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Montenegro: Officials Will Not Be Provoked By Border Closing

For reasons still not entirely clear, the Yugoslav army has blocked access to Montenegro's sole border crossing with Albania. But whatever is behind the move, reports RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele from Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, government officials say they will not be provoked.

Podgorica, 29 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The cat-and-mouse game between Belgrade and Podgorica has taken a new turn. Over the weekend, the Yugoslav army put its forces in Montenegro in a heightened state of alert, re-deployed more than 100 officers to the small republic, and then blocked off the road leading to Montenegro's sole border crossing with Albania.

The border only opened last Thursday (Feb. 24), when Montenegro and Albania's deputy foreign ministers signed an agreement in Shkoder. The following day, normal traffic resumed, with 250 to 300 people crossing in both directions.

But on Sunday evening, the Yugoslav army blocked the road at Tuzi, some five kilometers from the border, using tanks and dump trucks. Yugoslav soldiers also prevented local residents from returning to their homes in the border zone after being away for the day. The border zone is largely inhabited by ethnic Albanians.

A cartoon on the front page of yesterday's pro-democracy Montenegrin daily, "Vijesti," shows the border barrier raised. The cartoon also depicts an angry Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his prime minister, Momir Bulatovic -- who is Montenegrin by origin -- manning a tank that has its cannon blocking the border. A Montenegrin and an Albanian on either side of the frontier are shown shaking in fear.

Montenegrin Justice Minister Dragan Soc told RFE/RL yesterday the Yugoslav army move came as no surprise.

"It is nothing unexpected. It is one of Milosevic's possible games for exerting pressure on Montenegro. It is something that was expected. We are hoping that this 'war of nerves' which has been going on for a year between civil and military authorities in Montenegro will remain just a 'war of nerves,' and we shall maintain internal peace. It is very important."

Soc says closing the border exhibits a lack of logic that he says is typical of Milosevic.

"It's a political act which aims at radicalizing the situation in Montenegro to ignite a new crisis, to help him (Milosevic) stay in power."

Once before, Yugoslavia closed the same border crossing, which is at Bozaj on the shores of Lake Shkoder. That occurred three years ago, in response to anarchy in neighboring Albania resulting from the collapse of get-rich-quick pyramid schemes there. Then, during NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia last spring, Montenegro temporarily reopened the border, enabling tens of thousands of displaced Kosovar Albanians to reach Albania after Yugoslav forces began persecuting them on Montenegrin territory.

Yugoslavia has given no explanation for its current move. It remains unclear whether the border closing is a reflection of the Milosevic regime's annoyance with Montenegro for making its own foreign policy or whether it is a move intended to keep unwanted Albanian visitors out of Montenegro. To add to the confusion, the borders between Montenegro and both Serbia and UN-administered Kosovo remain open to traffic, as do Montenegro's borders with Croatia and Bosnia.

The Montenegrin justice minister says his government will not be provoked:

"I expect the Montenegrin government to maintain its activities as it has until now. We've always had more patience than Milosevic and we oppose all radicalization in Montenegro and we want peace for our citizens. We will defend ourselves from attempts to unleash an internal conflict in Montenegro. That's our primary goal. We are experienced in playing this game, and we don't see any reason for getting nervous."

The closing of the border coincides with a three-day symposium in Podgorica of Serbian and Montenegrin pro-democracy activists, officials and academics who are discussing Serbian-Montenegrin relations. Participants warn that the more pressure the Milosevic regime puts on Montenegro, the greater Montenegrin public resistance will be.

A Podgorica University professor of constitutional law, Mijat Sukovic, says the Yugoslav Federation -- now made up of only Serbia and Montenegro -- has practically ceased to exist. Serbian and Montenegrin legal systems are not in harmony and actually contradict each other in some respects. Sukovic notes that Serbian and Montenegrin authorities now act independently of each other -- and of what is supposed to be a federal union.