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This interview is a transcript of TV B92’s popular head-to-head talk show discussing current issues - Poligraf

The Referendum Date Is Not Set
January 31st, 2006

Miroslav Lajcák: The government said they planned to hold the referendum in April, but I said we had an ongoing process with certain dynamics that will determine when the conditions have been met to organise this event. I expect that both sides will respect this and that they’ve started out with the idea not to abandon the process before it ends. The EU clearly stated they did not want one-sided measures and steps being taken. So, no one has decided that the referendum will take place in April, because it might not, depending on the process that is currently under way.

Guest: Miroslav Lajčák, EU special envoy for the referendum in Montenegro
Host: Jugoslav Ćosić

B92: Good evening. The month of April, heralded as the time for staging the Montenegrin independence referendum, is drawing near, but there is no consensus between the government and the opposition in Podgorica over issues of qualified majority, the wording of the plebiscite question, not even when the two camps will start dealing with them in face-to-face talks. The Venetian Commission reluctantly stated their views and recommendations for the referendum process, but the authorities and the opposition have diverging interpretations of these statements. Our guest on Poligraf tonight is former Slovakian Ambassador to SCG and EU special envoy for the referendum in Montenegro, Miroslav Lajčák. Mr. Lajčák, good evening and welcome to TV B92.

Lajčák: Good evening.

B92: What are the chances that the government and the opposition in Montenegro will start talking to each other directly and not via Brussels?

Lajčák: The dialogue has already begun. This is not a direct dialogue of course, because it involves the EU, but the negotiation process is, by all means, under way. I believe their trust in one other will soon reach a point where the dialogue will develop into direct, face-to-face talks.

B92: During the last couple of days you were involved in intense negotiations with actors on the Montenegrin political scene. What can you tell us about these talks, what was their nature? What has happened during these past few days at the meetings?

Lajčák: I have stated on several occasions that, for now, I have every reason to be moderately optimistic about the whole situation because for several reasons. First, all of my partners in Montenegro insist that the referendum issue has to find a solution, it has to get off the agenda, because it is an issue that traumatises the society, so it is very important. Secondly, most relevant factors have accepted the EU’s mediatory role, namely the whole governing coalition and three out of four parties in the opposing camp. Another positive element is the fact that we have agreed on a framework for the negotiations, a list of questions we have to discuss in order to start preparing the referendum. Our latest achievement, accomplished during this latest round of talks, is that both sides have prepared their starting positions within the framework that we defined together. So, the process continues with the dynamics it possesses at the moment and we are now working on approximating these two views ahead of the plebiscite.

B92: Which party does not accept EU mediation? You said three out of four parties of the opposition did.

Lajčák: It’s not that they do not accept EU mediation. They have decided not take part at all in the process searching out an agreement for organising the referendum. The party in question is the Serbian People’s Party of Montenegro.

B92: Is it true that you arrived with some proposals that you tried to use as a skeleton for building a consensus between the opposition and the government in Montenegro?

Lajčák: Yes I did.

B92: What are these proposals?

Lajčák: The proposals are an aggregate result of the previous rounds of negotiations. They are recommendations that we have generally already agreed upon. We facilitated the dialogue further in that respect by formulating these agreements and putting them on paper. These are eight items that have already been published in the press and they pertain to the entire organisation of the referendum, issues such as the media, observers, funding, police conduct, the issue of majority, of course, and also whether we formulate one or two questions for the citizens to vote on. So, eight concrete issues that together form a plan for further action.

B92: Could you tell us whether you have concrete proposals for solutions to the problems that you have discussed with the political camps in Montenegro, regarding a qualified majority and the plebiscitary question?

Lajčák: We have a mediatory role in this process and not one to impose solutions. We are only here to help. Naturally we want the process to comply with European standards as much as and wherever it is possible. After the latest elections in Montenegro, the OSCE and the Council of Europe had their own recommendations, so we believe this is the way to eliminate the grey zones, where there are prospects for ambiguous interpretations or misunderstandings. We want a maximum degree of consensus and a minimum amount of misunderstanding.

B92: Ok, but we do have diverging interpretations, of the Venetian Commission’s recommendations for example, articles 39 and 40. I would like to ask for your own interpretations of this complex issue, as a representative of a neutral side in the referendum process. What is your view on something that the Montenegrin authorities have interpreted in one way, and the opposition in another? We are talking about the qualified majority that will secure an undisputable outcome of the referendum?

