Montenegro, the sole partner of Serbia in the Yugoslav federation, has proposed a series of radical changes that would turn Yugoslavia into a loose association of the two republics and open the way for Montenegrin independence.
Montenegro's pro-Western government sent the sweeping 15-page proposal today to Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia, for consideration by President Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav government. It warned that unless Milosevic responds positively and quickly -- within six weeks, Montenegrin officials suggested -- the republic of 630,000 people will conduct a referendum on full independence.
"We are looking to protect ourselves from the military of the Belgrade regime," said Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Durzan in a telephone interview from Podgorica, Montenegro's capital. "We are trying to protect Montenegro from Serbia."
Officials of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav government reacted angrily and accused the United States of promoting a split. But in their initial comments, they indicated they had no intention of mounting a military operation to preserve the union like that launched to preserve Serbian control over Kosovo.
"This is not Montenegro's proposal," declared Goran Matic, a minister without portfolio who often speaks for Milosevic. "This is Gelbard's proposal," he said, referring to Robert S. Gelbard, the U.S. special envoy for the Balkans, who has been the Clinton administration's point man for contacts with Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and his government.
During the 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, military targets in Montenegro were hit repeatedly, including Yugoslav army formations based there, but Gelbard simultaneously helped arrange financial aid for the republic and encouraged Djukanovic's efforts to foster close relations with Western Europe and the United States.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said today that the United States supports Djukanovic's government and its "measured and rational approach to political and economic reform." But he added that the administration believes Montenegro should remain within Yugoslavia.
The cautious U.S. reaction reflected fears of more Balkan violence should the Yugoslav military be ordered to prevent Montenegro from going its own way. As president of Serbia eight years ago, Milosevic reacted violently to proposals by Slovenia and Croatia to leave the old six-republic Yugoslav federation, which led to wars in those two republics and later in Bosnia.
The Montenegrin initiative, if pursued as outlined, would strip Serbia of the only partner it retained from the old federation, which broke apart into five separate states, including the Serbia-Montenegro union. It would leave Milosevic ruling only Serbia and its 10 million people -- perhaps even minus Kosovo province -- and represent the final blow to his ambition of creating a "Greater Serbia," a goal he pursued over the last decade with disastrous results. It would also leave Serbia without uncontrolled access to the Adriatic Sea; all of Yugoslavia's ports are in Montenegro.
Even the name Yugoslavia should be retired to the history books, the Montenegrin government said, to be replaced by the "Association of the States of Montenegro and Serbia." Durzan said the new entity would not be a federation or a confederation, but merely two states with limited ties.
Vojislav Seselj, a hard-line Serbian nationalist politician, said in Belgrade that the Yugoslav army will intervene in Montenegro if it tries to secede, "like the American [Army] would if California tries to go away." But Matic, in a telephone interview from Belgrade, discounted that possibility.
"Why? Against whom?" Matic asked. "Montenegro is in Yugoslavia in accordance with the will of the people living in Montenegro."
The Yugoslav army has 20,000 troops on Montenegrin soil, according to government officials, but Montenegro's armed police units are loyal to Djukanovic. The two forces have had especially tense relations since the launching of the NATO bombing campaign.
Durzan said he expects little reaction from the Yugoslav army, but a Western diplomat said the Montenegrin officials may be over-optimistic if they think the military will stand aside. A sizable minority of Montenegro's population is pro-Milosevic, adding to the potential for instability.
Kosovo borders Montenegro, a land of rugged mountains that open onto the Adriatic, and tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians fled to safety there during the recent war. Further warfare in the region could cause a severe strain on NATO resources, should it become involved. The U.S.-led alliance already has deployed tens of thousands of troops to establish what amounts to international protectorates in two parts of the old Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Kosovo.
Djukanovic was elected in 1997 on a platform of improving the Montenegrin economy by turning to the West for investment and by loosening ties with Serbia within Yugoslavia, which has been under international sanctions since the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
His proposal would create separate army commands for Serbia and Montenegro and would forbid either military force from entering the other's territory, according to Durzan. Also, the two-chamber Yugoslav parliament would be replaced by a single house, giving Montenegro the same number of seats as Serbia. Montenegro would have its own Foreign Ministry, treasury and currency, to be called the perper, which would replace the Yugoslav dinar, Durzan said.
Asked if the proposal were not an actual declaration of independence, Durzan said, "It sounds like that to me."
A member of Montenegro's ruling coalition, Zarko Vukcevic, told reporters that the proposal "represents a major step toward a sovereign Montenegro . . . because we are moving from the dead end called Yugoslavia."
Finn reported from Pristina, Branigin from Leskovac, Yugoslavia. Staff writer Steven Mufson in Washington contributed to this report.
Area: 5,525 square miles, about half the size of Maryland. Montenegro provides Yugoslavia with its only access to the sea.
Major ethnic groups: Montenegrins 69%, Muslims 13%, Albanians 7%, Serbs 3%.