SINCE the Yugoslav crisis began, the tiny republic of Montenegro has stood in the shadow of Serbia, faithfully supplying men and resources for Belgrade's proxy wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and enduring the hardships of sanctions imposed by the United Nations.
But tensions have been rising in recent months over what many Montenegrins regard as growing domination by their powerful neighbor and the submergence of their culture and identity beneath a tide of Serbian nationalism.
People in this mountainous republic have grown tired of two years of the ethnic bloodletting and economic chaos in the former Yugoslavia. The sanctions resulting from Belgrade's role in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia have hurt impoverished Montenegro far more than Serbia.
As a result, calls are growing in Montenegro for independence from rump Yugoslavia and its paramount ruler, authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Many express grave fears of political upheaval should a serious secession drive gather steam. Serbia cannot afford to lose Montenegro, its only outlet to the Adriatic Sea and the last base open to the Yugoslav Navy.
Concerns have risen anew since Oct. 31, when thousands gathered in the former Montenegrin capital of Cetinje for what was billed as a formal break from the Serbian Orthodox Church and the reestablishment of an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Antonije Abramovic, who emigrated to Canada 30 years ago and served as the Orthodox Bishop of Edmond, was sworn in to cheers and gunfire as the new head of the Montenegrin church, which was abolished in 1920 by King Aleksandar of Yugoslavia.
Although Bishop Abramovic denied any political motives, leaders of the Committee for the Renewal of the Autocephalous Montenegrin Church, which sponsored the gathering, openly declared otherwise.
``We want to be a nation and this is why we want independence for our church and our state,'' asserts Stevan Vucinic, the Committee's general secretary.
The gathering coincided with the opening the same day in Cetinje of a synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a historic engine of Serbian nationalism. The synod was seen by many Montenegrins as another of many ``provocations'' intended to project the authority of the Serbian church and Belgrade, which share with ultranationalists the view that Montenegrins are Serbs.
The Serbian Orthodox Church reacted fiercely to Abramovic's swearing-in, calling it a ``deplorable and tragi-comic event'' that was ``motivated by base political, nonreligious reasons.''
The organizers and those who attended were supporters of the opposition Liberal Alliance of Montenegro, the chief advocate of Montenegrin separatism. The alliance's popularity has soared. A recent opinion poll gave it the support of 25 percent of the electorate, just 4 percent behind President Momir Bulatovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, the former communists.
The liberals and other pro-independence groups have been boosted by as-yet unsubstantiated media reports that Mr. Milosevic is overseeing the drafting of a new federal constitution that would concentrate all political and economic power in Belgrade.
Montenegro would lose its still-considerable self-rule and be relegated, these reports say, to a province of a new ``union of Serbian states'' that would formalize the creation of ``Greater Serbia'' through the annexation of Serb-conquered regions of Croatia and Bosnia.
Mr. Bulatovic, handpicked by Milosevic in 1987, has avoided openly taking sides on the independence question, recognizing that Serbia could easily crush a secessionist Montenegro.
Even after winning an outright victory in December 1992 elections, Bulatovic formed a coalition government with the pro-Serbia People's Party, the pro-independence Social Democratic Party, and the Liberal Alliance.
But tensions over relations with Serbia in part resulted in a withdrawal by the Liberals and the People's Party. More seriously, Bulatovic faces a split within his own party, exacerbated by the reports on the purported preparation of a new constitution.
Despite his public stance, Bulatovic has quietly crept closer to the pro-independence lobby, refusing to fall in behind Milosevic on many political issues.
Montenegro last year blocked two no-confidence motions orchestrated by Milosevic against former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic for advocating compromises in Croatia and Bosnia. Earlier this year, Montenegro agreed to accept UN monitors on its border with Bosnia despite refusals by Milosevic.
Bulatovic visited Albania last month in what many analysts saw as an attempt to open secret sanctions-busting channels that would reduce Montenegro's strong economic dependence on Serbia.
The Montenegrin president has refused a federal government order to abolish his Foreign Ministry. Milosevic has retaliated by imposing a virtual blockade on food and other exports to Montenegro, which responded by halting the sales to Serbia of salt, aluminum, coal, and other goods.
The passage on Sept. 28 of a new Yugoslav defense law renders Montenegro subject to any state of emergency declared by the federal government.
``The more rights [Serbians] deny the Montenegrins, the further Montenegro will move away,'' warns Velizar Brajovic, the Montenegro correspondent for the Belgrade magazine Vreme.