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Yugoslavia: Montenegro Ponders Break From Serbia

The president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, visited the headquarters of RFE/RL in Prague yesterday where much of the focus was on the choice he and others in the republic face regarding links with Belgrade. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky files this report on the choice and on the visit.

Prague, 21 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- 'Should we stay or should we go?' That is the question many are asking in the republic of Montenegro, the junior partner of Serbia in what remains of Yugoslavia after all the other republics have broken away.

The Montenegrin leadership says the republic's moves toward democracy and a free market are being choked by the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which has been isolated by the West. Led by President Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro is urging that the Yugoslav state be recast as a loose two-state confederation. Under the plan, economic, military, and foreign policy largely would be left to each republic. Belgrade has so far balked at such plans. But Montenegrin officials say they are willing to consider secession if Serbia remains intransigent.

On Tuesday, Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic said the decision whether to remain part of Yugoslavia or move toward full independence is in the hands of the people. Over the weekend, Foreign Minister Branko Perovic was more precise, saying an independence referendum could be held within weeks. He said with Yugoslavia's currency, the dinar, losing more than 30 percent of its value just over the last month, Montenegrins' patience is running out. The currency has plummeted partly because Yugoslav officials have been printing additional dinars to cover budget deficits.

Talk of secession has prompted stern replies from Yugoslav officials, including a warning from Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic that the army would be used against any attempt by Montenegro to secede from Yugoslavia.

The public mood among Montenegro's 600,000 residents is mixed. Predictably, many of the republic's ethnic Serbs are hostile to any split with Belgrade. Some commentators are even predicting clashes if a referendum is held.

Representatives from both countries are due to sit down next week to address issues of redefining relations between Montenegro and the Yugoslav federation.

So what does the future hold for Montenegro? That question and others were put to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic when he paid a visit to RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on 21 October.

Djukanovic said Montenegrins now face two options over the future of the republic.

"Either they can choose the path of economic and democratic reform of the present government, or they can choose the path offered by Milosevic, which means isolation, personal power, dictatorship, and economic decline, and that is what we have seen this year."

Djukanovic downplayed the talk of Montenegro seceding from Serbia.

"It is not our main objective to secede from Yugoslavia, but rather to develop and co-exist within a democratic Yugoslavia."

Djukanovic said his government will continue along a path of democratic reforms with or without their federal partners in Serbia. He said the kinds of reforms being pursued in Montenegro can serve as an example not only for Serbia, but also for other undemocratic regimes in the Balkan region.

The Montenegrin leader vowed to do everything possible to avoid conflict, but he warned that patience in the small mountainous republic is not limitless. He said if the policies of Milosevic continue, Montenegro will, in Djukanovic's words, "refrain from sacrificing our future."

An article in the German newspaper Die Welt yesterday notes that Podgorica has been pressured by the West, particularly the United States, to delay any final decision on Montenegro's future. The West wants to allow the opposition movement in Serbia time to gain more momentum.

But Djukanovic says that allowing time for the opposition also means allowing Milosevic time to do his own lobbying.

"Mr. Milosevic is trying to stir within a small minority in Montenegro the same type of nationalist passions, that caused much of the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia in 1992."

But Djukanovic says he is optimistic that this time, a breakaway movement would not lead to a bloody war. He said that pro-Serb Montenegrins know that Milosevic will ultimately desert them. Democratic forces in Montenegro, he said, are too strong to be manipulated easily. And he notes that the international community now has thousands of troops stationed in the Balkans as a bulwark against conflict.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.