New peace bid needed to avert war in Balkans

May 04, 2001|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- It may seem on the surface that all is well in the Balkans, but tensions are rising again and may well end in the disappearance of Yugoslavia from the map of Europe.

The place to watch is tiny Montenegro, a mountainous, inhospitable spot with just 600,000 people. It is one of only two republics left in Yugoslavia -- little sister to the dominant Serbia.

The old Yugoslavia was a medium-sized country founded in 1918. Its breakup a decade ago shrank the remainder by two-thirds, leaving just 10 million people. Besides Serbia and Montenegro, it includes Kosovo -- formally an "autonomous region" within Serbia, but in reality an international protectorate following the 1999 Kosovo war.

Ten years ago, any notion that Montenegro would secede would have been considered absurd. Two local sayings express why. One is that the Montenegrins, who are also ethnic Serbs, are "more Serb than the Serbs." The other, often quoted by former Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who is a native of Montenegro and is languishing in a Belgrade jail awaiting trial in Serbia, is that "Serbs and Montenegrins are like two eyes in one head."

One eye, though, may be going blind to the charms of the other. Pro-independence parties led by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic have just won a narrow victory and have promised a referendum soon on independence.

Serious thoughts of independence started during Mr. Milosevic's four wars, when the United States and the Europeans encouraged Montenegro not to join in. As a reward, foreign investment and aid flooded in.

The United States and the Europeans are now loudly pressing for a continued union between Montenegro and Serbia. But the genie may already be out of the bottle. The danger is that fighting could erupt -- either civil war in Montenegro or clashes with Serbia -- in the case of a vote for independence.

It would be painful for Serbia to let Montenegro go without a fight since it provides Serbia's access to the sea, not to mention beach playgrounds for the Serb elite.

The situation is made more complex by Serbia's own political uncertainties.

Analysts had long believed that once Mr. Milosevic was gone, the whole region would recover. But no single strong leader has emerged to take Mr. Milosevic's place. Serb politics is fast becoming a power struggle between two men and their different directions: nationalist Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and pro-European Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.

Mr. Djindjic may be one of the few people to welcome Montenegro's independence, if only secretly. With Montenegro gone, Yugoslavia would no longer exist. His rival Mr. Kostunica would be out of a job.

The problems don't end there.

In Kosovo, an overwhelming majority of its 2 million ethnic Albanians favor secession. An all-out war, already a possibility, would be a near certainty if Montenegro broke away. This, in turn, would re-ignite Macedonia's ethnic Albanians to fight to join their brethren. A variety of cataclysmic scenarios can be developed in the case of Macedonia's collapse.

The ultimate nightmare scenario even has Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, joining in on opposite sides. That is considered by many experts to be impossible -- but so, too, was the prospect of civil war in Yugoslavia merely 10 years ago.

Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the Balkans in April. The purpose -- besides getting him acquainted with the region -- was to deliver the message that America was not going to abandon the Balkans.

But that is unlikely to be enough. American and international cease-fires and settlements have been breaking down, not just in Kosovo and Macedonia, but in Bosnia, too, where the Dayton arrangement has long been an unworkable farce.

As the Balkan powder keg once again threatens to live up to its name, the international community may be well served to remember the conference of 1878 at which the Great Powers sat down to settle the borders and disputes of the region. That settlement did not work over the long term largely because the peoples themselves were not present at the table.

An overall peace should again be attempted at a major conference, this time including the parties on the ground. The economic and military resources already committed could then be used to back up the new arrangement -- along with such incentives as integration into the European Union.

Dusko Doder is a writer and journalist with extensive experience in Russia and the Balkans.

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