Yugoslav Military Flex Muscles In Montenegro

The stand off at Podgorica airport last week highlighted a stream of small-scale confrontations between Belgrade and Podgorica that is increasingly successfully undermining Montenegro's efforts to make its own way in the Balkans.

Yugoslav Military Flex Muscles In Montenegro

The stand off at Podgorica airport last week highlighted a stream of small-scale confrontations between Belgrade and Podgorica that is increasingly successfully undermining Montenegro's efforts to make its own way in the Balkans.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

On Thursday December 9 at 5 p.m. Yugoslav Army (VJ) troops entered the control tower at Podgorica Airport in Montenegro. The VJ soldiers demanded that the main airport be closed to regular traffic.

Their demand was rejected but VJ forces practically occupied the civilian areas of the airport and deployed troops and combat vehicles on the runway. Yugoslav federal air traffic control in Belgrade halted air traffic into Montenegro citing "security reasons." Protracted negotiations between senior officers from the VJ and the Montenegrin police continued all night. Details of the negotiations have not been revealed but the pro-Milosevic daily Pobjeda reported that the negotiators had concluded the incident was "a big misunderstanding, that ought to be overcome as soon as possible.

This demonstration of force lasted until the army withdrew from the airport on Friday morning. Belgrade flight control then lifted the ban on air traffic allowing an aircraft of the Montenegrin airline to depart for Budapest at 8 am.

But was it really a "misunderstanding" - or was the move a signal from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic? A message to the Montenegrin government and the international community that he still commands sufficient military might to turn the country into a new battlefield? Eyewitnesses at the airport claim that it was only the good sense of the police that prevented armed conflict.

The noose around Montenegro has gradually been tightened over the past several months. A battalion of special federal police has already been formed and is based in VJ army barracks. A confidential military source has confirmed that this battalion is trained for commando operations.

Officers of the VJ Second Army, stationed in Montenegro, are being carefully selected and those prepared for the fight are being appointed to important command positions in the republic.

Several months ago, a moderate commander at the military airport in Podgorica, who during the entire NATO bombing campaign avoided confrontations with the Montenegrin civilian authorities, was replaced.

Colonel Luka Kastratovic was appointed to this sensitive command post in his stead. Kastratovic is considered a tough soldier, loyal to the military command in Belgrade. He was the main actor in the drama at the Podgorica airport on Thursday.

Kastratovic has, allegedly, expressed opposition to the proposed construction of a new hangar in the civilian part of the airport. The Montenegrin government needs the hangar to house an aircraft and several helicopters for the republican police.

Belgrade has for years now been disputing the ownership of airports located on Montenegrin territory. Following the break up of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbian government declared all Montenegrin airports to be the property of the JAT, the Serbian national airline.

Montenegro sued for ownership of the airports in the Constitutional Court. Having lost the court action, however, the Montenegrin government opted instead to pass a new law on state property to reclaim ownership. The Djukanovic government was scheduled to formalise this decision on December 10 by appointing a new 'director for the airport of Montenegro'. But this decision has been postponed.

With the deployment of VJ troops at the airport on Thursday the federal authorities clearly demonstrated to the Montenegrin government that they could and will use force to counter controversial decisions aimed at re-establishing economic sovereignty or independence from Serbia.

While Belgrade controls the VJ, Djukanovic's project for establishing Montenegrin economic independence appears utopian. Last month the Podgorica authorities introduced a separate Montenegrin currency following the Yugoslav government's refusal to slow down its inflationary policy of printing.

But the project is floundering due to a continued massive influx of Yugoslav dinars from Serbia. Belgrade has shipped millions of dinars into Montenegrin army bases by military helicopters for distribution throughout the republic.

By using the VJ, the Milosevic regime has successfully circumvented Montenegrin police and customs efforts to halt the inflow of Yugoslav currency.

Milosevic's noose is not tightening around Montenegro by accident. He wishes to make clear that his regime will not sit idly by while Djukanovic manoeuvres towards separation from Serbia.

But, despite clear threats from Belgrade, the Montenegrin authorities have virtually made the radical decision to hold a referendum. It is no secret that last week, at a closed meeting with Djukanovic, the government's coalition partners decided to get down to work and prepare the public and the necessary documents for a referendum on independence for the small republic.

But reliable sources within the coalition leadership have warned that, although the decision to hold a referendum has been made, the decision on a date is still far off given the considerable risk such a strategy holds.

There is a fear that the international community would react passively at this stage to the almost inevitable military response from Belgrade.

"We cannot make hasty decisions," said Novak Kilibarda, Montenegro's deputy prime minister. "If the referendum were to take place now, the great powers are not giving any guarantees to Montenegro, even in the case of an attack by Slobodan Milosevic," he pointed out.

While discreet preparations continue for a referendum on independence, Montenegro faces a tense future keeping a wary eye on the Yugoslav army forces stationed on its territory.

Milka Tadic is editor of the independent magazine Monitor in Podgorica.

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