Lajčák: There is always a certain amount of risk when interpreting legal documents, but what the Venetian Commission’s report clearly states is that Montenegrin legislation that governs the process of organising a referendum is not disparate from international standards. At the same time, the Venetian Commission suggested, bearing in mind the significance of the issue at hand, the governing coalition and the opposition in Montenegro should raise these standards because, although they do not conflict with international practice, they also do not fully appreciate the importance of the concrete situation. The Commission also said, concerning Article 39, that questions at this level of importance are settled in practice with a majority that exceeds 50% of the registered electorate. This is the framework we have to work in, where the EU expects and makes every effort to facilitate a process in which the government and the opposition can reach an agreement, a compromise that would raise the current standards to a higher level.

B92: Mr. Lajčák, another important aspect of the Commission’s views and recommendations is defined in Article 64 of their report. Namely, the initial version of this document anticipated that a consensus between the government and the opposition should be a condition for the EU to validate the referendum as legitimate and regular, if I may say so. However, the Commission has mitigated their views somewhat and appealed for a compromise, only expressing an opinion that a consensus would further strengthen this political decision. Will the EU recognise the results, under the hypothetical circumstance that the Montenegrin opposition boycotts the referendum, if it comes through respecting the minimum of conditions stipulated by the Venetian Commission?

Lajčák: These are speculations that I would not like to get entangled in here. There is no answer to your question at this point. What we know is that the EU expects an agreement. What we also know is that Montenegro has defined itself as a country with a European orientation. So we expect all the political actors, whether they are in the government or the opposition, to act in accordance with this orientation, meaning that they should accept and implement European values in their behaviour and they should be open to compromise and agreement. We are going to help them in the process, but the bulk of the work is on their shoulders and the EU will accept a decision that comes at the end of this process.

B92: The Commission’s report suggests that the referendum decision, whatever it turns out to be, is implemented in line with the Montenegrin Constitution. The Constitution, in turn, stipulates that every plebiscitary decision has to be confirmed by a two-thirds majority in Montenegrin Parliament. What is your and the EU’s take on this? What are the European Union’s expectations?

Lajčák: The expectations are that the coalition and the opposition will reach an agreement over this issue, as it should over a series of other questions.

B92: The only explicit recommendation that the Venetian Commission has made was to suggest that Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia should not vote. Can you possibly clarify why the Commission made such a recommendation?

Lajčák: The EU has taken a clear enough stand regarding the majority and the voter turnout. Another issue are the voters living in Serbia. I find it hard to add anything to what the Venetian Commission has already said, because they have done enough to justify their proposal. They explained what the practice was in the region and reffered to Article 7 of the SCG Constitutional Charter, that voting and elections were organised based on the voter’s place of residence and not on citizenship, so to say.

B92: Mr. Lajčák, you served as Slovakian Ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro during a very sensitive period, the beginning of the transition process. The Montenegrin referendum has been an issue that developed throughout the period you were in office. The Montenegrin Government had been blaming Serbia and its government during that time of blocking the referendum process. What is your opinion? Do you, or the European Union for that matter, have any objections to the behaviour of Serbia?

Lajčák: I think that the EU’s attitude towards Serbia, Montenegro and the State Union is defined in EU documents and you surely can’t be expecting me to venture outside what they have stated. Serbia and Montenegro is a country that has entered the stabilisation and association process, which is the beginning of the road to EU accession. The process has its peculiarities, what we call the twin track approach. The EU wants Serbia to join the Union and attain all the necessary standards and is monitoring closely the events in SCG and to what extent the country is capable of following EU recommendations. The closest example is the EU Council of Ministers meeting had come to certain conlusions regarding the Western Balkans, the SCG State Union, co-operation with the Hague Tribunal, Montenegro, etc. So, we regularly have reports that clearly show what kind of attitude the EU has towards Serbia and the State Union at a given time.

B92: Permit me to take advantage of your experience and the fact that you are a citizen of Slovakia, a country that has parted from a common state with the Czech Republic during the transition period. Namely, what is your perception of the extent of divisions in Montenegro? Do you see a potential crisis in the context of this referendum? Could you make a political comparison with this process, which can alter the face of the Balkans yet again, and the division of the former state of Czechoslovakia.

