking the border issue to an international court.

“It would not be a precedent, if there is no agreement, for an international court of arbitration to be asked to issue its opinion,” Djukanovic said.

“We thought that in the case of Montenegro and Kosovo, such disputed issues did not exist,” Djukanovic reiterated. “Again, if there is a dispute, it can be solved in a different way.”

Djukanovic said that Kosovo and Montenegro had meanwhile agreed to move their relations to a higher level by appointing mutual ambassadors.

 

Montenegro has appointed an ambassador who will take up the office in Pristina within the next few weeks, while Kosovo's ambassador is due to arrive in Podgorica in September.

“The issue of the Montenegrin [ethnic] minority [in Kosovo] obtaining [official] status in Kosovo's political life, by amending the constitution [of Kosovo], has also been opened.

Meanwhile, we have agreed on some temporary solutions... to ensure the integration of the Montenegrin minority [into Kosovo],” he said.

Addressing reports that he personally insisted on Kosovo adding another star to its flag, representing the number of ethnic groups in the country, Djukanovic insisted he had made no such a demand.

Wider regional dialogue crucial:

Speaking about relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which he said remain burdened by a complex legacy, Djukanovic said both sides needed “to take a long path to restore these relations.

“It is very important that this is started, and we have convinced the leaders of those two [states] that dialogue is important.

“I think both Belgrade and Pristina today have strong leaders, persons who have legitimacy and who can use it for that purpose, [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic to explain why it is important for Serbia to normalize its relations with Kosovo and [Kosovo President Hashim] Thaci to explain to his people why it is important for Kosovo to be very cooperative,” Djukanovic said.

As the only politician at the time of the break-up of former Yugoslavia to remain in office, Djukanovic apologised to Croatia after the shelling of Dubrovnik, brought the independence and NATO membership to Montenegro, recognized Kosovo's independence and managing to retain some level of fair relations with Serbia. He said the concessions were necessary.

He called the apology to Croatia a “civilized gesture” because he said there was no doubt that during Croatia’s war of independence with the Yugoslav Army, citizens of Montenegro in Yugoslav army uniforms had done “certain things on the territory of Croatia” during the early 1990s, primarily in the area of Dubrovnik, which had burdened relations between the two states.

Asked whether he had “paid a price” at home and lost some votes, because of the apology, Djukanovic said he did not, and that it is necessary to have responsible attitude.

“We have to bury the hatchet and leave behind the logic that unfortunately cost this region a lot throughout history.

“We must understand that a stable region is in the interest of all of us,” he said, regretting that no Balkan leader had yet apologized for the wars of the 1990s.

Formula for long life in politics:

While cynics say they would like to learn the secret of how to remain in power for over a quarter century, Djukanovic said that there was no secret formula to this.

“We need to be very dedicated to our work, to try to build confidence,” he said.

“Especially in a tiny community of 650,000 people such as Montenegro, it is not technical but a practical option for each voter to meet the Prime Minister,” he added.

“For the 25 years that you have talked about, through so many election campaigns in which I participated directly, I have visited every village in each municipality ... I think I personally met a huge proportion of the voters,” he joked.

“People listen to you and expect you to fulfill what you’ve promised. That is the only formula for a long life in politics,” he added.

“I'm absolutely sure that prime ministers in neighboring countries, with whom I build not only a partnership but also friendly relations, understand that,” he observed.

Asked whether, following the elections in Montenegro on October 16, he would say there is still important work to be done, and that he has to stay on, Djukanovic said there were plenty of other competent people in the country.

“I'm here to help in certain ongoing processes but as you know I’m not married to politics,” he said.

“Over these 27 years, you know I voluntarily withdrew from politics twice. It was very nice.

“I do not like to be begged, but the needs of state required my return,” he concluded.

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