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Elections to Test Political Winds in Montenegro

Reports of violent repression in Serbia could seriously weaken support for Slobodan Milosevic in neighbouring Montenegro
By Milka Tadic

Next month's elections in Montenegro will provide a valuable litmus test for the nation's shifting political mood.

The local elections - which are to be held in Herceg Novi and the capital Podgorica on June 11 -- will see a showdown between those who support the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and those who are gunning for Montenegrin independence.

Over the past few months, Montenegro has pointedly distanced itself from the Yugoslav Federation - but President Slobodan Milosevic has shown every sign that he is willing to use force to thwart any attempt to secede. Serbia, already isolated internationally and crippled by sanctions, is landlocked without its south-western neighbour.

Consequently, the speculation surrounding the two by-elections is unusually intense.

The elections were called following a decision by the Liberal Party to leave the ruling coalition headed by Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic. The coalition owed its majority in the two constituencies to its former Liberal partners.

In the 1998 parliamentary elections the coalition had failed to win an outright majority over the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party, SNP, led by the federal prime-minister, Momir Bulatovic, in both Herceg Novi and Podgorica.

The timing of the elections is potentially disastrous for Djukanovic. He faces major economic problems at home as well as increasing pressure from the Yugoslav Army and Milosevic. Opposition parties have also accused Djukanovic and his political allies of widespread corruption.

Over the past two years, the ruling coalition has failed to carry out many of its election promises - particularly in the sphere of economic reforms. It has, however, managed to resist political pressure from Belgrade and to preserve the stability of a republic which has often teetered on the brink of war.

The results of the by-elections could have a decisive effect on future strategy both for the coalition and its opponents - particularly the SNP.

Bulatovic's Socialists will be joining forces with the so-called "patriotic Yugoslav bloc" for the June 11 race. At the insistence of Belgrade, this wide alliance will also include the Serbian Radical Party, led by Vojislav Seselj, and Mirjana Markovic's JUL.

This development has caused divisions within the SNP itself. Vice-presidents Zoran Zizic and Predrag Bulatovic oppose the alliance with the Radicals and JUL -- parties that enjoy only limited support in Montenegro. In the 1998 elections, the JUL barely polled 300 votes across the whole republic.

If, in the framework of the new alliance, the SNP can improve on its performance in the 1998 elections, the Yugoslav bloc has pledged to demand early parliamentary elections across the republic in the hope of clinching a victory for Milosevic supporters.

The Montenegrin Liberals also support early elections, eager to build on their parliamentary minority of just five seats. In direct contrast to the SNP, the Liberals have criticised Djukanovic for dragging his heels over the independence question.

Aware of how much is at stake, the ruling coalition has already launched a vigorous pre-election campaign. It has accused the SNP of forging an alliance with parties determined to rob Montenegro of her national identity.

Dragan Djurovic, of President Djukanovic's Socialist Democratic Party, DPS, claims, "The radicals and the JUL are using the SNP to stage a comeback in the republic's political arena and work towards building a Greater Serbia, in which Montenegro would cease to exist as a nation state."

Such accusations have forced SNP leaders to distance themselves from other members of the alliance -- especially from the Serbian nationalist Vojislav Seselj.

SNP vice-president Zoran Zizic explained, "We have agreed that, as long as the radicals are in a coalition with the SNP, they should shelve any ideas of building a Greater Serbia."

Meanwhile, the SNP is doing its best to discredit Djukanovic, claiming that he has struck a deal with NATO and is determined to break away from the Yugoslav Federation. The party also claims that the ongoing privatisation process is rife with corruption and shady dealing.

A recent party announcement read, "Politically, Milo Djukanovic's coalition is seriously ill, and is being kept alive by American equipment and medicines."

The SNP has also accused the Montenegrin police force of recruiting foreign mercenaries in a bid to bolster Djukanovic's regime. Momir Bulatovic commented, "When I was the president of Montenegro, there was a total of 950 policemen. Today we believe there are around 22,000 officers, many of whom are mercenaries from outside the republic."

However, Bulatovic's pre-election campaign has been overshadowed by recent events in Serbia where Milosevic has resorted to violent repression of the independent media, the political opposition and the students' movement, Otpor. Even Milosevic supporters in Montenegro are now viewing Belgrade with increasing caution.

According to April opinion polls, the president's coalition enjoys support from nearly 40 per cent of Montenegrins with the SNP alliance set to win little over 20 per cent of the vote. Support for the JUL and Serbian Radical Party is thought to be negligible.

The same poll indicates that nearly 70 per cent of Montenegrins support calls for a referendum on independence. This figure has increased markedly in recent months as many fear the violence sweeping across Serbia could spill over into Montenegro.

However, the international community is not encouraging calls for secession. In 1992, a similar referendum was held in Bosnia, resulting in an overwhelming vote for independence. It was the spark that lit the Balkan tinderbox and plunged the federation into war.

Milka Tadic is editor of Monitor magazine and a regular contributor to IWPR.

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