Montenegrin opposition resists Serbian dominance

June 13, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia -- At night along the Street of Freedom, young Montenegrins promenade, chat, flirt, smoke endless numbers of cigarettes and talk about Serbia.

"There is so much Serbian influence here, I don't know how to oppose it," said Vladan Simonovic, 29, an economist. "The first thing I want is Milosevic to drop dead."

The reference was to Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, the man whose policy of a "Greater Serbia" has led to bloody wars in three other former Yugoslav republics and harsh United Nations sanctions against the remaining republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

In Montenegro, the opposition blames Mr. Milosevic for carrying out "a bloodless coup" in 1989 in which the republic's nationalistic Communist leadership was replaced with a new band of Communists loyal to Serbia and led by Momir Bulatovic, now Montenegro's president under a Social Democratic label. Mr. Bulatovic, 35, had been a university teaching assistant.

"Bulatovic and his people came to power as Milosevic's stooges," said Slavko Perovic, leader of the Liberal Party and the government's most prominent opponent. "They don't care anything about Montenegro."

Montenegrins, reputed to be among the tallest people in Europe, are known as fierce fighters, so fierce that Montenegro was able to retain its independence when other parts of the Balkans were carved up by the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires for centuries.

Montenegro is a mountainous land, the smallest of the former Yugoslav republics. Its population is only 620,000, compared with 9.8 million in Serbia, so it is easy to see why many Montenegrins are worried about being swallowed up in the new two-state federation.

Montenegro has twice been part of Serbia, once from the 12th century until the 14th century, and again from 1918, when the Serbs deposed King Nicholas, until 1945, when Josip Broz Tito rewarded the Montenegrins with their own republic for having contributed so many tough fighters to the World War II partisan movement.

The opposition has assured Mr. Bulatovic it would help him save his political career -- he has little else, since he was an indifferent scholar -- if he will break with Mr. Milosevic.

The opposition is willing to continue economic and cultural ties with Serbia but demands political independence, an end to the war in Bosnia, the return of all Montenegrin reserve soldiers and a freeze on the formation of the new federation.

"This might sound nationalistic, but it is not. It is just a way to protect Montenegro from the disaster in Yugoslavia," said Srdjan Darmanovic, vice president of the opposition Socialist Party.

In an interview Monday, the president said that such talk might be premature. If the people in Montenegro really want a coalition government, he said, they can vote for it in parliamentary elections, which he said would take place in four months.

He also conceded that change was possible in Montenegro's relationship with Serbia and that the people might have a chance to vote in another referendum on the association. The merger into the new Yugoslavia was approved in a referendum in February.

He estimated that no more than 30 percent of Montenegrin voters want to separate from Serbia, but opposition leaders say that they have the support of a slight majority of the population, including Slavic Muslims and Albanians, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

Mr. Bulatovic declined to break with Mr. Milosevic or to step down.

"This is a problem of internal peace and security," he said, indicating that he expected a civil war within Montenegro and Serbia if there were a sudden change in government.

But he conceded that change in the government is likely if the international economic sanctions last. Montenegro is dependent on foreign trade for 60 percent of its revenue.

Most of the opposition is banking on this happening, and that with the help of the sanctions, Montenegro will again be independent.

"We are a small nation, but we have a great history," said Miodrag Perovic. "We deserve more than we have now."

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