Yet another war in Yugoslavia?

June 20, 2000|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- The Balkans have been off the front pages for most of the past year since the NATO alliance waged its 78-day campaign against the Serb forces of President Slobodan Milosevic. But is a new and nasty war, again pushed by Mr. Milosevic, in the offing?

Strains of danger and catastrophe are emanating from the tiny republic of Montenegro, which, together with Serbia, makes up Yugoslavia.

In the years since Mr. Milosevic embarked on a ruinous path of terror and war, the Montenegrins have cautiously sought to escape the tyrant's grip. It has not been easy. With just 650,000 people, it is very much under the thumb of the far larger Serbia.

The Montenegrins are ethnic Serbs, which has divided them on the issue of independence. Not to speak of their ambivalence about Mr. Milosevic, who, as a Montenegrin by birth, is their most infamous son -- the first sitting head of state accused of war crimes.

Still, the drive for independence has picked up steam since 1997, when Montenegrins elected Milo Djukanovic, a bitter foe of Mr. Milosevic, as their president.

Mr. Djukanovic initially advanced demands for constitutional changes in the dysfunctional Yugoslav federation to give his mountainous republic equality with Serbia. When these demands were ignored, he openly sided with Serbian opposition politicians backing a plan for a transition to a post-Milosevic government. He also opened Montenegro's borders, courted Western investors and announced intentions of holding a referendum on Montenegro's independence.

This was a red rag to a bull. The two men have since been on a direct collision course.

Mr. Milosevic responded by beefing up regular army troops based in Montenegro, now 20,000, and removing local commanders suspected of disloyalty.

Mr. Djukanovic, in turn, strengthened the Montenegrin police force, now 15,000. When on the eve of the Kosovo war Mr. Milosevic proclaimed a state of emergency, the Montenegrin parliament promptly voted that the proclamation was not valid in their republic.

Since the end of the Kosovo war, Mr. Milosevic has launched a public relations blitz against Mr. Djukanovic by setting up three television transmitters on army territory in Montenegro to broadcast Belgrade TV, the dictator's main propaganda tool. He also imposed an economic blockade on Montenegro after the republic adopted the German mark as its currency.

The assassination in Montenegro of Mr. Djukanovic's top aide suggested that Mr. Milosevic was trying to destabilize the republic just a week before local elections, which were held June 11.

The killing had all the hallmarks of assassinations in Belgrade of prominent officials --including a prominent warlord, a defense minister, an editor and senior police officers. One common thread to the Belgrade killings was that the victims could have provided damaging evidence against Mr. Milosevic before the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

Mr. Djukanovic's government is surviving the assault with financial help from the West, including $55 million this year from the United States. But the Western allies are unwilling to commit themselves to the use of military force to protect Montenegro. In the current impasse, Mr. Djukanovic faces growing pressures to hold an independence referendum, even though this may provide Mr. Milosevic with a pretext to take over Montenegro by force.

This has prompted former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, who is president of the International Crisis Group, to warn in Washington that "the fifth war of the breakup of Yugoslavia may not be far away."

Mr. Evans told a U.S. Institute of Peace conference that the Western allies "look as though we learned absolutely nothing" from Mr. Milosevic's past aggressions. He urged the allies to threaten the use of force against Mr. Milosevic and recommended a sharply increased international presence in Montenegro to raise the stakes for any potential subversive moves.

If there is a republic of the former Yugoslavia that has a genuine claim on political independence, it is Montenegro. While all other Balkan peoples lived for centuries under foreign tutelage, the principality of Montenegro maintained a precarious political identity.

Until the first decades of the 19th century, it was the only land of free Slavs outside Russia. The Serbian mythology was stronger in Montenegro than anywhere else; indeed, its mission was to preserve the Serb idea through centuries when Serbia proper was occupied by the Turks.

Politically, Montenegro had a culture that was distinct and unique. With the emergence of Serbia in the 19th century, Montenegro lost its mission as the sole guardian of Serb identity. When the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) gave the two states a common border, the drive for union could not be stopped. Even then, and especially when Yugoslavia was created in 1918, a good section of the Montenegrin population, known as the "greens," opposed outright annexation advocated by the pro-Serbian "whites."

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