Encouraged by the defeat of Serbian forces in Kosovo, leaders of neighboring Montenegro are stepping up their defiance of the Serb-led government in Belgrade and are talking increasingly about the possibility of full independence for their republic.
A mountainous land of 600,000 people perched above the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro has traditionally had close political and ethnic ties with the much larger republic of Serbia. When the old six-republic Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, Serbia and Montenegro opted to remain in a diminished federation. Now, even the two-republic Yugoslavia seems in danger of breaking up, particularly if Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.
"We must get rid of his embrace as quickly as possible," said Miodrag Vukovic, president of Montenegro's ruling Democratic Socialist Party and a close adviser to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. "There will be no long-term investment in Yugoslavia and, therefore, no future for Montenegro or Yugoslavia as long as Milosevic is around."
Montenegrin officials say they are drawing up proposals to replace the federal arrangement with a much looser confederation, similar to the European Union, in which Montenegro would be the political equal of Serbia and would have full jurisdiction over its territory. If, as expected, Milosevic rejects this proposal, they will proceed to a referendum on independence, probably this fall.
Such moves toward full independence could provoke a new political crisis in Yugoslavia, as well as serious strains within Montenegro itself. Even though Milosevic has been severely weakened by his defeat in Kosovo, he retains the backing of 20 to 30 percent of the Montenegrin electorate, according to public opinion polls. His support is particularly strong among poor, uneducated people and in northern regions near the Serbian border.
The war in Kosovo triggered a new round of political infighting in Montenegro and a standoff between army units loyal to Belgrade and a hastily mobilized 15,000-man police force controlled by Djukanovic, 37, a former Milosevic protege who turned against his mentor in 1997 and now advocates close cooperation with the West.
Djukanovic's allies say the mobilization of a well-armed police force blocked pro-Milosevic forces from staging a coup in Montenegro during the 11-week NATO air bombardment of Yugoslavia.
Djukanovic never recognized the "state of war" declared by the Yugoslav government on March 24 when NATO airstrikes began -- a restrictive measure that was lifted by the federal parliament today. His decision to keep Montenegro out of the war while Serbs and even many Montenegrins were rallying around Milosevic was a risky gamble, but it appears to have paid off. It has placed Montenegro in line for Western financial assistance and has enabled Djukanovic to argue that he protected Montenegrins from the ruinous effects of Milosevic's nationalist policies.
"This is the first time this century that we have managed to avoid being dragged into other people's wars," said Drasko Djuranovic, editor of the independent Montenegrin news-weekly Monitor. "We finally showed that we are capable of thinking reasonably and rationally."
Montenegro's mountain fortresses and warrior-like traditions made it the only Balkan state to preserve its independence during five centuries of Turkish Ottoman rule in the rest of the region. Montenegro was an independent state, recognized by the United States and the principal West European powers, up until World War I, when it allied itself with Serbia. Ethnically, Montenegrins are practically indistinguishable from Serbs.
While there has long been a pro-independence strand in Montenegrin politics, it was never particularly influential. It is only recently, with the increasing international isolation of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, that Montenegrins have begun seriously thinking about independence. In the words of Danilo Burzan, chief editor of the news agency Montena-Fax, "nobody has helped Montenegrins become so aware of the need for independence as Milosevic."
By asserting their independence from Belgrade, Montenegrin leaders are hoping to get around a financial embargo imposed on Serbia since the fighting in Kosovo. President Clinton and other Western leaders insist that Yugoslavia will not be eligible for reconstruction assistance earmarked for other Balkan countries as long as Milosevic remains in power. While U.S. officials recognize that Montenegro is a special case, they are reluctant to provide any aid that will end up in Milosevic's hands, even indirectly.
Djukanovic's decision to defy Belgrade has greatly increased his standing in Western capitals, leading to a meeting with Clinton Monday in the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. According to Montenegrin officials, the State Department later promised to give Montenegro a $10 million credit, much of which is likely to be spent on the hugely expensive police force.
In Belgrade, officials loyal to Milosevic are now depicting Djukanovic as public enemy number one and talk about him as a "traitor." They mock Djukanovic's newly acquired reputation as an economic reformer and point out that he began his career in the Communist youth movement.
"In Montenegro, they talk about democracy and markets, but everything is based on smuggling," said Goran Matic, a government minister close to Milosevic.
Here in Montenegro, even intellectuals sympathetic to Djukanovic concede that the baby-faced president has a flawed, even unsavory past. Djukanovic was in the Montenegrin leadership when Montenegrin reservists marched into neighboring Bosnia and took part in the Yugoslav military's siege of the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik in 1991.
Appointed prime minister at the age of 29, Djukanovic controlled a vast smuggling operation that undermined United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. He became president in 1998.
At the same time, however, Djukanovic is seen by reform-minded Montenegrins as a pragmatic politician and their best hope for escaping the dead end into which Milosevic has led them.
"If the Milosevic policy continued in Montenegro, I don't see the slightest light at the end of the tunnel," said Milan Popovic, a political scientist at Podgorica University. "With Djukanovic, there is at least a 10 percent chance that we will get out of this dreadful situation."
CAPTION: The decision by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to defy Belgrade has increased his standing with President Clinton, whom he met in Slovenia earlier this week.