Senior officials of Yugoslavia's two republics, Serbia and Montenegro, said today they are determined to find a way to accommodate calls by Montenegro for greater independence within the Yugoslav federation.
The ruling parties of both republics concluded a first round of talks exploring how to prevent the federation from breaking apart, and officials said they are seeking ways to meet Montenegro's demands for a more equal relationship with Serbia, the larger and more powerful of the two republics.
Montenegro, a mountainous land on the Adriatic coast, proposed in August a series of radical changes to the Yugoslav constitution that would lead to greater independence for its 626,000 citizens. Its president, Milo Djukanovic, has insisted on holding a referendum calling for secession unless Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic consents to a form of self-rule that includes a separate Montenegrin currency, army and foreign policy.
Serbian authorities have warned that Montenegro's demands could trigger another Balkan war in the wake of those that followed the departure of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia from the old six-republic Yugoslav federation earlier this decade. "Our basic complaint is that they are presenting their proposals as a 'take it or leave it' plan," said Tomislav Nikolic, a leader of Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party. "Not even NATO has frightened us with such threats."
Milosevic has suggested that Serbia would not use force to stop Montenegro from breaking away if a majority of its citizens decided to do so, but he has warned that it could lead to open warfare.
Polls show that more than 40 percent of Montenegro's population opposes splitting with Serbia, with much of the pro-Serbian sentiment concentrated in the north. But some political analysts in Belgrade--capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia--have suggested that Milosevic would not be troubled by a break, because it would allow him to create a new constitution and seek a new ruling mandate. His term as Yugoslav president is to expire in mid-2001 and cannot be extended.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic, who has issued some of the most inflammatory calls for separation, said that while the talks did not make much headway there was some reassurance in the calls for cooperation. "We have stated different concepts, but we pledged maximum effort to try and keep Montenegro and Serbia in some kind of association," he said.
"We agreed that our common aim is promotion of the joint state of Yugoslavia and that all changes should be carried out in a legal manner," said Gorca Gajevic, general secretary of Milosevic's Serbian Socialist Party.
Montenegro has already taken some steps toward autonomy by imposing its own tax and customs policy. Its police and local militia are said to number as many as 12,000, roughly equal to the number of Serb-led Yugoslav armed forces garrisoned in the republic.
The republic is preparing to issue its own passports and has cultivated cordial ties with the West by distancing itself from Milosevic's government. Unlike Serbia, it has not been subjected to a full range of Western economic sanctions and maintains commercial air travel links with the outside world.
Djukanovic, who has been agitating for independence since rupturing his once close relationship with Milosevic two years ago, has said Montenegro is ready to create its own currency tied to the German mark if the Yugoslav dinar continues to plummet in value.
The Montenegrin leader said he is prepared to hold a referendum in late February if the current discussions do not lead to a restructuring of Yugoslavia that would ensure what he calls "a democratic and decentralized federation of equal partners."
He won the presidency by a narrow margin in 1997, defeating his former best friend Momir Bulatovic, a Milosevic ally. In contrast to blustery threats to go its own way in the past, Djukanovic is said to be taking a more cautious tack now that he recognizes the dangers of pushing too hard and too fast for separation from Serbia.