Lajčák: First I have to say that Slovakia did not part from the Czech Republic. The two states reached a mutual agreement over the division of their former common state. Secondly, it is hard to draw parallels and I don’t want to talk about them, because some people could infer from this that my appointment to this duty was a signal that the EU was trying to use the experience of a country’s division into two states in this particular case. Nothing is true in all of this and that’s first. Another thing is that concrete historical circumstances in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia differed from what we have between Serbia and Montenegro. I think we would be straining the point if we were to look for some parallels. There is one parallel, however, that I keep referring to and this is the will to negotiate, to look for a compromise and an agreement. This is what the outside world expects, that you resolve issues with your neighbours and your relatives on your own and speak with a unanimous voice to the rest of the world, not keep dragging someone else’s sleeve and ask them to solve your problems. This is one parallel that I would like to bring into focus.

B92: Is this what you have described currently happening in Montenegro, since the authorities and the opposition are practically communicating through you with the European Union, they are not talking directly to each other? I asked you that a moment ago. Is the rift so deep that it could put into doubt the EU’s assumption that the negotiations will run smoothly?

Lajčák: The negotiations will not be a simple process, but what we have now is that both the government and the opposition have accepted EU recommendations, although they have diverging opinions about the legislation that is supposed to regulate this process in Montenegro. However, both sides are willing to participate and they were pleased to accept the EU’s mediatory role. This is a new phase, a new quality in the dialogue, which is flowing, and I hope it will continue to do so until we have an outcome in this process.

B92: Right. But I was asking this in light of the fact that the projected time for staging the referendum is April, which is not more than 40 to 45 days away, and the government and the opposition in Montenegro are still not sitting at the same table.

Lajčák: The government said they planned to hold the referendum in April, but I said we had an ongoing process with certain dynamics that will determine when the conditions have been met to organise this event. I expect that both sides will respect this and that they’ve started out with the idea not to abandon the process before it ends. The EU clearly stated they did not want one-sided measures and steps being taken. So, no one has decided that the referendum will take place in April, because it might not, depending on the process that is currently under way.

B92: In other words, the EU will not support a referendum they believe is not the result of an agreement between the authorities and the opposition in Montenegro. Is that the message you are passing on?

Lajčák: No, this is also a premature conclusion. The EU supports the fact that the process you mentioned is in the pipelines. The EU will also decide what kind of attitude to adopt in relation to the issue depending on the final outcome of the process. It is too early to say anything, since we have entered the most turbulent phase of the process.

B92: Mr. Lajčák, I came across a statement of yours claiming that you like to be where something interesting is going on. Now you are in Montenegro where we have a pronounced political conflict, which carries some other risks that the EU has identified. Do you have any regrets over accepting the duties of an envoy in such a difficult process?

Lajčák: I have no regrets and I believe there will be no reason to have regrets. Mine is a positive and good-willed mission, and I am confident that we are moving in the right direction, towards a solution to a problem that is traumatising the society in Montenegro. Our intentions are undoubtedly to prepare conditions for a free and fair vote that will not give precedence to any political option and doesn’t rule out any option in advance. This is something that every serious politician has to accept. This is the goal of my mission.

B92: You were the Ambassador of Slovakia during a trubulent period, as I’ve already mentioned. Right after the October 2000 changes, you came to Serbia and Montenegro to observe a process that Slovakia had managed to pull through. What is your view on the current phase of Serbia’s transition towards the EU?

Lajčák: I have to admit that during my entire mandate in Belgrade I had this déjŕ vu feeling, of something that I’ve already experienced. I saw your country entering a process that we had already endured in Slovakia. The complexity of the problems that lay ahead of Serbia was much more serious, of course, hence the ways to deal with all those problems were more complicated as well. We did not have to face the problems you had during the 1990s’, such as armed conflicts, we did not have a problem like Kosovo, the Hague Tribunal and so on. That is why it was more simple and easier for us in a way, to successfully emerge out of the whole thing. The basics are the same, however, and it was interesting to see how your country was entering the process and dealing with the problems that it posed.

B92: What was the biggest problem in the Slovakian transition? Which problem, or set of problems, required most time to deal with?

Lajčák: We had to face a number of problems, of course. First we had perturbations in the political scene, because after a democratic order was established, political parties positioned themselves in relation to their sentiments toward a common state with the Czechs versus an independent Slovakian state. When this issue was resovled, we practically lost four years in the integration process, because the Slovakian Government was told by the EU that they did not satisfy the political criteria for getting a green light for EU integration. So, the neighbouring countries had begun negotiations over NATO and EU membership. We lost four years on the whole, two of which were the intensive phase of the integration process. These are two features that distinguish Slovakia, in that respect, from other countries in the region.

