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Yugoslavia: Brinkmanship In Belgrade

Prague, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is on a collision course with the reformist leadership of Montenegro under President Milo Djukanovic. Milosevic's immediate goal may be to influence Montenegrin voters in the runup to the May 31 parliamentary elections, but the outcome of his actions may have longer-term repercussions.

The current political crisis began earlier this week (May 18), when pro-Milosevic deputies in the federal parliament unseated his own prime minister, Radoje Kontic. The following day, Milosevic nominated as prime minister his ally Momir Bulatovic, who is also Montenegro's former president and the political arch-enemy of Djukanovic. The legislature quickly approved Milosevic's choice.

Kontic's grave mistake in Milosevic's eyes was his failure to help Bulatovic stay in office in Podgorica in January after his term expired. At that time Bulatovic stirred up violence and hoped to prompt Belgrade to declare a state of emergency and prevent Djukanovic's inauguration, but Kontic refused intervene. In the end, the Montenegrin police kept Bulatovic's rowdies under control and Djukanovic took office on schedule.

Djukanovic has mounted the strongest challenge to Milosevic from within Serbia or Montenegro since the former Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991-1992. During the course of 1997, then-Prime Minister Djukanovic argued that Milosevic's policies were keeping Yugoslavia isolated internationally and consequently preventing the economic revival of Montenegro, which traditionally depends on tourism and shipping to earn foreign exchange. As president in 1998, Djukanovic visited Washington and other Western capitals, where he received a sympathetic hearing and offers of political and economic support in his efforts to return his country to membership in the international community.

After Milosevic launched his campaign of repression in Kosova at the end of February, Djukanovic disassociated himself from the use of violence and called for internationally mediated talks leading to autonomy for Kosova. Speaking to French journalists last month (April 13) in Podgorica, Djukanovic charged that "Milosevic is tragically behind the times in his assessments, and is always embarking on new political failures." The Montenegrin leader dubbed Milosevic's April 23 referendum against foreign mediation in Kosova "the collective suicide... he proposes for the Serbian people." Djukanovic urged the international community to back his "efforts to form a block of reformist forces in Yugoslavia capable of barring the way to the damaging policies that Milosevic personifies."

The spring of 1998 thus found Milosevic confronting two crises that were largely of his own making. The first was in Kosova, where his repressive policies had radicalized much of the mainly ethnic Albanian population and driven them into the arms of the shadowy Kosova Liberation Army. His policies in Kosova also threatened to trigger the re imposition of the political isolation and economic sanctions that the international community had placed on Yugoslavia during the Croatian and Bosnian wars of 1991-1995.

The second crisis was with Montenegro, the leadership of which insisted upon full equality with Serbia within the federation and resented Milosevic's attempts to increase his own powers at the expense of the republics. Djukanovic, moreover, was clear about his own policy goals and had won the support of a slight majority of the voters the previous October.

Three days ago (May 19) he made it clear that he would not allow Milosevic to provoke "Montenegro into giving up the idea of joint statehood with Serbia by engaging in irresponsible, uncontrolled and unpredictable moves on the federal level," such as by sacking Kontic and replacing him with Bulatovic.

Milosevic, for his part, may have sought to bring matters in his relations with Podgorica to a head in the runup to parliamentary elections in Montenegro at the end of May. He may have reasoned that a bit of pressure from Belgrade might cost Djukanovic's supporters votes and bolster the chances of Bulatovic's backers. The Yugoslav president may also feel that he needs to bring Montenegro into line as he prepares for what may prove to be a longer confrontation with both the ethnic Albanians and the international community over Kosova.

This strategy could, however, backfire on the Yugoslav president. He is himself of Montenegrin origin and has presumably made his calculations carefully; but a head-on confrontation with Djukanovic is potentially fraught with danger for Milosevic and its outcome is not easy to predict. In Montenegrin politics, the fault lines traditionally involve relationships between clans and tensions between supporters of unity with Serbia and those who favor emphasizing a separate Montenegrin identity. But even among those who back close ties with Belgrade, there are few who would submit Montenegro to centralized rule from the capital. Djukanovic, for his part, has made it clear that he and his government will not recognize the sacking of Kontic, the election of Bulatovic, or the appointment of Bulatovic's government.

Meanwhile, speculation is rife in Belgrade and Podgorica as to whether Milosevic will now begin to purge other prominent officials who have defended the autonomy of their respective institutions and not done his bidding. One such individual is Gen. Momcilo Perisic, the chief of the General Staff, who kept the army out of the Milosevic-Djukanovic feud and has been less than enthusiastic about waging a war in Kosova. Whatever may happen in the coming days, Belgrade is clearly faced with its worst constitutional crisis since the breakup in 1991-1992 of the Yugoslavia created by Marshal Josip Broz Tito.