Will Montenegro Cut From Yugoslavia?

New spirit of independence vs. taskmaster in Belgrade

MONTENEGRO is the last republic to remain in federation with Serbia in the current Yugoslavia. Now Montenegro may cut free.

Independence, Montenegrin style, can mean a more detached courtship with Serbia, complete secession, or simply the reaffirmation of a unique Montenegrin identity. The form and direction are not yet determined. But an independent spirit burns in this tiny region that was autonomous for two centuries prior to World War I. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (himself a Montenegrin) is doing his best to crush this spirit; meanwhile the world watches, saying nothing.

Typical feelings in Montenegro were summed up recently by a young clerk: ``Serbia has brought us lies, war, sanctions, and the wrath of the world. Now I have to wake up at 5 a.m. and stand in line for milk for my baby. Thanks a lot, Slobo.''

Many Montenegrins feel stuck with Serbia. One woman said, ``I guess being linked to Serbia is some kind of penance for our role in bombing Dubrovnik.'' Yet support mounts for the Liberal Alliance, the leading opposition party that advocates ``quiet diplomacy'' toward an independent Montenegro. After trips to the United States this summer and fall, Slavko Perovic, the increasingly popular Liberal Alliance leader, talks about bringing US voting machines to parliament for a demonstration, preparing for the day Montenegrins can cast ballots to determine their own fate.

Even Montenegrin members of parliament with close ties to Serbia have a taste for independence. This spring, the republic disagreed with Serbia's decision to oust the human rights monitoring missions of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) from Yugoslavia; this fall, Montenegro's foreign minister traveled to Italy and Albania to broker independent humanitarian aid packages and trade agreements.

With the world distracted by Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, Mr. Milosevic has taken liberties in clipping Montenegro's wings.

Angered by Montenegro's opposition to Serbia's decision to oust CSCE human rights monitors, Milosevic pinched Montenegro through use of ``economic sanctions'' - blocking trucks carrying goods and foodstuffs across the Serbia-Montenegro border. Yugoslav officials later claimed that the blockage was a ``clerical error,'' but its timing was too much of a coincidence. As a result of the blockage, stores in Montenegro were even more bare than the near-empty stores in Serbia.

Empty Montenegrin stores fed into the Serb propaganda mill. The Montenegrin-owned but Serbian-controlled radio and television stations in Montenegro announced that the lack of food in Montenegro only illustrated the republic's absolute dependency on Serbia, and hence the idiocy of any plans for independence.

Milosevic retains tight control over the media in Montenegro by dominating the airwaves, the sole source of news for most people. While handfuls of independent magazines and newspapers exist in Montenegro, few people can afford them. By directly and indirectly blocking applications for frequencies, Milosevic has silenced all radio stations in Montenegro that would challenge Serbian policies.

Montenegrins labor under the shadow of a huge Serbian military presence. Under a new defense arrangement, Montenegro's defense units were disbanded in favor of Yugoslav army troops. Over 60,000 of these recruits patrol Montenegrin soil, one soldier for every ten residents. Over 95 percent are Serb; all take orders from Belgrade.

To further disrupt notions of independence, Milosevic and his supporters dominate Montenegrin cultural institutions and, in doing so, attempt to erase any independent Montenegrin identity. Montenegrins, however, are very serious about their culture. This fall, an attempt to quash a Montenegrin cultural celebration sparked the first large-scale use of force by police in Montenegro to date.

Montenegrins have become increasingly dissatisfied with Serb-imposed mandates on religious practices. Recently, they pressured authorities to allow churches to stop writing ``Serb'' on the blank line calling for ``nationality'' on baptism and wedding certificates. Priests, however, still do not feel free to write that a person's nationality is ``Montenegrin.'' Thousands on the streets of Cetinje last Sunday defiantly supported an independent Montenegrin orthodox church and the swearing in of a new Montenegrin orthodox bishop. Tensions may increase as the new church develops an independent agenda.

The first salvo might come if Milosevic tries to impose a new Yugoslav constitution that renders Montenegro subservient to a greater Serbia. Reportedly, secret constitutional drafting sessions are underway to make such changes. Milosevic may not need the new law; his subtle approach to press Montenegro into subservience is working. Still, Montenegro murmurs. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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