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Montenegro: President's Inauguration Approaches And Trouble Brews

Prague, 15 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Police in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro have tightened security before this afternoon's inauguration of new president Milo Djukanovic. Police are said to have set up checkpoints on roads leading from Serbia to Montenegro in advance of the ceremony scheduled for 5 p.m. Central European Time in Cetinje. Police also are carrying out weapons searches. Demonstrations have been banned.

The measures come following street clashes last night in the capital Podgorica between police and loyalists to outgoing President Momir Bulatovic. Some 51 people were hurt, mostly police officers.

Bulatovic has refused to recognize the result of last October's presidential election, claiming fraud. U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard, in a stopover in Belgrade, said the U.S. holds Bulatovic's ally, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, responsible for the Podgorica violence and warned against attempts to interfere in Djukanovic's government.

The violence which has preceded the inauguration of Djukanovic shows vividly the potential for the development of a new crisis in the Yugoslav region.

Djukanovic, a youthful reformer who has pledged to liberalize Montenegro economically and politically, goes into office (Jan. 15) with the goodwill and support of much of the international community, including the United States. At home, he appears to have solid backing from the Republic's interior ministry to help him retain order.

But Djukanovic is still facing the menace posed by outgoing President Bulatovic, who has refused to accept the authenticity of his win in the October elections. Behind Bulatovic stands Yugoslav Federal President Slobodan Milosevic, who will lose much of his influence over the constituent Yugoslav republic of Montenegro if Djukanovic consolidates his grip on the presidency.

Thousands of Bulatovic' supporters, many of them armed, rampaged Wednesday night (Jan. 14) in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, clashing with police, smashing windows and damaging cars before being driven back by waves of tear gas. More than 40 people were injured, nearly all of them policemen. The Interior Ministry says many of the officers were injured when an explosive device was thrown among them. Local media referred to deaths in the clashes, but that has not been confirmed.

Analysts say the violence bore the hallmarks of an arranged protest of the sort Milosevic supporters staged during his own rise to power in Serbia in the second half of the 1980s. The demonstrators were well-organized and aggressive.

The United States, which has previously said it wants to see a calm transfer of power in Montenegro, left no doubt about who it believed was responsible. U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard said in Belgrade Thursday (today) that Bulatovic is clearly to blame, and so is Milosevic for supporting the disturbances and for not restraining Bulatovic. Gelbard said such outrageous behavior makes clear that Bulatovic does not abide by international standards or accept democracy.

It's reported that two top aides of Bulatovic have resigned after admitting that they knew in advance that trouble was planned.

RFE/RL senior Balkan analyst Patrick Moore says the rioting could be considered to have had two objectives. The first would have been to derail Djukanovic's inauguration by creating an atmosphere of chaos which might lead to federal military intervention, or at least might enable Bulatovic to call a state of emergency, and thus stay in power.

Failing that, the second aim of the riots would be to warn Djukanovic to keep in line generally, and not to interfere with Milosevic's plans to change the Yugoslav constitution to grant him (Milosevic) more power.

Moore says he does not believe Milosevic takes his own propaganda seriously on the accusation that Djukanovic wants Montenegro to secede from the Yugoslav union. Djukanovic has said repeatedly that he will not try to take the republic out of the federation except in extreme circumstances.

In Podgorica during the day, some of Bulatovic's supporters remained gathered in the center of the city while local dignitaries and a galaxy of 54 foreign diplomats attended the presidential inauguration ceremony in the ancient Montenegrin capital of Cetinje. The police said they were in full control of Podgorica.

As usual in Balkan affairs, the future course of events in Montenegro is hard to foretell. What is sure is that Djukanovic poses the first substantial challenge to Milosevic's authority over the rump Yugoslav Federation, and Milosevic is never likely to be happy with that.