Milosevic Divides Montenegrins

Montenegrins living in Serbia are being pressured into taking sides in the political battle between Belgrade and Podgorica.

Milosevic Divides Montenegrins

Montenegrins living in Serbia are being pressured into taking sides in the political battle between Belgrade and Podgorica.

Vladimir, 40, has lived in Belgrade since childhood. He considers himself a Belgrader, and like so many of his fellow citizens he opposes the Milosevic regime.

But he is also Montenegrin, and so no longer expresses his views openly - fearing that even his closest friends might accuse him of being a separatist.

"I am angry and scared. It seems that Serbs in Belgrade can be against Milosevic, but not me. Suddenly I don't feel I belong here anymore."

He is so worried that he's reinforced his front door with steel bars. The more relations between Montenegro and Serbia deteriorate, the greater his fear.

The garden of the Moscow Hotel in downtown Belgrade is empty. It has been a traditional meeting place of Montenegrins of all ages. Now the only people who congregate there are pensioners loyal to the Yugoslav president.

Montenegrins have been coming to Serbia for decades. Many headed to Belgrade to be educated, others settled in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina.

There are now more than 1 million of them living in Serbia - almost twice the population of Montenegro.

Their integration into Serbian society has on the whole been trouble-free. The two national groups are very similar - many would argue they are the same ethnic group. They share a common history, culture and religion and have long been allies.

At the height of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Milosevic thought of Serbs and Montenegrins as "two eyes in one head". His closest ally was the current president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic. Soldiers from both republics fought together in the Croatian and Bosnian wars.

Today though, Milosevic is an indicted war criminal, while Djukanovic is viewed by the international community as a democratic leader intent on improving relations between his country and the outside world.

The political break between the two men was triggered by a row between Djukanovic and Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, in 1996. Since then Montenegro has drifted further towards independence while Serbia has appeared increasingly determined to prevent the break-up of the federation.

Montenegrins in Belgrade, who number between 300,000-400,000, are paying the price for the rift. While the majority has no interest in politics, other than distaste for the current regime, they are gradually being drawn into a battle between supporters of Milosevic and Djukanovic.

Milosevic, whose family hails from Montenegro, has in recent years purged the federal government of Djukanovic sympathisers. The authorities are only given some semblance of legality by Montenegrin Yugoslav Prime Minister, Momir Bulatovic, and the presence of his Socialist Peoples' Party in the federal parliament.

There is no Montenegrin representation in the National Bank of Yugoslavia. All the principal positions in the Yugoslav army, foreign ministry and federal police are reserved for people from Serbia. The three federal media groups, the daily newspaper Borba, the national news agency Tanjug, and Radio-Television Yugoslavia are also under Serbian leadership.

Milosevic has also dismissed all Djukanovic supporting Montenegrin directors from Yugoslav enterprises.

Milan Zogovic, the former director of Belgrade's Energogas, was perhaps one high-profile victim. Zogovic was arrested two years ago, charged with robbing the company of 4.1 million German Marks. He was detained after an unknown source informed the authorities that he had celebrated Djukanovic's 1997 presidential victory by firing a revolver in the air on the balcony of his Belgrade apartment.

A member of the Yugoslav United Left (JUL), and a close associate of Milosevic's wife, Nenad Djordjevic also fell from grace because of Djukanovic. The director of the Serbian Health Fund, Djordjevic's mistake was to call for the recognition of Montenegro's presidential poll. He too was arrested, charged with taking $10 million from the fund.

Montenegrins loyal to Milosevic have meanwhile flourished. Dr Milovan Bojic's high-flying career is enough to make one's head spin. He is the director of a prestigious clinical centre in Belgrade, the deputy chairman of JUL and one of Serbia's deputy prime ministers.

Miodrag Zecevic retained Milosevic's patronage despite being involved in a major scandal. While director of a French-Yugoslav bank in Paris he fell out with the authorities there. He was expelled from France, yet when he returned to Yugoslavia, he was made director of a Belgrade bank.

Montenegrins who want to help Milosevic preserve both the Yugoslav state and his grip on power are now rallying around a recently founded Yugoslav Movement of Montenegrins.

The group is headed by the brother of Miodrag Zecevic, Milija Zecevic. A number of historians, retired professors but also those who genuinely want Serbia and Montenegro to remain together are backing him. The movement advocates that all Montenegrins, not just those who live in Montenegro, should have the right to vote in a referendum on secession.

In an effort to discourage a split, Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister, Vojislav Seselj, has threatened to impose work permits and visas on Montenegrins who live in Serbia if their republic opts for independence.

Montenegrins who support Milosevic passionately believe that if the federation breaks up, the northern part of their republic, populated mainly by Montenegrins who regard themselves as Serbs, should be separated and united with Serbia - a development that some believe could lead to war.

And it would only worsen the position of Montenegrins in Serbia worse. Says Vladimir, the Belgrader from Montenegro, "If there is war with Montenegro, criminals will use political tensions to rob my flat - just because I was born in Cetinje."

Milenko Vasovic is a journalist with Blic daily in Belgrade.

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