Prague, 24 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Montenegro's ruling Socialists have endorsed Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's candidacy for the federal Yugoslav presidency. They have not given him all the political concessions he wanted, however, and the conflict between Belgrade and Podgorica is far from over.
The governing body of Montenegro's Democratic Socialists Party (DPS) yesterday met in Podgorica and endorsed Milosevic to become president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRJ). The vote was 56 to 31, with 10 abstentions, an RFE/RL correspondent reported from the Montenegrin capital. Voting against Milosevic were all three deputy chairmen of the party, including Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
Milosevic is barred by the Serbian constitution from succeeding himself later this year. He consequently is trying to hold onto power by taking over the federal presidency instead. That largely ceremonial office has been held since 1993 by Zoran Lilic, who has faithfully done Milosevic's bidding throughout his tenure. Pundits have been speculating for months that Milosevic would try both to take over from Lilic -- who also cannot succeed himself and whose term runs out on Wednesday -- and to expand the powers of the federal presidency, thereby turning that office into a real center of authority.
Toward that end, Milosevic needs to make some changes in the constitution. The first is for the direct election of the federal president in order to give himself greater authority and legitimacy.
Under the current system, both houses of parliament, or the Federal Assembly, would elect Lilic's replacement by a simple majority. This is in itself no problem for Milosevic, since he has a comfortable majority in both houses. The difficulty for him is rather more long-term.
First, if he seeks to change the constitution to increase his legitimacy or powers, he will need to attract additional allies in order to muster the necessary two-thirds majority. But it may be difficult for him to do so and still hang on to all the parliamentary supporters he has now.
Second, if he seeks to weaken parliament, he risks massive opposition from Montenegro, which has a powerful role in the upper house. In the lower house, or Chamber of Citizens, each deputy represents 65,000 constituents. But in the upper house, or Chamber of Republics, Serbia and Montenegro each have 20 representatives, even though Serbia's population is ten times that of Montenegro.
Many Montenegrin politicians fear that the proposed direct elections -- or any other constitutional changes Milosevic may try to make -- would greatly reduce their republic's influence in federal affairs by weakening the role of parliament, in which Montenegro obviously plays a role much larger than the size of its 600,000-strong population would justify.
The Montenegrins' ultimate concern, moreover, is that the constitutional changes would simply be the first in a series of moves by Milosevic to eliminate the proud mountain republic's autonomy altogether. It thus came as no surprise last night when the same DPS body that endorsed Milosevic also decisively rejected his call for a constitutional change to permit direct presidential elections.
Tensions between Serbia and Montenegro are nothing new, however, and have deep historical roots. What is new is that the DPS, which was long loyal to Milosevic and to his lieutenant Bulatovic, has now split into two rival factions. Bulatovic remains the chief of the pro-Milosevic group. He has charged his critics with corruption, with neglect of northern Montenegro's development, and with misuse of the intelligence services. Bulatovic has sought a special party congress in the hope that he can defeat the opposition once and for all there.
The opposition is headed by Djukanovic, a flamboyant leader who is widely believed to have made his fortune as a war profiteer while federal Yugoslavia was under tight sanctions. Now, however, Djukanovic denies Bulatovic's accusations and argues that Montenegro needs a complete end to the sanctions in order to restore shipping and tourism, which are its prime sources of hard currency. He charges, moreover, that Milosevic's policies are responsible for some sanctions still being in place. Djukanovic's ultimate argument is that Montenegro alone must be in charge of Montenegrin affairs and that Bulatovic is little more than a satrap of an arrogant Belgrade-based leadership.
The issues in the current dispute between Podgorica and Belgrade are thus serious and complex -- and hardly likely to go away soon. When Lilic's term runs out tomorrow, upper house speaker Srdja Bozovic will take over as interim president. When the elections for a successor will take place remains anyone's guess.