Setback for Milosevic Montenegro votes: Reformer's victory undermines Serbian strongman's power.

October 25, 1997

IT WAS ONLY a small election in a less-than-sovereign small republic. But the victory of the reformer, Milo Djukanovic, for president of Montenegro, sent shock waves through the former Yugoslavia. He narrowly beat the incumbent protege of Serbia's strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, who more than any other person is responsible for the tragedies and atrocities of this decade in his part of the world.

Mr. Milosevic, the old Communist pretending to be a new nationalist, had to give up the presidency of Serbia on which his power was based after the constitutionally allotted two terms. He hand-picked a successor, and decided that Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining components of federal Yugoslavia, would name him federal president. They did. His next move: transform that role from figurehead to power figure.

Two things got in the way. His candidate for president of Serbia lost to a more rabid nationalist, but the total vote failed to reach 50 percent of those eligible, disallowing the result. A revote is scheduled for Dec. 7.

Then the youthful Mr. Djukanovic barely won on a pro-peace, pro-Western, anti-isolation, anti-Communist, pro-free-market crusade that was basically a cry of independence from Mr. Milosevic's Serbia, though the dominant ethnicity in Montenegro is Serb. Although Serbia is a dozen times larger and stronger than Montenegro, the two are legally equal as constituent republics of federal Yugoslavia.

The refusal of the losing candidate to recognize Mr. Djukanovic's victory is ominous. Demonstrations by his supporters fanned fears of a coup. Mr. Milosevic has overthrown governments, in his own interest, before.

It's too early to say that Montenegro may opt for independence on the questionable models of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and tragic Bosnia. But its people have clearly opted for greater distance from Serbia -- and especially from Mr. Milosevic's hijacking of Serbian nationalism.

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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