Burdens Of Changing Serbia Weigh Heavy On Montenegro

After all the battles he has started and lost in the region, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has finally taken aim at Montenegro says its president Milo Djukanovic.

Burdens Of Changing Serbia Weigh Heavy On Montenegro

After all the battles he has started and lost in the region, Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic has finally taken aim at Montenegro says its president Milo Djukanovic.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

Meeting US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, British foreign secretary Robin Cook and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in Berlin at the weekend, he reminded them that his country was at particular risk from the "brutal destructiveness" of the Serbian leader.

"Today, Montenegro is facing great repression because Milosevic correctly identifies that the threat to his regime is coming from Montenegro," Djukanovic told Albright at a bilateral session on the fringes of a Group of Eight foreign minister's meeting in Berlin, Friday. "I hope he is right in his fears. Despite his resistance, we are stepping down the road to democracy.''

But Djukanovic - who had to take his turn with Albright alongside representatives of the Serbian opposition, who also travelled to Berlin to meet the Group - speaks more unwillingly than his rhetoric would suggest.

He is growing increasingly tired of the difficult tasks assigned him by his Western allies - to lead, almost single-handed, the democratisation of Serbia, the toppling of Milosevic and the reconciliation of the Serbian opposition, starting with long-time foes Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic.

At the dangerous price of drawing Milosevic's ire, without guarantee of unqualified western support if things go wrong, his efforts are not even bringing result.

Djukanovic effectively wasted an entire summer organising a meeting between the Serbian opposition and Western representatives on the Montenegrin coast in which the strategy for Milosevic's ouster was reportedly prepared in semi-secret session. The talks failed to bridge the divide, the opposition failed to agree a strategy and the Serbian regime was unmoved.

On the contrary, it seems that half a year after the suspension of the Western air campaign against the former Yugoslavia and the loss of Kosovo, Milosevic is stronger than before and, it seems, ready to start yet another battle, this time with Montenegro and its president.

While in Berlin Djukanovic had to warn Albright and the others that his own house might be set alight by fires set in Belgrade. Discreetly, he urged Albright and Cook that to understand that asking him to take responsibility for the democratisation of Serbia might be asking too much.

For if he needed reminding of the difficulties that western demands place on him, in the week that he went to Berlin the Serbian government rattled its sabres, forcibly seizing his capital's airport.

The stand-off at Podgorica airport was followed by a clear threat from General Spasoje Smiljanic, commander of the Yugoslav air force, who warned Podgorica against making any attempt to use its own small paramilitary Interior Affairs ministry (MUP) force to retake the airfield.

"The air force and anti-aircraft defence forces continue in a state of readiness," Smiljanic told the media at the start of the week, "as long as the forces of the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Montenegro remain in the immediate vicinity of the airport. The army will resolutely protect the airport, which is now in its control, and it will use its forces to achieve this end, using live weapons, should it be necessary."

Montenegrin prime minister Filip Vujanovic reacted to this bellicosity with an open letter to Yugoslav Army (VJ) chief of staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic. "I cannot believe that someone could issue an order to soldiers to shoot at MUP officers," Vujanovic wrote.

The letter marked a change in style for Vujanovic, hitherto considered to be mildly pro-Serb, excessively disposed to the preservation of the Serbian-Montenegrin Yugoslav federation and given to yielding easily to the generals' pressure.

Vujanovic had drawn particular fire from independence minded Montenegrins for "drinking coffee" with Ojdanic in Podgorica while Djukanovic was in the United States recently. Ojdanic is one of the so-called 'gang of four' top Serb officials indicted for war crimes in Kosovo alongside Milosevic, a point angrily made by Vujanovic's stiffest critics, the Liberal Alliance.

Vujanovic said in his letter to Ojdanic that his government had evidence that back in November the 7th battalion of the VJ military police planned to start a gunfight at the airport to 'justify' stronger action by the VJ in Montenegro. He also denied Smiljanic's claim that Montenegrin MUP forces had been stationed around the airport. "This is disinformation," Vujanovic wrote, "planted by military commanders in order to continue the state of tension."

An extraordinary session of the Constitutional Court of Montenegro, called in a response to Smiljanic's statements, warned that under the Yugoslav constitution the army could only act on the basis of a decision of the country's Supreme Defence Council. Djukanovic is a member of the council.

These warnings did not particularly ruffle the military leadership. Milosevic has already taken direct command of the armed forces, in direct contradiction of the constitution, bypassing the Supreme Defence Council. The council did not even meet during the NATO intervention.

Ojdanic has blamed NATO and not the Yugoslav Army for raising the tensions, and lectured the Montenegrins on the need for "defence of the country from outside aggressors".

All the parties in Montenegro's ruling coalition are aware that Milosevic is dangerously tightening the noose around Montenegro, and equally aware of the high stakes risk involved in trying to resist him. After the airport standoff and the exchanges of letters, the options are running out.

Milosevic's military power far exceeds the forces available to the Montenegrin government and its police. Aside from the Yugoslav troops already in Montenegro, federal paramilitary police, various irregular paramilitary units and a number of armed political/nationalist groups, including supporters of ex-Montengrin president Momir Bulatovic.

It is true that Djukanovic has much greater political support in Montenegro. But in the Balkans force always takes precedence over popular will.

Milka Tadic is the editor of the independent magazine Monitor in Podgorica.

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