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Guardian: Montenegro is back on the map, and it need not become Ruritania

Published date: 01.06.2006 16:17 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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Montenegro is back on the map, and it need not become Ruritania

by: Timothy Garton Ash

Europe is the world's leading theatre of state proliferation, but more does not necessarily mean worse

How many countries are there in Europe? Your answer depends on what you mean by Europe - and what you mean by a country. The European Union currently has 25 member states. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has 55 "participating states", but they include Andorra, the Holy See, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino, which are all within the bounds of the EU without being member states, and Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Canada and the United States - some or all of which would not be considered by some or most Europeans to be in Europe. When the central Asian "stans" joined the OSCE in 1992, someone quipped that its Europe now resembled Nicholas of Cusa's definition of God - His centre being everywhere and His circumference nowhere.

The Council of Europe, which claims on its website to represent 800 million Europeans, has 46 member states, including Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco and Turkey. The Eurovision Song Contest has a variable line-up, but this year's 24 entries included hopeful crooners from Turkey, Armenia, Moldova and Israel. The Miss Europe beauty pageant has had contestants from Turkey, Israel and Lebanon. The Union of European Football Associations (Uefa), which describes itself as "the governing body of football on the European continent" and, interestingly, "an association of associations based on representative democracy", has 52 members, including Andorra, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Israel, but also England, Scotland and Wales as separate national teams. (We are so used to this, we forget how odd it is.)
However you draw up the tally, there's no question that Europe has more countries per head of population than any other continent. China is one country for 1.3 billion people, Europe is between 45 and 55 countries for, at most, 800 million people. On a generous estimate, we have an eighth of the world's people but a quarter of the world's states. This week, we'll get one more. Step forward, Miss Montenegro!

On May 21, 86% of the 484,720 people on the newly cleansed Montenegrin electoral register (described by the OSCE as the best in Montenegrin history) turned out to vote in a referendum - and 55.53% of them chose independence. According to rules embraced by Montenegro, under pressure from the EU, a majority of 55% on a turnout exceeding 50% was needed for the vote to be valid. So they just scraped through. You may well ask by what right the EU, whose Maastricht treaty was passed by a majority of just 51% in a referendum in France, imposed this 55% hurdle on Montenegro. In the event, the effect was positive, for it meant that the mainly Serbian opponents of independence participated fully in the voting, believing that they could win. It will now be harder for Serbs to question the result's legitimacy.

The Montenegrin parliament has to formalise the claim to independence, and the knotty details of a velvet divorce from Serbia must be negotiated, but there's no doubt that a country called Montenegro will soon appear on the political map of Europe. Or rather reappear - for Montenegro has been there before, between 1878 and 1918. As Elizabeth Roberts reminds us in her richly detailed and timely new history of Montenegro, Realm of the Black Mountain, in the 1870s the Montenegrins were supported, idolised and idealised by liberal Britons on account of their armed struggle against the Ottoman Turks. Gladstone described them as "a band of heroes such as the world has rarely seen". Tennyson gushed:

They rose to where their sovran
eagle sails,
They kept their faith, their freedom,
on the height,
Chaste, frugal, savage, arm'd by day
and night

... and so on, and on. The resulting kingdom of Montenegro was the model for the comic Ruritanian-style kingdom of Pontevedro in Franz Lehar's operetta The Merry Widow - provoking an angry demonstration by Montenegrin students at its premiere in Vienna. It was extinguished with the help of the western allies after the first world war, and replaced by Yugoslavia; but 80 years on the "sovran eagle" - double-headed, crowned, yellow gold on red - will again fly over the black mountain.

This is, in the first place, a shattering defeat for the nationalist project of a Greater Serbia, opportunistically embraced by the post-communist Slobodan Milosevic. Many Montenegrins, like the communist-turned-dissident Milovan Djilas, considered themselves to be "quintessential Serbs", even "the salt of the Serbs", and Montenegro to be a historic heartland of Serbianness. When Kosovo follows Montenegro to independence, as it surely will, then Serbia will be a landlocked rump state - a bruised, brooding loser of European history.

Yet the Montenegrin pole-vault over the high bar set by the EU is also a defeat for a certain west European approach, which kept urging the former Yugoslavs to stay together when they obviously wanted to part. In the region, people referred to the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the ramshackle state structure that Montenegro has now voted to leave, as "Solania" - an ironic reference to Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, who was its main architect.

Solana's fear was that a Montenegrin dash to independence might encourage Kosovo Albanians and Bosnian Serbs to demand the same, undermining the fragile peace that the EU was working to preserve in the Balkans. Though the fear was understandable, I believe this approach was misguided. If peoples really want to divorce, and that is possible within the frontiers of viable states, they should be allowed to. What matters is that they do it by peaceful, constitutional and democratic means.

To be sure, the resulting patchwork of little states has elements of absurdity. Once there was a language called Serbo-Croat. Officially, there are now four different national languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. If and when the four countries eventually join the EU, will there be simultaneous interpretation between the four official languages? Even if common sense prevails (something you can never count on in European institutions), the result of having so many small states must be a further increase in the EU's transaction costs of diversity.

But the costs within a dysfunctional multi-ethnic state are even higher. The unresolved issues of sovereignty and constitutional status have crippled attempts at economic and social reform in Serbia and Montenegro and Kosovo for the past five years. Sometimes it's better to cut the Gordian knot; sometimes good fences do eventually make good neighbours. Now the citizens of Montenegro and Serbia know that they have to make their own way to prosperity, democracy and the rule of law. Only then can they advance, via the OSCE, the Council of Europe, Uefa, Miss Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest and Nato, to today's ultimate seal of European belonging: EU membership.

If the EU keeps its doors open but its entry standards high, the end of Solania need not mean a return to Ruritania. State proliferation in Europe makes things more complicated in the relations between countries, but simpler inside them. More need not mean worse.

by: Timothy Garton Ash