Scottish Labour’s Iain Gray, has sparked an international row after accusing the peaceful European nation of Montenegro of being involved in “war crimes and ethnic cleansing” on its road to independence.
According to the Scottish Daily Express, the London based Embassy of Montenegro has now written to the East Lothian MSP accusing him of making “incorrect” claims and demanding an explanation.
Mr Gray made the comments during the last First Ministers Questions as he sought to equate the desire for Scottish independence with failure, violence and intolerance. The Scottish Labour leader had already insulted Iceland, Ireland and Norway before turning his attention to Montenegro.
To raucous laughter from the Labour benches Mr Gray claimed that Montenegro had needed “two world wars, the Balkan conflict, ethnic cleansing, a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission” in order to achieve independence.
However Montenegrins have reacted with fury at the slurs and diplomats have written an angry letter to the Labour leader in Scotland pointing out that their nation was the only former Yugoslav republic to stay out of the Balkan conflict and actually provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the bloodshed.
In a move likely to pile further pressure on Iain Gray it has emerged that UK Labour leader Ed Miliband has also been contacted by the Montenegrins.
Marijana Zivkovic, Charge d’Affaires at Montenegro’s British embassy, wrote to Mr Gray expressing her “deep regret” at the Labour leader’s comments.
She said: “Your statement that Montenegro was involved in ‘ethnic cleansing’, including references to ‘a war crimes tribunal and a UN peacekeeping mission’, is simply incorrect.
“The history of Montenegro is well known to those who take interest in the country, and the people of Montenegro are very proud of it. It was the only former Yugoslav republic where neither war nor devastations took place in the last decade of the 20th century.
“Apart from the fact that there was no ethnic cleansing in the country, Montenegro also opened its doors to the refugees of all nations. At one point in 1999, refugees made up one quarter of the population of Montenegro, when – in just two days – we took in more than 100,000 Albanians from Kosovo.”
Ms Zivkovic also pointed out that the previous UK Labour government had supported Montenegro’s candidacy for membership of both the EU and NATO.
Montenegro’s independence referendum in 2006 was so peaceful that the Montenegrins were congratulated by the US State Department and the NATO Secretary General.
Responding to the diplomatic row SNP President and MEP Ian Hudghton said: “Iain Gray regularly gets his facts wrong about Scotland at First Minister’s Questions, but now he has blundered on a wider stage and caused embarrassment to his own leader in London. Mr Gray should withdraw his ill-informed remarks.”
A Labour spokesman denied that Iain Gray’s comments had been a criticism of Montenegro and explained that the Holyrood group leader would write back to the embassy with an explanation.
The spokesman insisted that Montenegro’s road to independence had indeed included “two world wars” and that regaining independence was “a remarkable achievement” saying:
“The SNP website’s assertion that Montenegro’s path to independence took 40 days and ‘showed how easy it can be to become an independent country’ was facile and ignored the history of the wider region through two world wars and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. To re-establish statehood as a modern democracy was a remarkable achievement and should not be referred to glibly as ‘easy’.”
The row is sure to have damaged Iain Gray’s already poor public profile as he seeks to become First Minister of Scotland, it will also call into question the continued tactic employed by senior Scottish Labour figures of attacking the economies and reputations of Scotland’s near neighbours.
The latest comments by Iain Gray echo similar remarks made by ex Secretary of State Jim Murphy who, in November 2008, included oil rich Norway in his ‘arc of insolvency’ slur. Then the Labour MP’s comments provoked an angry response from Bjarne Lindstrøm the Norwegian Ambassador who sent a letter rebuking Mr Murphy.