Shaban MURATIAlbanian-Montenegrin relations between reluctance and need
FRI, 03 MAR 2000
Tirana - News in the press that international humanitarian organisations have brought frozen food to be used in case of arrival of a tide of refugees from Montenegro throws a light not only on the danger of a possible crisis threatening from the small neighbouring country in the north-west, but also on the increasing significance of Albania for Montenegro. It is no secret that in Albania, and people say in Herzegovina as well, the UN are keeping refugees camps ready which will certainly not be for people from Kosovo any more. The more leaders of Montenegro are coming closer to the alternative and possibility of secession from Milosevic's Serbia, the more obvious is the role of Albania becoming.
In fact, Albania is among the few if not even the only neighbouring country of Montenegro and in the whole region of eastern Europe that offered open support to every step president Djukanovic's government has taken in the direction of asserting its identity and its capabilities as an independent subject in the remainder of Yugoslav federation. The leadership of Albania is the only one in the Balkans which has officially in NATO and in EU expressed its official stand that Montenegro should be recognised as an independent unit and a state.
Albania proposed that in the Balkans, a kind of mini-Schengen agreement should be reached, which Montenegro would be part of together with other states, as a state seceded from Serbia. Albania stimulated the Albanians in Montenegro to support Montenegrin president, which was not insignificant for his election and strengthening of his independent position as opposed to centralist pressure exerted by Belgrade.
Especially after the crisis in Kosovo and the war of NATO against Yugoslavia, readiness of Tirana to improve its relations with Podgorica is increasingly stressed. Prime minister Meta sent an invitation to Montenegrin prime minister Filip Vujanovic to visit Albania and meet him, and as it was stated in the middle of December last year, prime minister of Montenegro should have visited Albania towards the end of that month. However, on the eve of the visit, Montenegrin president cancelled the visit and on 29 December Albanian foreign minister said in public that Podgorica had apologised for the cancellation of the visit.
After that, it was said in public that prime ministers of Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro had agreed to have a tripartite meeting in Ohrid on 18 January. The USA ambassador in Tirana at the time, Robert Frowick also spoke about preparations for such a meeting.
However, it is not difficult to realise that certain uneasiness exists in the attitude of Podgorica which is contrary to the wish of Tirana to accelerate and broaden bilateral relations. It is a fact that Montenegrin authorities are aware of the growing significance Albanian has. In the sharp confrontation with the Serbian regime, they need a safe border and a supplementary logistic basis in order to survive in case of a possible conflict. What international humanitarian organisations are doing lately in Albania, collecting food and maintaining camps, has certainly in one way or another been conveyed to Montenegrin leadership.
On the other hand, for Montenegro in case of a sharp confrontation with Serbia, every type of promised NATO's aid would primarily require support of governments of neighbouring countries, that is, in case of any punitive NATO operation, as the war in Kosovo showed, Albania would play a special role. NATO used the territory and the sea and air space of Albania during its operations against Serbia in spring last year. This role and position of Albania praised so much by NATO generals would become operational again in case of a Serbian-Montenegrin conflict. This is the lesson learnt during the last year's war in Kosovo.
The painful experience of Montenegro, which was forced to suffer UN sanctions because of Serbia, also pointed out the unavoidable and significant role Albania plays as a basis for supplies and a trading partner of Montenegro. It is clear that in case of a conflict, Serbia would block its borders for every form of supplies for Montenegro. In the past period it blocked trucks carrying food in order to put Montenegrin leadership in a difficult situation when they would be forced to face an insufficiently supplied population. In such circumstances, Albania's significance is growing. On 21 December, Meta's government reached a decision to lift the oil embargo of Montenegro, but banned the transit of oil through Serbia. This was not only a gesture of good will, but also of great assistance to Montenegro both because of broad possibilities of Albania as a transportation corridor, but also because of the vicinity of Montenegrin territory to Albanian ports.
Without doubt, Albanian government has its own interest to promote this policy of intensive cooperation with Montenegro. Independent Montenegrin state would mean weaker Serbia, which would be reassuring for many people in Tirana and Pristina. Independent Montenegro, according to observers in Tirana, would make independence of Kosovo much easier.
Albania also needs a market and exchange, especially in the zone of Skadar and Velika Malesija which have greatly suffered from the blockade of Montenegro due to the sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia by the OUN. Albania is also interested in the Albanian population living in the neighbouring state, although due to the size of this population which, according to various data, amounts to about seven per cent, this interest does not reach the level of interest Tirana has for the Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo. This means that the existence of the Albanians in Montenegro and their problems is not an obstacle in development of relations between the two states and both governments are aware of that. Tirana appears to be cautious to such an extent that it did not even react when EU coordinator of the Stability Pact, Bodo Hombach, declared that he has a project according to which a part of the capital allocated for Kosovo would be used for Montenegro..
It should be stressed that policy of Tirana aimed at close cooperation with Montenegro was constantly and openly encouraged by the USA, EU and NATO. Especially after signing of the Stability Pact, they supported institutionalisation of bilateral interstate relations and their broadening to other states in the region. German minister of defence Rudolf Scharping, while presenting NATO stands, stressed the correlation and interdependence of stability in Albania and Montenegro.
However, it seems that Podgorica has decided to be cautious in taking steps towards Tirana. Despite repeated invitations to the leadership of Montenegro, its president and prime minister showed reluctance to come to Albania. Despite great needs met by commercial exchange with Albania, Montenegro still has not opened its main border crossing with Albania. This resulted in the fact that the greatest part of trade between the two countries still takes place through smuggling and illegal crossing of the border. The reached agreement between Albania and Montenegro on establishing telephone lines between the two states by installing optic cables was interrupted because Albania has completed work to the border with Montenegro while Montenegrin has not even started work on its side of the border because it is prevented in doing so by the Serbian army.
The offers Podgorica got from Tirana were frequent. The latest was the one addressed by the president of the Socialist Party who heads the government coalition in Albania, Fatos Nano, to Montenegrin president Djukanovic when the two met in Thessalonike two months ago, for organisation of a bilateral conference on the Lake of Skadar joining these two states, which would also be attended by main states of Stability Pact. Djukanovic accepted the proposal, but Montenegrin party in fact did not make a single move in this direction. In the end of December, president of Socialist Party, Fatos Nano, paid a political state visit to Montenegro and organised meetings as a new impulse to relations between the two countries, such as the meeting with Montenegrin foreign minister on opening border crossings between the two countries.
It is clear that reluctance of Montenegro to faster development of relations with Albania has its origin mainly in Belgrade. Every step Podgorica would take towards Tirana would be considered in Belgrade as rapprochement with one of historical enemies of Milosevic's regime. On the other hand, knowing the influence of Tirana in Kosovo, accelerated Albanian-Montenegrin rapprochement would be considered by the Serbs as a stimulus to independence of Montenegro and Kosovo.
However, between reluctance and need, Albanian-Montenegrin relations will be guided by the latter. The fact that the government of president Djukanovic is west oriented and that it enjoys the support of EU and NATO will reduce its reluctance. Expression of military support by NATO means for Podgorica that the manoeuvring space for retaliation measures Milosevic might take against Montenegro because of its rapprochement with Albania is increasingly narrowed down.