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Montenegro's Relations With Belgrade Get Sourer By The Day

Amid charges of coup attempts and Belgrade's cold shouldering of Podgorica's effort to renegotiate its federative relationship with Serbia, Montenegro slips closer to outright confrontation.
By IWPR Balkans

Montenegro continues to press for a 'redefinition' of its federated links with Serbia, while admitting that its request has been cold-shouldered by Belgrade - just as Podgorica was charging Serbia with plotting an armed takeover during last spring's war over Kosovo.


On Tuesday Montenegro's government said Serbia had effectively rejected direct talks on their future relations and simply dumped the issue on the federal Yugoslav parliament, whose authority Podgorica's leadership does not recognise. The announcement came a day after Montenegro's public prosecutor accused Yugoslav Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic of planning a military take-over during the NATO air attacks last spring.


"The Montenegrin government platform on redefining relations with Serbia is based on conditions of absolute equality of the two republics, democracy and openness to the world," said Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, a frequent critic of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, this week.


On August 5, Montenegro's tabled its plan for a review of its ties with Serbia, which would allow it to run its own monetary, fiscal, military and foreign affairs. Though it pointedly fell short of secession and independence, Podgorica makes it clear that they will not rule that out as long as Belgrade refused to talk.


The result of this increasingly independent stand has been to bring tensions between the two sides to a new height, culminating in last spring's alleged plan by Belgrade to use troops to silence Montenegro's independent media.


Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic claimed that his intervention averted Belgrade's plans. But sources close to the Belgrade leadership attributed the failure of the takeover plan to a split between the Serbian and Montenegrin branches of the ruling Socialist party.


Whatever or whoever stymied the plan, "the political power centre in Belgrade still wants the same thing," Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic told the independent daily Vijesti, "but it is obvious it has no chance of success".


On Monday the Montenegrin public prosecutor brought charges against Bulatovic, claiming that he 'prepared an action that would violate state order' by plotting the military action. The case is expected to be thrown out by the courts in Belgrade. Bulatovic, a former Montenegrin president, is not recognised as federal prime minister by the Podgorica government.


Meanwhile Belgrade's forces continue to converge on the tiny coastal republic. Vujanovic says that military sources report increased presence of VJ military police units, including special forces trained in sabotage, anti-guerrilla and anti-terrorist operations.


Under the direct command of the Security Department of the Yugoslav Army, they are beyond the control of Podgorica, whose own paramilitary police would be no match for the Belgrade squads. At the same time the official daily Nedeljni Telegraf, played up reports that Djukanovic has created a private army, to underline his supposed threat to the federation.


Sources close to the Socialists, say Milosevic, whose army commanders are also threatening to challenge NATO in Kosovo, will see how the domestic political situation develops before picking his target. But others, including NATO commander General Wesley Clark, have warned that Belgrade is prepared to use force to secure Djukanovic's ouster.


How accurate are these claims? What are Belgrade's real intentions?


Yugoslav Army operations in Montenegro come under the jurisdiction of the Second Army commanded by General Mile Obradovic, loyal to the military and political leadership in Belgrade. The VJ forces now in Montenegro include the Podgorica motorised brigade once commanded by Veselin Sljivancanin, indicted by the Hague Tribunal for his part in the bombing of the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991 - the Niksic brigade, and the 83rd motorised brigade of the Yugoslav Navy.


Equipped with elderly but still powerful T-55 tanks, these brigades are backed up light infantry units equipped with recoilless cannons, 60 and 120 mm calibre mortars, mobile Sagger anti-tank and SA-7 anti-aircraft rocket launchers.


Military experts however say these forces are not suited for an offensive - if one is being considered - against Djukanovic's own paramilitary police. An IWPR source in the Yugoslav Army says the Second Army would face several problems, not least the difficulties of using heavy armour on Montenegro's mountainous terrain. The country has proven a military obstacle to would-be invaders for centuries. Any operation would rest heavily on the weakest part of the VJ's deployment in Montenegro, its infantry battalions.


Parallels are being drawn with the VJ's rapidly lost war with Slovenia in 1991, and the possibility that the proportionately high number of Montenegrin junior officers serving in the Second Army might simply refuse orders. The alternative would be for the VJ to bring in units from Serbia, including the Third Army, recently blooded in Kosovo, if these troops can be safely expected to obey orders and fight in a civil war with Montenegro.


The Serb defeats in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and now Kosovo, combined with Belgrade's failure to pay wages and daily fees has undermined morale, and an attack on Podgorica - seen as an ally by the west - might bring NATO over the border from Kosovo by air or land.


This does not mean that Belgrade will not play an old card and foment internal division in Montenegro. The alternative to using the VJ would be to deploy the paramilitary federal police force. The federal police have been built up by the ruling Socialist party ahead of the VJ, which Milosevic has considered suspect in the past. The paramilitary police are generally better and paid, and regularly so, and are equipped with weapons and fighting vehicles of equal strength to the VJ.


Not only that, they are not army units and thus do not come under the command of Obradovic, but as with the similar units that operated in Kosovo, come under the direct political command of the Federal Ministry of Interior Affairs, and thereafter, Bulatovic himself.


Dejan Sunter is a journalist with the VIP agency in Belgrade.