Storm Clouds Gather Over Montenegro

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic activates plans to thwart Montenegro's bid for independence

Storm Clouds Gather Over Montenegro

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic activates plans to thwart Montenegro's bid for independence

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

The passengers on the plane from Belgrade to the Montenegrin coastal resort of Tivat were optimistic if they thought they would reach their destination as scheduled.

In mid-flight, the plane was diverted to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, after Tivat airport was suddenly closed for the second or third time in the space of a few days. No explanations were offered: the weather was fine and there had been no security alerts.

In fact, the plane had fallen victim to the latest round of squabbles between Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanovic. The Podgorica authorities claim the airports belong to them whilst aviation officials in Belgrade are fond of demonstrating their overall control.

But the petty squabbles may be symptoms of a greater malaise - most analysts agree that Milosevic is prepared to spark off a bloody conflict with Montenegro in a bid to prevent the smaller republic from seceding from the Yugoslav Federation.

Under pressure from the international community, the authorities in Podgorica have postponed a decision to call a referendum over the independence question. If Montenegro leaves the federation and Yugoslavia ceases to exist, Kosovo's status will become increasingly uncertain.

In Podgorica coffee shops, the atmosphere is oddly relaxed. People tell each other that a war with Serbia would be madness - and sanity will surely prevail.

But the storm clouds are already gathering. Milosevic's tactics are following a familiar pattern: economic sanctions, media propaganda, arming sympathetic factions and putting on a show of military might.

Economic sanctions against Montenegro were imposed nearly a month ago. Goods vehicles are held up at the Kolovrat border crossing near Prijepolje where Serb police keep them under close observation.

The shortage of flour is already being felt in the mountainous republic which produces no food of its own - throughout its history, Montenegro has always relied heavily on imports from Serbia.

However, President Djukanovic is trying hard to prove that Montenegro can survive without Serbian wheat. Food supplies are being imported from Slovenia and Croatia - but prices are often prohibitively high for a population with an average salary of 150 German marks per month.

As a result, Montenegro relies heavily on financial aid from the West. Last year, the government received $55 million from the United States and has requested a further $60 million for the coming year. With a population of just 600,000, Montenegrins have been branded "NATO mercenaries" by Belgrade.

Meanwhile, the propaganda war is gathering pace. The Serbian media are working hard to invade the Montenegrin airwaves, with the TV programme Yu Info making its debut last month.

The service is the mouthpiece of the Yugoslav United Left, run by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic. Transmitted from military broadcasting towers, its declared aim is to "spread the truth about Yugoslavia" in Montenegro.

The media campaign will enable Belgrade to drive a wedge between pro-secessionist Montenegrins and those who feel that they are Serbian or otherwise are pro-Belgrade. As one Podgorica resident commented, "There is hardly a household in Montenegro that is not divided in some way or other."

The divisions are particularly worrisome in northern Montenegro, which is predominantly pro-Serbian - raising the specter of civil war and territorial division.

No one expects that Milosevic would in fact send Yugoslav Army troops from Serbia into Montenegro to fight. But following the tried and tested pattern of the previous Balkan wars, he could readily "inspire" local pro-Serbian militants to provoke violent conflict. Arming potential Serbian supporters such as Momir Bulatovic's Socialist People's Party would present few problems: supplies of weapons were sent to Montenegro on the eve of the wars against Croatia and Bosnia when Djukanovic's regime supported the Serbian war policy.

Changes in the Yugoslav military hierarchy are also fuelling concerns in Montenegro. General Dragoljub Ojdanic has been appointed federal minister of defence to replace the Montenegrin Pavle Bulatovic who was recently assassinated. At the same time, Nebojsa Pavkovic was named Chief of the General Staff.

A Montenegrin military analyst commented, "The two of them have nothing to lose. They are the ideologues of the war with NATO. Ojdanic has been accused of war crimes by The Hague and they have no emotional bonds with Montenegro. They will do anything Milosevic asks them to. And that's another step towards war."

Conflicts between the Montenegrin authorities and the military leadership have shown a marked increase in recent weeks. At the end of last month, President Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) accused Yugoslav generals of forming a paramilitary unit in Montenegro - the 7th Battalion of Military Police - with loyalties to Milosevic.

"Members of the battalion are recruited from militant supporters of Momir Bulatovic's party," said Slobodan Milacic, deputy chairman of the DPS executive committee.

He went on to say, "It's a combat-ready paramilitary unit, comprised of Montenegrin nationalists recruited by SNP activist Velimir Kaludjerovic on the orders of Belgrade. It is the brainchild of General Aleksandar Vasiljevic, the well-known military secret service chief.

The Yugoslav general staff has denied the accusations, claiming that "all battalions are part of the regular army, and there are no paramilitary units."

However, the Montenegrin weekly Monitor claims that troops from the 7th Battalion will be stationed in northern Montenegro as part of Milosevic's plan for "enforcing security" in the mountain republic.

The paper notes that the unit's strength has been increased from 400 to 900 men since the end of last year, and predicts a total of 1,900 by mid-spring. The Moraca army barracks in central Podgorica are being specially prepared for 7th Battalion troops, says Monitor.

In the event of a military conflict, the 7th Battalion - which is responsible only to Belgrade - would be well positioned to seize control of airports and border crossings.

But Djukanovic still controls a significant military force, the so-called Special Police, believed to number around 15,000 men. Trained in the Montenegrin hotel Zlatica, the president's praetorian guard maintains a visible presence in the capital, sporting heavy weaponry and full battle dress.

On February 27, the Montenegrin daily Pobjeda reported that the Second Army, which is based in Montenegro, put its troops on combat alert - positioning troops with heavy artillery near the town of Tuzi, on the border with Albania. Pobjeda claims the move undermines a recent Montenegrin government decision to open this stretch of the frontier.

The Yugoslav Army, however, has described the troop movements as "normal activities" and denied any suggestions that units have been placed on combat alert.

Distracted by the volatile situation in Kosovo, NATO has followed the political dueling with mounting concern. "We are carefully following the situation in Montenegro," said General Wesley Clark, stressing that, "Montenegrin President Djukanovic is still in control of the situation in Montenegro."

Gordana Igric is IWPR associate editor.

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