A recent robbery and murder in the mountain forests on Montenegro's border with Kosovo is raising concerns that Montenegro, while trying to redefine its relationship with Serbia in the Yugoslav federation, may fall victim to ethnic clashes. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports.
Prague, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Police in Montenegro and Kosovo are still searching for three Albanian-speaking masked attackers, armed with automatic weapons, who killed a woodcutter on 24 August, shot and wounded a second, and robbed a third, on the north slope of Prokletije -- the Accursed Mountains -- in Montenegro's border zone with Kosovo.
All three victims were exiled Bosnian Serbs from Kotor Varos. The incident occurred at Jelenak near Plav, at an altitude of 1,800 meters, about one kilometer from Montenegro's boundary with Kosovo and nine kilometers north of the point where the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania converge.
The police chief in Plav and the magistrate in Bijelo Polje say the motive for the attack was robbery. They note that the attackers stole three power saws, two wristwatches, and an earring, and believe that the attackers probably fled back into Kosovo.
There is no proof the attackers were from Kosovo. The neighboring district of Albania is notoriously anarchic and crime-ridden.
UN police in Kosovo reported two similar incidents the day before the murder-robbery. In one incident, Albanian-speaking men stopped a car of Kosovar Albanians and robbed the passengers of their jewelry, money, and cell phones, and shot the driver of a second car in the leg after he refused to stop.
The mayor of Plav, Kemal Purisic, concedes there is a problem in the mountains:
"We have a problem in the border region near Kosovo where this group is operating. This group crossed over the border, but I hope that the authorities will succeed in protecting the people and their property and that this scenario will not spread any deeper into Montenegro."
He says he is convinced that Montenegro's Albanians are committed to co-existence with Montenegrins and other nationalities in the republic.
Virtually all political parties in Montenegro seized the opportunity to denounce the violence, but they are interpreting the incident according to their needs.
The spokesman for the pro-Belgrade Socialist People's Party (SNP), Dragan Koprivica, says the murder-robbery is troubling and "shows that Montenegro is an unstable area." He accuses the ruling party in Montenegro, President Milo Djukanovic's ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its local Albanian allies, of being "instructed by their Greater Albanian mentors in Tirana and Kosovo to heat up the situation."
Koprivica also accuses Albanians from across the border of buying homes in Montenegro, which he says is proof that Albanians have a secret plan to dominate Montenegro.
But DPS spokesman Igor Luksic responded that "Koprivica is living in a twilight zone" and that "there is not a single item of military intelligence to confirm his allegations."
Similarly, the deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Ranko Krivokapic, dismissed Koprivica's allegations, alleging that some Albanian parties in Montenegro are more patriotic (pro-Montenegro) than Koprivica's pro-federal -- and traditionally pro-Slobodan Milosevic -- SNP. The Podgorica daily "Vijesti" today quotes Krivokapic as saying, "Once again, there are those who would launch ethnic wars and who don't like what they see today in [the war crimes trials at] The Hague."
The pro-Serbian Montenegrin daily "Dan" last month alleged that Albanian residents of Plav and the neighboring village of Gusinje tried to stage a rebellion but failed due to lack of interest among the local Albanian population, which lives side by side with Montenegrin Muslims (Bosniaks) and Christians.
The French news agency AFP over the weekend quoted an unnamed NATO official as saying that, since a peace deal was reached in Macedonia on 13 August, NATO has observed suspicious activity between Macedonia and the Plav/Gusinje area of Montenegro.
Montenegro and Macedonia do not share a common border and are separated by Kosovo and Albania. The NATO official said: "We have strong reason to believe that the UCK forces are moving their arms from the areas they hold in Macedonia. Their final destination is Plav and Gusinje and the valley of Presevo [in Serbia]."
The head of the local self-administration in Plav, Tahir Gjonbalaj, an ethnic Albanian, insists there are no Albanian terrorist groups in the Plav region.
Fuad Nimani, the head of a Montenegrin Albanian political party, the Democratic Union of Albanians, says Albanians are taking an active, peaceful role in developing democracy in Montenegro.
"Albanians in Montenegro are participating in the democratic resolution of its status through Montenegro's institutions. Moreover, there is no threat whatsoever to Montenegro's territorial integrity from Kosovo or from the Albanians in Macedonia."
Similarly, Montenegro's minister for the defense of the rights of national and ethnic groups, Gezim Hajdinaga -- a leader of the Democratic Union of Albanians -- rejects any possibility of the conflict spreading from Macedonia to Montenegro. He insists that Montenegro's Albanian population, numbering about seven percent of the population of 650,000, are loyal citizens.
In an interview with the Podgorica daily "Vijesti" today, Hajdinaga says he has no information whatsoever that Albanian extremists from Kosovo are preparing to stage an attack in Montenegro. He, too, denounced the murder-robbery near Plav and called on investigators to find out what really happened. He rejected allegations that the incident constitutes a case of "organized terrorism." And he called on the public to preserve the country's "good and stable relations among nationalities and religions," while promising that "Albanians will push for their goals only in legal institutions."
Meanwhile, Montenegro's ever-weakening relationship with Serbia has shown little sign of improvement.
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said on 23 August that elections cannot be held until Serbia has a new constitution, and that there can be no new constitution "until it is clear whether Serbia will be an independent state or remain part of the [Yugoslav] federation with Montenegro."
Montenegrin and Serbian news media yesterday quoted Podgorica's Foreign Minister Branko Lukavac as saying that he is halting all contact with the federal Foreign Ministry. He accused the federal Foreign Ministry of failing to heed his calls to be pragmatic in relations with Montenegro and desist from creating difficulties and obstructions to Montenegro's international activities.
Yugoslav Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic responded that Lukovac's decision to break off contact shows that the Montenegrin authorities do not recognize the federal state. Svilanovic said: "It is nothing personal. It's a matter of the position of the Montenegrin government toward the federal authorities."
President Djukanovic met officially on 20 August with Montenegrin opposition leader SNP Chairman Predrag Bulatovic, to discuss the "settlement of the future status of Montenegro" and conditions for rapid economic and political reforms. They said that the issue of holding a referendum on secession will be subject to further discussion between their two parties: "We think that there are no conditions for a referendum at present."
Djukanovic's party leads a minority government with the cooperation of six strong pro-independence deputies. After his party failed to garner enough votes in April to win a majority government, Djukanovic has been more cautious about calling a referendum, fearing it could actually doom Montenegro's chances for independence.
Meanwhile, representatives of the ruling Serb coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, and the Montenegrin, pro-Belgrade coalition of parties, Together for Yugoslavia -- which includes the SNP -- have agreed on a plan for the future relationship between Serbia and Montenegro.