B92: Was there any fear or xenophobia among some political communities in Slovakia, regarding foreigners and the prospect of getting closer to the EU? Were there any extremist political movements that issued threats at one time or another?

Lajčák: There was no extremism, but some of the things you mentioned did happen. Particularly among the political elite that was unsuccessful in producing results that the political elites in neighbouring countries achieved, namely EU integration, and they tried to shift the responsibility elsewhere. So, everyone was to blame, the Hungarians, the Czechs, the Poles, the EU, NATO. No one liked us or wanted us. All this was topped by claims of a grand US-Russian plot to leave Slovakia stranded. The only thing the elite was not prepared to do is to take a look in the mirror and admit that it was their own fault they failed to provide their citizens with something that the governments of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary, for example, did. There had been tendencies such as these, but in a milder, I must say, Central European variant.

B92: One of the largest problems that the European Bank, the World Bank and the IMF have noticed is that corruption affairs keep jolting the Serbian society. Did this happen in Slovakia? Has Slovakia managed to curb corruption and, if it did, how? Do you have any useful advice from you own experience?

Lajčák: I think there is not one transitional country that did not have to face the viles of corruption. This problem always exists. The question is what kind of impact on society it is permitted to have, that is, how much energy the authorities are prepared to invest in curbing it. It is not only a matter of making laws, but of implementation as well. Corruption in parliament must not be permitted and every available measure has to be employed. For example, we have instituted an undercover agent who is permitted to approach a person with a bribe, who is then caught red handed and brought to justice. Procedures have to follow through, so that the public knows that the transgressor has been sent to jail over corruption charges. This is also linked to external factors, investors from abroad, who cannot operate in a risky environment with high levels of corruption. All this is connected to the process of entering European institutions and integration, because you have to decide whether you want to build an open society or not. Open in such a way that everything is regulated to be transparent, so that citizens may ask the administration anything and they are, in turn, obliged to respond. One of the key issues in fighting corruption is to have public pressure in this process, as well as media publishing openly and without hindrance and specific cases being followed through to a satisfactory conclusion.

B92: Are the citizens of Slovakia satisfied with the degree of civil and human rights and the institutions for the protection of these rights in their country, including the right to information that you have mentioned a moment ago?

Lajčák: It is hard to make an overall estimate. We are all accustomed to…

B92: What is the dominant public opinion about human rights in Slovakia, that’s what I was asking, because I am certain that the citizens of Serbia are not satisfied with the degree of the Serbian Government’s openness to its own citizens.

Lajčák: People get accustomed to improved standards very quickly and accept them as something normal. I have to say that the administration is under immense pressure from the public and the media, and that several political careers were terminated as a result of this pressure, because these individuals were unable to justify their actions, even when there was only suspicion of corruption without hard evidence, becsaue they had failed to provide information about the origin of the funds they used to build their houses. We have an effective law on access to public information and no institution can afford to defy it. Journalists and citizens are aware of all the kinds of information they are entitled to request and they use this right. Hence, all public institutions and the ministries are under immense pressure and public control, and this helps.

B92: How much have the standards of Slovakian citizens improved during the transition from the early 1990s to this day?

Lajčák: We do have precise economic indicators, of course, such as average salaries, and they have an upward trend. Slovakia has had the highest level of economic growth among EU countries during the past three years and the estimates for the next two years are just as good. On the other hand, the level we started from was far below the EU average, but people have accepted as entirely normal something they must have only dreamt about 7 – 8 year ago. This is a reliable indicator that things are changing for the better.

B92: One more question for you Mr Lajčák. What is your message to the citizens of Serbia, who are living hard lives in our transition and sometimes lose hope that things might become better?

Lajčák: The EU is waiting for Serbia, there is no doubt about that. Everyone in Europe looks at Serbia as a future member of the EU, that’s first. No one wants Serbia out of this circle. Another thing, most of the work has to be done here. There are no shortcuts or leniencies. There has to be a positive atmosphere in the society and we have to define priorities and act in accordance with them. If European integration is a priority, then we know why it is so, and everything has to work in favour of attaining this goal.

B92: Thank you for your time and good night.


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