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Sutorina Crisis: Bosnia losing its closest neighbour, Montenegro

By Hamdi Fırat Büyük

The border crisis between Bosnia and Montenegro is deepening. After the Montenegrin President’s refusal to send a new ambassador to Sarajevo amid Bosnia’s territorial claims over the Sutorina region, which currently falls within the borders of Montenegro, the agreement which delineated the border between Bosnia and Montenegro has still yet to be ratified by the Bosnian Parliament.

Sutorina region and the border dispute

It has taken a Bosnian-Montenegrin commission over 6 years to draft the border agreement. Nonetheless, despite of the long-term absence of any opposition to the agreement within Bosnia, when Bosnia’s presidency finally sent the bill to the parliament, Bosnian politicians, academics and intellectuals entered harsh debate over the status of the disputed Sutorina region.

The dispute comes as a group of Bosnian academics, intellectuals and NGOs published a report a few months ago which claims that a short stretch of the Montenegrin coast and its surrounding areas, called Sutorina, legally belongs to Bosnia. The group argues there is strong evidence that the territory had been a part of Bosnia until World War II and that Sutorina is now a “de jure” Bosnian territory.

Denis Becirovic, the MP who proposed a resolution on Sutorina to the Bosnian Parliament in January, said that the facts about this issue needed to be determined. “The task of the elected officials of this country is to take care of the interests of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he said.

He claimed that the Parliament will stand up for the country and its borders – albeit only in a peaceful and democratic manner, using legal instruments.

The disputed area of Sutorina and its surrounding territories includes five villages as well as the region’s namesake, the river Sutorina.

Most importantly, the disputed lands lie a few kilometres from the Montenegrin coastal town of Herceg Novi. If the territory were to be granted to Bosnia, it would give the country a second access point to the Adriatic Sea, thus supplementing the county’s 24-kilometre span of coastline seen in the area of Neum.

Good relations of Bosnia and Montenegro

Now, the dispute is discussed within a wider spectrum and it is assumed that the border dispute can easily trigger a new crisis in the Balkans, a region in which many already live under a fragile peace. Furthermore, amid the border dispute, Bosnia seems set to lose its closest neighbouring country, Montenegro, which extends its full support to Bosnia in almost all platforms, whether they be in relation to the EU, NATO, human rights violations of the Bosnian War or bilateral and multilateral relations in the region. Moreover, up until now, Montenegro was the only country in the region with which Bosnia had no problem.

Yesterday in Ankara, Montenegro’s first post-independence minister of foreign affairs Miodrag Vlahovic, who is also president of the newly established opposition party the Montenegrin Democratic Union (CDU), delivered a speech entitled “Montenegro and the Balkans” at a conference jointly organized by the Ankara-based think-tank the Centre for Eurasian Studies (AVIM) and the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Ankara. Inevitably, Vlahovic expressed his opinions on Sutorina in parallel with Montenegro’s state policies.

“Sutorina is Montenegrin and Sutorina belongs to Montenegro”, he said at the beginning of his speech. “I do not and cannot understand why Bosnia behaves like this despite having had no problem within the commission that prepared the agreement which delineated the border between Bosnia and Montenegro”, he continued.

According to Vlahovic, Bosnia issued no written or spoken reservations on the border between Montenegro and Bosnia during the 6 years commission process. Considering this, he claims that the failure of the Bosnian Parliament to ratify the agreement based on claims to Sutorina is unexplainable and unacceptable.

“Montenegro always supported Bosnia and Bosnia is a friend of Montenegro. I have personally visited Potocari Cemetary, Srebrenica on Nov 12, 2004, before travelling to Sarajevo for an official visit. I did not feel the need to wait for an organized commemoration ceremony to be held there and I am very proud I went in this way. Bosnia should ratify the agreement and abandon its claims on Sutorina”, he said, concluding his remarks on the issue.

Importance of Montenegrin support to Bosnia

Aside from Montenegro’s reaction to the Sutorina dispute, academics and researchers seem to have reached a consensus that the current crisis only works to worsen Bosnian-Montenegrin relations and will not work to the favour of Bosnia.

Florian Bieber, a prominent scholar on the Balkans and director of the Centre for South East European Studies at the University of Graz, said that it does not make any sense why Bosnia is purposefully working to worsen its relations with Montenegro, the only neighbour with which it shares good relations. He further states that Bosnia’s claims to Sutorina are illusionary.

Additionally, if Bosnia stands by its claims to Sutorina, the country may come to face new border disputes, not only with Montenegro, but also with other neighbouring countries. It could be predicted that Bosnia’s policy on the issue will actually backfire as the Sutorina dispute could ignite a fire that thaws the many frozen border disputes and overlapping territorial claims that already exist between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

Bosnia, which is a country that has experienced the worst types of crises and conflicts throughout the period of unrest and war in the Balkans, should avoid inciting a new crisis in the region, especially with its closest neighbour Montenegro. Beyond this, the country has been struggling with many internal problems since gaining independence. In this way, considering that the country is already having enough difficulties in simply holding itself together, there is no doubt that Bosnia has neither the energy nor the capacity to face the regional backlash that may arise as a consequence of its imprudent dealings with Montenegro.

The Bosnian Parliament should immediately ratify the border delineation agreement, turn its attention to its own domestic issues and work to heal its damaged relations with Montenegro, which is a country that is simultaneously on good track with the EU and expectant to become a NATO member at the next NATO Summit in Poland. Bosnia should not and cannot put its good relations with Montenegro on the line, as doing so could also entail the loss of a vital partner that supports Bosnia’s future in the EU and NATO.

JTW

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The Journal of Turkish Weekly

JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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