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Public Trust in Focus

The independence referendum campaign highlights Montenegrins' mistrust of their media and politicians. by Nela Lazarevic 26 April 2006 PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro | The campaign leading up to Montenegro’s 21 May referendum on independence from the state union with Serbia has officially begun. It was kicked off by a debate between pro-unionist and pro-independence representatives aired on national public television on 11 April. Private and public media are now carrying campaign promotions and reportage.

At the same time, internationally funded monitoring agencies have found irregularities in the campaign and widespread distrust among Montenegrins toward the media in connection with the issue of independence.

THIRST FOR INFORMATION

So, how independent is the media coverage of the referendum campaign?

A recent opinion poll by the Montenegrin Media Institute found that 52 percent of respondents consider the domestic media corrupt, 32.5 percent think the media protect the interests of those in power, and 19.5 percent consider the media mouthpieces of economic interests.

Only 17.3 percent of respondents thought the media were serving the interest of all citizens.

Respondents reported that politicians and the media provide little information about what might happen after 21 May, making it difficult for voters to assess the implications of their vote. The MMI poll shows that Montenegrins want to know more about possible post-referendum scenarios, in particular the effects either result might have on the country’s economic prospects.

MMI also published a list of issues related to independence that voters would like to see taken up by the media. Not surprisingly for a small country dependent on a much larger neighbor for imports and tourists, Montenegrins are primarily concerned with the effects of independence on the economy and the already low living standards.

Montenegrins want to know whether Serbian tourists will still come to Montenegro’s Adriatic beaches and mountains should they vote for independence; whether import duties on Serbian food will rise, and whether this will lead to inflation; and whether the costs for medical treatment for Montenegrins in Serbian medical facilities will rise.

Almost three quarters of Montenegrins have close relatives in Serbia, which explains another important concern – whether independence would mean passports and visa requirements to enter Serbia.

Another issue concerns the over 20,000 Montenegrin students in Serbia, and whether they could lose scholarships and face much higher fees there.

Montenegrins feel their media are neglecting such matters.

ACCUSATIONS OF MANIPULATION

This is not just the media’s fault, however. The campaign rhetoric is becoming harsher as the referendum date approaches, and voters are still not sure what independence would mean in practice.

On 13 April, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who leads the pro-independence camp, presented the Serbian government with a declaration on the equal status of Serbian citizens in Montenegro after the referendum. The declaration promises that Serbian citizens living in Montenegro would enjoy all the rights of Montenegrin citizens, except the right to vote, should the country indeed become independent. It offered the same tax rates to Serbian property owners in Montenegro, equal enrolment fees to Serbian students, and the right for Serbians living in Montenegro to obtain Montenegrin (or dual) citizenship.

The only major force in Serbia to welcome the declaration was the Democratic Party (DS) of Serbian President Boris Tadic. A DS representative told the media that it was a positive sign that relations between the countries would be friendly regardless of the referendum’s outcome. But the Serbian government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was much less impressed by the declaration.

Montenegro’s pro-independence bloc believes that the reluctance of the Serbian government to have a detailed discussion about post-referendum strategies is evidence of an attempt to influence Montenegrin voters.

Serbian Economy Minister Predrag Bubalo said that the position of the Serbian government was to wait patiently until Montenegrin citizens had expressed their preferences and only then will it decide on the specifics of future cooperation. But he pointed out that it is necessary to quash the illusion that everything will be the same in the event of separation.

Djukanovic retorted that the Serbian stance was designed to deprive voters of the possibility of an informed decision at the ballot box by creating insecurity.

Djukanovic has also offered to leave politics if the pro-unionists voted for independence, saying that much of the opposition to independence was more a reaction to him personally than to the principle of independence.

DEBATING INDEPENDENCE

The first TV debate between representatives of the pro-independence and the pro-unionist blocs aired on Montenegro’s national broadcaster RTCG on 11 April.

Most observers thought the debate was won by pro-independence representatives Djukanovic and Ranko Krivokapic, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, a junior partner in the governing coalition. This assessment was confirmed by surveys: 67.5 percent of viewers thought Djukanovic and Krivokapic were better at justifying their position, while pro-unionist politicians Predrag Bulatovic and Predrag Popovic were found convincing by 17.5 percent.

Olivera Komar, program director at the U.S.-funded the Monitoring Center - CEMI, said, “The independence bloc was more focused on the concrete arguments why Montenegrin independence should be supported, whereas the pro-unionists have started a negative campaign, which in politics, especially in our region, is a lot more common, and which is used to discredit the opponent, and through him indirectly also his project.”

She said that voters were invited to cast their vote against individuals rather than principles. “It is difficult to predict which one of the two approaches will influence more the undecided voters, since both sides have their audience,” she added.

Komar thinks that core supporters on either side will not decide the outcome, but rather a small percentage of those who are undecided.

In order for independence to be recognized by the EU, 50 percent of Montenegro’s eligible voters must participate and 55 percent must vote in favor of independence.

Even though both sides claim the support of more than 60 percent of the voters, they are clearly worried about the possibility that the vote may fall in the gray area between 50 and 55 percent.

As for public opinion, a CEMI poll suggests that 45 percent think Montenegro should declare independence even if the stringent EU criteria aren’t met, while 55 percent think that, in such case, Serbia and Montenegro should work together to make the union stronger and more functional.

MISTRUST IN THE INSTITUTIONS

Numerous foreign bodies are participating in the organization and monitoring of the Montenegrin referendum in order to ensure that democratic standards are met. Concerns about possible irregularities are widespread.

A recent CEMI report highlighted voting lists as a risk factor. Both blocs have reported numerous irregularities in this area, such as the appearance of deceased people or the multiple listing of some voters in different locations.

Activists from both blocs have also reported receiving threats. In the coastal town of Kotor, for example, pro-independence activists received letters suggesting they would be prosecuted for bribery. Pro-unionists received threatening SMS messages. Quotes from the threatening letters have also appeared in the local media.

In April, CEMI published a report on the knowledge and attitudes of Montenegrins toward the EU and their own institutions.

The report shows that Montenegrins put most trust in the Serbian Orthodox Church (56.4 percent of respondents), followed by the president of the republic (53 percent), and the EU (46.4 percent). They least trust the judiciary (31 percent), the police (33 percent), and the military (37.2 percent).

Of the respondents, 63.8 percent think their knowledge on the EU is good, very good, or excellent, while 35.6 percent feel they know very little or not enough.

The same research also showed that 61.8 percent of Montenegrins have never visited an EU country. It is also interesting to note that the group that has traveled least are those under 26 years of age (wherein 36 percent have visited at least one EU country), while the group aged 41–55 have traveled the most (58 percent have visited one or more EU countries).

Asked what the main benefits of EU membership would be, 26.5 percent answered peace, 24.7 percent named the ability to travel freely, followed by economic prosperity (23.7 percent) and social protection (7.1 percent).
Nela Lazarevic is a Podgorica-based journalist.
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