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Yugoslavia: Military Presence Increases In Montenegro

Montenegro is edging itself out of the Yugoslav federation. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from the Montenegrin capital Podgorica that Western-oriented Montenegrins fear a crackdown by Belgrade may be imminent.

Podgorica, 8 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An eerie sense of foreboding is palpable in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica.

Yugoslav military police are an increasingly obvious presence. They drive by in vehicular patrols, and they have occupied most hotels on the road toward the ethnically Muslim Sandzak, a potentially explosive region that straddles the border with Serbia. Just as visible are Montenegrin police, zooming around Podgorica in a fleet of shiny new Land Rovers, and occupying those hotels in the Moraca valley and beyond not occupied by the army.

Serbian police imposed a blockade on the flow of goods between the two Yugoslav republics on Monday. Today (Wednesday), Montenegrin pharmacists say Serbia has cut off supplies of medicines. Montenegro has been moving ever farther from its larger partner in Yugoslavia since November, when it adopted the German mark as its currency.

Banner headlines in local newspapers in recent days allege that the Montenegro-based Yugoslav Second Army (under General Milorad Obradovic) is preparing for war, having heightened its battle-readiness and brought in more than 100 officers from Serbia.

The Yugoslav army has set up roadblocks near Montenegro's only border crossing with Albania at Bozaj, just southeast of Podgorica, and is conducting identity checks on travelers. The Yugoslav army has denied as "baseless and tendentious" allegations that its activities have anything to do with a Montenegrin-Albanian agreement two weeks ago (Feb. 24) to reopen the border crossing, which the federal government had kept closed for three years.

Montenegro's ethnic Albanian community has felt the heaviest impact of the Yugoslav army's heightened state of readiness. For the past week, the army has been patrolling Tuzi, a large town of ethnic Albanians between the Bozaj border crossing and Podgorica. One Tuzi resident told RFE/RL that soldiers have been stopping them to conduct identity checks whenever they leave their homes.

Montenegrin Justice Minister Dragan Soc dismisses the army's tactics as provocations.

"We want peace for our citizens and will protect them from attempts to unleash internal conflict. These are our primary goals. We have experience with these games. I see no special reason to be nervous."

Despite the justice minister's confidence, it remains unclear whether the Montenegrin government and police would be in a position to resist if the Yugoslav regime were to try to seize control in Montenegro -- perhaps through a coup or a declaration of martial law. Montenegrin news media say the Yugoslav army estimates that half the Montenegrin police force favors the Belgrade regime.

Equally uncertain is how the international community would respond, beyond the traditional statements of outrage and the inevitable tightening of sanctions. Several Western military analysts have predicted that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would try to seize control this month to oust the pro-Western Montenegrin government of Milo Djukanovic.

But those predictions came before a new hotspot flared in the past two weeks in near Serbia's southernmost border with Kosovo, an area ethnic Albanians call "Eastern Kosovo."

A cartoon over the weekend in the Kosovo Albanian daily "Zeri" shows Milosevic using one hand to twist the ear of an Albanian from "Eastern Kosovo" while lighting the fuse of a huge bomb labeled Montenegro behind his back with the other hand. The cartoon neatly sums up the present situation: The conflict on Serbia's border with Kosovo is merely a sideshow to the next Balkan powder keg Milosevic is expected to ignite -- Montenegro.

The head of one of Montenegro's ruling pro-democracy parties, Social Democrat Zarko Rakcevic, says Montenegro is being held hostage.

"We are prisoners on the one hand of international politics, and on the other of Kosovo and Serbia. Montenegro's position is extremely unenviable. In this situation we risk giving the pro-Milosevic forces in Montenegro the opportunity, since Montenegro is closed off, to defeat us with arguments full of demagogy and populism about bravery to reject a democratic pro-reform Montenegro."

The deputy speaker of Montenegro's parliament, Predrag Popovic, spoke to a gathering of pro-democracy activists from Montenegro and Serbia in Podgorica last week. In his words: "Relations between Montenegro and Serbia have never been worse in their entire history." Popovic says that what he terms "the dictatorship in Serbia" is the main obstacle to reforming the Yugoslav federation and establishing stability throughout southeastern Europe. In Popovic's words, "Montenegro wants integration and a joint state with Serbia, but neither with a Serbia in its current guise nor under the regime personified by Milosevic."

Popovic accuses the Milosevic regime of denying Montenegro its constitutional rights as an equal partner with Serbia and of forcing Montenegro out of the Yugoslav federation. He also accuses Milosevic of seeking to fabricate a conflict, saying Milosevic will blame the conflict on Montenegro and use force to suppress pro-democratic forces in Montenegro while claiming to save Yugoslavia.

The head of the European Movement in Serbia, a Belgrade-based NGO, describes the situation in Serbia as very tense. Jelica Minic says democratic forces in both republics are aware that, in her words, "it would be much better if Serbia and Montenegro meet in the EU as independent states rather than part in bloodshed." She says Yugoslavia is a house with rotten foundations.

Minic says that as Serbian opposition parties and NGOs try to consolidate their control at the local level in Novi Sad, Nis, Cacak and elsewhere, the result is a new federalization of Serbia, with local leaders acting increasingly independently of the government in Belgrade.

But Minic tells RFE/RL Serbs should not oppose independence for Montenegro if no other mutually acceptable solution can be found.

"If it is the will of Montenegrin citizens to have an independent state, that is something that Serbia should respect. If it is not the case, then new mechanisms should be provided, new institutional mechanisms, that would make citizens of Montenegro and citizens of Serbia satisfied with the new institutional setting of the future state or of the existing state."

Introducing such institutional mechanisms, however, is unlikely as long as Milosevic remains in power.