A new hero emerges in Balkans Montenegro: In defiance of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, pro-Western President Milo Djukanovic has come to represent change in a land steeped in history and tradition.

Sun Journal

March 16, 1998|By Justin Brown | Justin Brown,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CETINJE, Montenegro -- In the arid mountains of this tiny Yugoslav republic, where myths seem to spring to life in the smoky cafes, men and women still believe in heroes.

They believe in Njegos, the great 18th-century poet and king, who drove many of his people to their deaths fighting the Turks. They believe in King Nicholas; in the early 1900s, surrounded by the Hapsburg empire on three borders, he refused to be dominated by a foreign power.

And now, it seems, they have found a new hero in their new pro-Western president, Milo Djukanovic -- a former Communist insider dubbed "The Penknife" for his sharp criticism of opponents.

"Milo is the only man who can save Montenegro from Serbia," says Savo Spadijer, a Cetinje cafe owner. "He's the only one who can make our lives better."

Djukanovic, 35, presides over a republic of 650,000 people -- a constituent, along with Serbia, of the rump Yugoslav federation. As bits of Yugoslavia -- Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia -- broke away and the Serbian province of Kosovo erupted in bloodshed, Montenegro has been a rare oasis of calm. But that may be changing.

Djukanovic took office in January, promising democracy, autonomy and economic reform for Montenegro -- and flashing signs of defiance to the most powerful man in the Balkans, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Montenegro will fight against the policy of Milosevic in order to avoid the destiny of becoming dependent on Serbia," the new president said.

But if some Montenegrins seek independence, others do not. More than 10,000 supporters of the former Montenegrin president, Milosevic ally Momir Bulatovic, protested in the streets of the capital, Podgorica, for three days leading to the inauguration. Demonstrators threw rocks at government buildings and detonated homemade bombs, injuring nearly 50 police officers.

The rally had the tacit approval of Milosevic. Police loyal to Djukanovic quelled the demonstration with tear gas, batons and water cannons.

Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, says the situation in Montenegro is similar to that of Croatia before its break from Yugoslavia in 1991. "The propaganda from Belgrade is humiliating the people of Montenegro," she says. "There certainly is a desire for emancipation in Montenegro."

None of Montenegro's borders is considered stable. To the east, Serbia's southern province of Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian majority is calling for independence from Belgrade. To the north, the Serb-held part of Bosnia, pro-Western leaders are struggling against forces loyal to the indicted war-crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. And in the south, Albania is still simmering from last year's uprising in which police stations were looted, flooding the streets with thousands of weapons.

As Rebecca West wrote in her Balkan epic, "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon," Montenegrins have a long history of fighting for independence: "They have sacrificed almost everything except their heroism. They are nothing but heroes. If they marry, it is so that they should beget little heroes, who would not trouble to come out of their mothers' wombs were they not certain that they would grow up in heroism. They are as like the people of Homer as any race now living: They are brave and beautiful, and vainglorious."

Many of them are also privately armed.

Montenegrins complain that the Belgrade regime is destroying their economy. They blame Serbia for huge import taxes and economic isolation. Their once-booming tourist industry has been severely hampered by the federal government's strict visa requirements for foreign visitors. Westerners rarely come here any more.

Only in the past year has Djukanovic broken ranks with Milosevic and Bulatovic and come to represent change in a land steeped in history and tradition.

Although the Serbian and Montenegrin languages, lifestyles and histories are closely linked, people here have recently begun to find differences. With family roots in the same part of Montenegro where Njegos and King Nicholas were born, Djukanovic has drawn heavily on history and tradition in molding his public image. During the years of the Yugoslav wars, he is said to have helped sustain the Montenegrin economy by smuggling products such as cigarettes into the country. Some people consider him a modern-day Robin Hood.

Yet in his power struggle with Milosevic, Djukanovic represents modernism against the ways and traditions of the countryside.

Most Djukanovic supporters live in cities and welcome the benefits of international commerce. They think a rejuvenated tourism industry could support much of their population. "We don't just want to trade with the world, we want to connect to the world," says Rajko Petricevic, a businessman in the import-export industry. He drives a Mercedes and carries a mobile phone, having flourished under the chaotic environment created by economic sanctions from the West.

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