Montenegrins Watch and Wait

Montenegrins brace themselves for the outcome of a ballot that could determine their destiny.

Montenegrins Watch and Wait

Montenegrins brace themselves for the outcome of a ballot that could determine their destiny.

Friday, 22 September, 2000

"What's going to happen after Sunday's elections?" That's the question on everyone's lips in Montenegro. For three years now, the standoff between Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and his Yugoslav counterpart has threatened conflict in the tiny republic. People now fear matters could come to a head.

Djukanovic boycotted the September 24 elections in protest at constitutional changes forced through by his Belgrade rival. With Milosevic trailing behind opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica in the polls speculation is rife the Yugoslav leader could resort to old tricks to shore up his position.

"There are plenty of reasons to be afraid," said a senior Montenegrin police official. "Milosevic could resort to his old recipe - whenever his position is endangered at home, start a war somewhere else. He only has one battlefield left - Montenegro.

"[Yugoslav army] soldiers have been deployed from several barracks and are on combat alert. A list of people to be arrested or liquidated once the conflict starts has already been drawn up," the police source said.

The Podgorica weekly magazine Monitor last week quoted a senior officer in the Yugoslav 2nd Army stationed in Montenegro as saying, "plans are in place to take over vital buildings like post offices, telecommunication sites, TV and Radio stations in Podgorica."

The officer said Milosevic's forces would overwhelm the republic very quickly in a "blitzkrieg" operation, pre-empting any effective response from pro-Djukanovic forces.

"Less than a month ago an Operational group appointed by Yugoslav army headquarters drew up detailed plans for seizing vital facilities, premises and sites in Belgrade in case of an opposition election win," the officer added.

The Yugoslav military has become very conspicuous across Montenegro recently. Helicopters and MiG fighters make frequent low-level passes over Podgorica. Army vehicles full of soldiers are constantly on the move along virtually every city street and main road. The military has established bases at Cemovsko Bridge in the centre of the capital and in the Zeta valley near the airport.

"The 2nd Army headquarters, apart from filling their units with reservists, issued an order halting all vacations and absences among officers stationed in Montenegro," a senior official in the Montenegrin Interior Ministry said.

Djukanovic, meanwhile, can call on a large contingent of loyal Montenegrin police officers. Although equipped with only light weapons, the force numbers some 20,000. The Interior Ministry has also set up "crisis headquarters" in every town.

"We are monitoring the situation very closely and they cannot catch us by surprise," said the interior ministry official.

Montenegrins see the September 24 elections as an internal Serbian matter, but worry what sort of impact they will have at home.

Some analysts take a positive view. One argues Montenegro is a sideshow for Milosevic and that the Yugoslav president's real problem is inside Serbia. If Milosevic loses the elections, the analyst believes, he will be too pre-occupied preventing a rebellion to bother with Montenegro.

Only if the Yugoslav president strengthens his position after the elections, it's thought, will his hand be free to deal with the disobedient, pro-independence Djukanovic.

Part at least of the Yugoslav army's conspicuous build-up could be explained by Milosevic's campaign visit to the northern Montenegrin town of Berane on September 20, his first visit to the republic in three years. Fully equipped troops from the Yugoslav army's 7th Battalion and federal police shipped in from Belgrade sealed off the military airport, surrounding roads and Berane town centre.

Montenegrin interior ministry police looked on as Yugoslav troops and around 15,000-20,000 people arrived in the centre to cheer Milosevic.

Aleksandar Djurisic, a representative of Djukanovic's ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, labelled the rally a military manoeuvre, "Milosevic is a colonialist, who, supported by the army, came to this country with the intention of occupying it."

Certainly a virtual war is already raging between the various television outlets in Montenegro. Two pro-Milosevic television stations, TV Yu Info and People's TV, began broadcasting this year without permits from the Montenegrin authorities.

Both stations' transmitters are located inside Yugoslav army military facilities and carry programmes made in Belgrade. Editorial policy mirrors that of Serbian state television and radio. TV Yu Info, People's TV and the pro-Milosevic daily Dan have all given copious coverage to the pre-election campaign of the Socialist People's Party, SNP, the Yugoslav president's allies in Montenegro.

The state controlled Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti claimed 100,000 attended the Berane rally and even went to the lengths of doctoring a photo to create the impression of a huge turnout. The same faces can be clearly seen repeated throughout the crowd.

Montenegrin state-controlled media, meanwhile, pedals the Djukanovic line - deriding the September 24 federal elections, encouraging Montenegrins not to vote and criticising Milosevic.

Supporters of the Yugoslav president are preparing for September 24, however, and plan to vote at military facilities or at the homes of SNP activists.

Of Montenegro's 440,000 potential voters, surveys suggest some 20 per cent plan to heed the boycott. But it is questionable how reliable such estimates are. What's more the makeshift nature of the poll in Montenegro leaves it wide open to manipulation.

Milosevic's supporters believe their vote is a vote for the survival of Yugoslavia. For Djukanovic's supporters, they can just watch and wait.

"I just pray that the Serbian opposition and citizens will do something after these elections to distract Milosevic," said one Djukanovic fan. "Otherwise, he'll be coming here with his guns."

Milka Tadic-Mijovic is editor of Podgorica independent weekly Monitor

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