Focus in the Balkans turns to Montenegro

Nationalism: U.S. policy-makers walk a fine line as the Yugoslav republic takes persistent steps toward independence.

November 21, 1999|By Robert O'Neill

WASHINGTON -- Montenegro has been an oasis of relative calm in the smoldering Balkan states, shielded in some small measure from the brutal, fratricidal conflicts that have ripped through the region for the better part of a decade.

But in recent weeks, Montenegro's persistent steps toward independence have focused attention on this small Yugoslav republic, and worried U.S. foreign policy-makers are hoping this will not be the next Balkan hot spot.

The integrity of Yugoslavia is a policy still unambiguously espoused by such NATO allies as Italy and Greece. For its part, the U.S. State Department officially holds to its line on the "territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia -- that the old federation should continue to include Montenegro and Kosovo -- even though privately, U.S. officials have been signaling a greater willingness to see an independent Kosovo.

With de facto independence a growing reality, however, the Clinton administration's notable silence concerning Montenegro's assertive moves is becoming tantamount to consent.

In August, Montenegro presented Belgrade, the federal capital, with a blueprint for loosening its ties with the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation and taking responsibility for its economic, defense and foreign policies. If negotiations fail, Montenegro will move to hold a referendum on independence as early as next spring.

Belgrade's replies have ranged from stony silence to virulent nationalist tirades, despite the absence of deep ethnic divisions that marked Yugoslavia's other secessionist conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. Recent high-level talks on Montenegrin autonomy proved fruitless.

Nonetheless, Montenegro is pressing forward with a careful policy of incipient independence. It claims to have more than 10,000 men under arms, and recently adopted new citizenship laws separate from Yugoslavia's. More important, however, has been its recent move toward an economic decoupling from Belgrade. The republic set up customs posts with Serbia, and is no longer sending money to or receiving money from the federal treasury.

This month, the government adopted the German deutsche mark as a parallel currency with the inflated and ill-fated Yugoslav dinar -- a likely prelude to creation of a separate Montenegrin currency.

But Montenegro's policy may not be careful enough for U.S. policy-makers, who with 7,000 troops stationed permanently in neighboring Kosovo (and 6,500 in Bosnia) are more eager than ever to avoid more fighting in the region.

Policy experts in Washington are concerned that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will use the fissure to create another armed conflict. And, while Montenegro and Serbia share the same language and religion and look back on a similar history, there is concern that pro-Serbian segments of the Montenegrin population, with backing from Belgrade, may themselves try to break away from the breakaway republic.

The Clinton administration officially encourages the Montenegrin government to be patient, and act as an agent of democratic change in Serbia -- a role that Montenegro has given up playing. "I respect the interests of the international community," President Milo Djukanovic told a Yugoslav radio station on Nov. 12, "but I have to watch the interests of Montenegro."

"It's like saying the foot should change the body," said Janusz Bugajski, director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. "The size of Montenegro is such that it doesn't have much influence."

So the tiny republic -- it is slightly smaller than Connecticut -- of only 650,000 people is doing its best to influence capitals other than Belgrade, seeking Western support for its initiatives, Steve H. Hanke, a professor of applied economics at the Johns Hopkins University, said in a recent interview.

Hanke is a currency guru who predicted the collapse of the Mexican peso in 1995, the Asian currencies in 1997, the Russian ruble in 1998 and the Brazilian real this year. He also played a role in a string of successful currency reforms in the 1990s in Argentina, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Kosovo.

In Eastern Europe, he has gone from the Baltic to the Balkans, urging governments such as Bulgaria and Estonia to link their currencies under the deutsche mark. An economic adviser to President Djukanovic, Hanke has designed Montenegro's plan to float the new deutsche-mark-linked currency.

In Washington, Montenegrins have established a trade mission and hired influential law firms and lobbying shops to plead their case for assistance. From Nov. 4 through Nov. 8, Djukanovic conducted a whirlwind visit to the United States, where support for the republic has grown since Montenegro decided to stay neutral during NATO's air war against Serbian aggression in Kosovo earlier this year.

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