Prague, 7 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks of NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from Kosovo, plus the growing threat of a military coup --all have put tremendous strains on the smaller of Yugoslavia's two constituent republics, Montenegro.
This small mountainous region --squeezed between Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia's mainly Muslim Sandzak region, Kosovo and Albania-- is Yugoslavia's only outlet to the sea. It contains a strategically important fjord which offers ideal conditions for harboring warships.
The majority of the republic's small population consider themselves Montenegrins. They are essentially Orthodox Serbs who, for historical reasons, have maintained a separate identity.
Some 10 percent of the republic's population are ethnic Albanians, mainly Roman Catholics who inhabit the border region along the frontier with Albania. Parts of northern Montenegro, the southern Sandzak, are inhabited by Muslims.
Montenegro's present moderate, pro-Western government was democratically elected by a slim margin in late 1997. The victory was made possible by the support of the republic's Albanian and Muslim minorities which rejected the policies of the previous president of Montenegro, Momir Bulatovic, a close ally of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In January 1998, in an unsuccessful bid to prevent the more Western-minded Milo Djukanovic from being inaugurated Montenegrin president, Milosevic and Bulatovic fomented street violence in Montenegro's capital Podgorica.
Officials in Podgorica, as well as western leaders, have recently expressed concern that Milosevic may again engineer unrest. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview with Montenegrin television (April 5), warned Belgrade against preparing a coup against Djukanovic's government.
"Milosevic must know that we stand ready to support the people of Montenegro -- so if he thinks that he can take you on, he will pay a very high price for that indeed."
Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic, in an interview broadcast (April 5) on Sarajevo television, said that if Milosevic and Bulatovic --who is now Yugoslav Federal Prime Minister, although not recognized as such by Montenegro-- try again to stage a coup in Montenegro, it would be doomed to failure. In his words, "Montenegro is ready to defend its civil authority, its democracy and its future."
The Montenegrin Red Cross says that over the past two weeks, more than 40,000 refugees have fled Kosovo for Montenegro over snow-covered mountain passes. The total number of refugees is now believed to be 90,000, a tremendous burden in a republic that has a total population of only 640,000. Some 20,000 refugees --ethnic Albanians, Muslims and Montenegrins-- arrived in Montenegro last summer. In addition, the republic has also been hosting 28,000 mainly Serb refugees from the fighting in Bosnia and Croatia that ended in 1995.
The head of Montenegro's Red Cross, Slobodan Kalezic, said (April 5) that the humanitarian situation in Montenegro is cause for grave concern, and that assistance from the international community is needed as soon as possible. As Kalezic put it, "aid is needed to accommodate refugees, because many of them... have no shelter."
Not all the refugees have remained in Montenegro. News reports describe a steady flow of Kosovars entering Albania in recent days via Montenegro's sole border crossing with Albania at Han i Hotit.
NATO has attacked Serbian military targets in Montenegro while stating publicly that it is keeping these attacks to a bare minimum because of the Montenegrin government's opposition to Milosevic. Montenegrin Radio (April 5) reported that some the Republic's citizens are also fleeing Montenegro, largely as a result of military call-ups by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army. Montenegro has its own police force but no army of its own.
At a meeting of Montenegrin parliamentary leaders (April 5), a member of the Social Democratic party, Ranko Krivokapic, called on those wanting to flee "to stick it out a bit longer..., to stay on and help us cope with this insanity." Krivokapic denounced the Army's forced induction tactics, saying "no-one in Montenegro has the right to persecute its citizens on behalf of the military police." He insisted that the rule of law still prevails in Montenegro, adding that the army must not interfere in civilian affairs.
Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Rifat Rastoder declared that "NATO's bombs and the violence in Kosovo are evil, as innocent people are the victims, be they the people who are fleeing Kosovo under threats, or those throughout Serbia who worry if it will be their child next to be hit by a bomb."
In an interview this week with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, Montenegrin Foreign Minister Branko Perovic said that "the stability of all Europe is dependent on a single person, Milosevic, because of the way in which the West treated him in the past as this country's sole interlocutor." Perovic confirmed that the new commander of Yugoslavia's Montenegro-based Second Army, Milorad Obradovic --who recently replaced Montenegrin Radoslav Martinovic on Milosevic's orders-- has asked President Djukanovic for the use of a television channel for the Yugoslav military. Perovic said that Djukanovic's answer was a definite "no."
Perovic told the Milan daily: "Every coup begins with an attack on the radio and television stations, followed by a dictate....Then," he added, "it is enough to remove the President and hold a court martial."
Blair, in yesterday's Montenegrin TV interview, said that NATO has been in his words, "anxious to do as little in Montenegro as possible" out of "respect for President Djukanovic and the people of Montenegro."
"I think that because of the stand that President Djukanovic has taken... the sense of responsibility that we all have towards Montenegro is all the greater. The fact that you have stood out against Milosevic, and refused to agree to his policy of ethnic cleansing, has enormously increased the respect and support for Montenegro."
Blair also said that Milosevic, whom he described as a "brutal, bloody dictator," must not be allowed to get away with a policy of ethnic cleansing once more. In his words, "we have to stop him. And we have the determination and resolve to see it through."