The Washington Diplomat / July 2006
By Larry Luxner
Montenegro, the world's newest country, is also one of Europe's smallest — it's no bigger than Delaware, and its population of 670,000 is only slightly larger than that of the District of Columbia.
Yet on a per-capita basis, this tiny nation on the Adriatic Sea, which declared its independence Jun. 3, claims it's the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world after Israel and Egypt. Since 1999, Montenegro as a separate political juristiction has received $440 million in economic assistance from the United States — about $656 for every man, woman and child.
That's largely thanks to the efforts of one woman: Zorica Maric-Djordjevic.
Director of the Montenegro Trade Mission since its establishment in 1993, Maric says her title is misleading — especially when considering that total bilateral trade between the United States and Montenegro is less than $100,000 a year.
"This was not a trade office at all, rather a political office from the beginning. But the only way to set it up was to register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice," she explained. "I was lobbying for the interests of Montenegro. Our mission was actually to facilitate political dialogue between the United States and Montenegro. To that end, I opened all the doors, she said.
"Our objective was to distance ourselves from whatever was going on in Serbia. We wanted to speak out and to show here in Washington there is another part of this country that is democratic and against war."
The smallest of Yugoslavia's six republics, Montenegro unilaterally declared its independence only 13 days after a May 21 referendum in which voters decided to end its controversial union with much larger Serbia.
"There was really no need to wait much longer, because the results were clear, transparent and democratic, with full international legitimacy," said Maric. "In the minds of some people, Yugoslavia is still there, but it's a new generation. We all feel that good neighborly relations are much more important. With the independence of Montenegro, that era is behind us. We are all eager to work together."
Under European Union rules, at least 55% of all eligible voters had to elect for independence in order for the referendum to be binding. The independence option barely squeaked through, with 55.5%. Another 44% supported continued union with Serbia.
Explaining the outcome, Maric told the Washington Diplomat "we realized that we needed to be in charge of our future, and to take complete responsibility for the economic and political interests of our people."
Iceland was the first country to recognize Montenegro's independence, followed by Switzerland and Albania. Recognition by the United States followed on Jun. 12, and three days later — the same Thursday we interviewed Maric at her four-story mission near Dupont Circle — Serbia reluctantly recognized the new country as well.
Ivan Vujacic, Serbia's ambassador in Washington, concedes that Montenegro's referendum was a "democratic decision" agreed to by all parties.
"Personally, I'm sorry that Yugoslavia fell apart, so obviously I'm not thrilled about this latest vote," he said. "On the other hand, everybody was used to the idea that Montenegro would probably go. Actually, it will probably simplify things for both Montenegro and Serbia. Now we won't any longer have a lopsided federation."
Vujacic's mission, which up until press time was still identified with a bronze plaque reading "Embassy of Serbia and Montenegro," will soon undergo not only a name change but a location change as well. The Serbian Embassy mansion, located on Kalorama Road, is being rented from Ethiopia, which originally had its embassy there and still owns the property.
"We are now going to look for our own property," said Vujacic, adding that under an IMF formula agreed to by both parties, Montenegro will inherit around 6% of the combined assets of the former Republic of Serbia and Montenegro, based on its substantially smaller population.
"Obviously, some issues will have to be worked out pertaining to the 100,000 Montenegrins living in Serbia. They will now be able to apply for Serbian citizenship," he said.
Maric, 53, first came to Washington in February 1998 as part of an official delegation. At that time, she was a special envoy of President Milo Djukanovic, a leader in the Montenegro independence movement.
"Independence in the hearts and minds of our people has been developing for the last 17 years — particularly since the breakup of old Yugoslavia, the Milosevic dictatorship and the four wars that Serbia waged in the Balkans," she said. "This was a very traumatic experience in Montenegro, leading to ethnic atrocities and collective depression all over the Balkans."
Interestingly, Montenegrins comprise only 47% of the new country's popualtion. The rest are ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians. During the height of the 1999 Kosovo crisis, Montenegro took in 100,000 Albanian Muslims, less than 10,000 of whom still remain.
"This was not really a federation," Maric explained. "It was a state union of two countries with limited common functions. It was a unique kind of union that never existed in practice. It was burdensome for both Serbia and Montenegro, but particularly for Montenegro. The constitutional charter stipulated that after three years, both entities had the right to hold a referendum."
She added: "I don't think Serbia was able to face its own political, economic and historical issues. We hope now that Montenegro is independent, Serbia can focus on its real problems – Kosovo and internal reforms. It's in everybody's interests to resolve the problem of Kosovo. There is no reason to delay the resolution of status issues in Kosovo, though any imposed program would not be good either for Serbia nor for the Kosovars. We all need a stable Serbia."
Maric said her country's split with Serbia is different from Czechoslovakia, because "in the case of the Czech and Slovak republics, you had agreement between the political elites of two countries" — something that didn't happen with regard to Montenegro.
"In our case, we reached out to Serbia's political leaders. We proposed that we have an association of two independent states to overcome this non-functional state union. [Serbian President Vojislav] Kostunica refused." In the long run, she said, "I think it's much better for Montenegro, because this gave us international legitimacy. So no one in Brussels can go back and say you must have another referendum."
Within a few months, said Maric, her country will have a separate mandate for negotiations to join the EU — with full membership anticipated by 2010.
"Montenegro is small, and one of the arguments within the EU now is to be more cautious about enlargement. When it comes to Montenegro, they can absorb us easily," she said. "It's a new era for Montenegro. We want to reach out to Serbia and be good neighbors. We want to have open borders without tariffs."
Despite its much smaller size — Montenegro has 1/17th the population of Serbia — its per-capita income is considerably higher.
"In the last three years, our leadership has undertaken some very intense economic and social reforms. Our agenda consisted of 140 new laws that are completely consistent with the EU. About 85% of our legislation is already in compliance with the EU," she said.
"Since 2002, we're officially using the euro as our currency. And our first goal — macroeconomic stability — has already been achieved. Last year, we had inflation of only 1.8%," she said. "We're also hoping to get new investment. One of the benefits of independence is foreign direct investment.
Last year, she said, Montenegro received a record 382 million euros in FDI, through the privatization of various state-owned companies. The fledgling new country is also trying to boost exports of traditional products such as aluminum, wine, fruit and steel.
Perhaps the biggest growth industry for Montenegro will be tourism. Last year, the country's tourism sector grew by 18.6%, with major development zones planned for Ulcinj and Ada, along the Adriatic coast.
"Montenegro is now counted among the free and democratic states," she said. "We are an Adriatic country with ports. We have the possibility to cooperate on issues of regional anti-terrorism, cross-border crime and anti-drug trafficking. Secondly, I see the possibility of our two armies cooperating. The U.S. could become a strategic partner in transforming our army. We want to downsize the army, but at the same time we want to work with the U.S. and our European partners to find a niche role, a new responsibility for Montenegro."
She added: "I have a long-standing relationship with the State Department. I've been privileged to work with two administrations and Congress. It's really important that I have full access to the diplomatic community."
That leaves one last question unanswered: will Maric herself be appointed the new Montenegrin ambassador to the United States?
Nobody in the world seems more qualified for the job, but if she knows, she isn't telling. "I'm ready to serve my country in any capacity" was all she would say.