Montenegro Looks To The Future

Even as the Yugoslav Army sends in reinforcements, Podgorica hopes to exploit Belgrade's clumsy threats and move further away from Serbia.

Montenegro Looks To The Future

Even as the Yugoslav Army sends in reinforcements, Podgorica hopes to exploit Belgrade's clumsy threats and move further away from Serbia.

While the Montenegrin government may no longer be afraid to speculate on possible independence from Serbia, its senior partner in Federal Yugoslavia, public opinion here is much more nervous of the idea. Polls still give a clear majority in favour of Montenegro's continued union with Belgrade.

So Podgorica expects - is in fact counting on - Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to arrogantly dismiss Montenegrin aspirations, and push Montenegrin doubters into backing a more 'independent' line.

The government here argues that Milosevic's arrogance in rejecting the Rambouillet plan for Kosovo resulted in NATO attacks on both Serbia and Montenegro. But Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanovic was excluded from the decision-making - even though the constitution gives him a place on the Yugoslav Army supreme command.

In the end, Djukanovic's diplomatic initiatives in the West and his efforts to distance himself from Milosevic helped spare Montenegro from the worst of the bombing.

But while the NATO air campaign is over, the authorities in Podgorica still face a threat from the Yugoslav Army which remains loyal to Belgrade. And Serbia's military chiefs have just sent its unruly junior partner a clear message: The army contingents in Montenegro have been pointedly reinforced with a further 25,000 men, who have now taken control of a number of civilian functions. Soldiers have blockaded roads, closed borders and staged meaningful manoeuvres near Montenegrin towns.

The army's action appears only to have broadened the audience for Djukanovic's call for change. The President is himself careful not to endorse outright secession alone, and is equally cautious about other options as well - including a less radical plan to recreate the present federation as a looser confederation.

When the Montenegrin leader told a citizens' tribunal in Niksic last week that over 50 per cent of the republic's population wanted change, and that 'some' urged complete independence, he was interrupted with cries of "Milo, Milo" and applause. There was no such response when he mentioned the confederation option.

Yet up to now Niksic has been a centre for Milosevic's supporters. The level of draft evasion in the town during Milosevic's string of lost wars has always been the lowest in Montenegro and its citizens used to organise protest marches on Podgorica whenever they felt their government was being insufficiently supportive of Serbian policy. Today, things appear different.

Ahead of full negotiations on the future relations between the two republics, the Montenegrin government has asked constitutional law professor Mijat Sukovic and economics professor Veselin Vukotic to draft a text. This will move on from the paper 'On a New Order of Relations between Serbia and Montenegro' which Podgorica prepared for last May's Bonn conference on a stability pact for South-Eastern Europe.

The text should be delivered shortly to Djukanovic, Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic, and their partners in the ruling coalition, National Party (NS) leader Novak Kilibarda and Social Democrat Party (SDP) leader Zarko Rakcevic.

Djukanovic has expressed a wish to see the current federal government of 23 ministers cut back to a smaller committee of five or six, whose reduced role would be merely to help harmonise the positions of two essentially separate republics in loose alliance.

Montenegro, which has set its own free market course away from Serbia's state-run system, even wants its own currency - or at least the power to stop the federal bank from further feeding inflation by recklessly printing money.

Djukanovic has been most critical of the VJ, demanding its reorganisation, the end of the draft and mechanisms to prevent the drift into conflicts like Kosovo.

Each of these demands poses a challenge to Milosevic. What he needs is time, not confrontation with Podgorica, whose stock in Western capitals had been steadily rising well before NATO turned its bombers on Belgrade.

Podgorica wants the opening talks to start at the level of federal parliament members, to test reactions without raising expectations. The Montenegrins will probably limit themselves to a few declarations of principle, while Belgrade's delegation of minor officials will stress willingness to talk while their chiefs look elsewhere for options. Later talks at a higher level will raise the stakes, but even here Belgrade could draw out talks indefinitely.

But Milosevic could have a card up his sleeve. He may yet offer the post of federal prime minister to a member of Djukanovic's party. The post should have been theirs by dint of their recent election successes, but Milosevic has kept a rival of Djukanovic's in the job, Momir Bulatovic, of the unflinchingly pro-Milosevic Montenegrin Socialist People's Party (SNP).

However Bulatovic has already said that he could step down "if that is in the interest of preserving the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia". Such a trade-off might encourage Djukanovic to adopt a less confrontational position.

If that fails, as NATO commander, Wesley Clark recently noted, the VJ tanks which left Kosovo can easily be sent into Montenegro. Many are already there. Milosevic's soldiers are seen driving them around the countryside. Ominously, if pressed to explain why, army officials say only that their recruits "need the practice".

Slavoljub Scekic is an independent journalist in Podgorica.

Serbia, Kosovo
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