Presidential elections in Montenegro, a tiny republic on the Adriatic Sea, could determine the fate of rump Yugoslavia and lead to the creation of a new Balkan state.
Because neither Montenegro's incumbent President Momir Bulatovic, an ally of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, nor Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, a young reformer critical of Belgrade's heavy-handed regime, achieved an absolute majority in an Oct. 5 vote, a runoff election will be held Oct. 19.
While Mr. Bulatovic and Mr. Djukanovic are both presidential candidates of the ruling Democratic Socialist Party - and equally popular among voters - their visions differ radically. Observers here agree that the second round will essentially be a referendum on whether the republic should stay in the Yugoslav federation or go its own way.
Known for its rugged mountains and warrior tradition, Montenegro has a history of statehood that goes back 10 centuries. Although ethnically identical to Serbs, Montenegrins had their own republic in the former Yugoslavia. When war tore apart the rest of the country, Mr. Milosevic cobbled together Serbia and Montenegro into the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - the only Balkan state not recognized by the United States and barred from membership in the United Nations.
"Rump Yugoslavia is a swindle for Montenegro," says Slavko Perovic, head of the republic's pro-independence Liberal Alliance. "Yugoslavia exists only as a buttress for Milosevic's own power." This summer, after his second term as Serbian president ran out, Milosevic took over the Yugoslav presidency. Many Montenegrins fear he will increase the powers of the federal government to the detriment of republican sovereignty.
Milosevic's federation was a lopsided union from the beginning, since Serbia's population is 20 times larger than Montenegro's. Until recently, the government in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, merely rubber-stamped Belgrade's decisions. But after more than five years of international isolation and a decade of political decay in Serbia, Montenegrins are asking themselves if they would be better off independent.
Montenegro's Prime Minister Djukanovic is portraying himself as the defender of the republic's autonomy. He is advocating economic and political reform as well as reintegration into the international community. President Bulatovic follows Belgrade.
Djukanovic visited the US several times this year and secured a $70 million credit from Greece in April. By seeking foreign connections on his own, the Montenegrin prime minister has tried to bypass Milosevic's authority.
In a move that rattled Belgrade last spring, Podgorica sent a delegation to The Hague to discuss more cooperation in investigating Montenegro's role in war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia.
Milosevic finds himself in an awkward position, since his signature on the Dayton peace accords obligates Yugoslavia to cooperate with the war-crimes tribunal. Though Montenegro has little legal power to act on its own, its willingness to work with The Hague is symbolic of Montenegro's attempt to distance itself from Belgrade.
The highest court of Montenegro is also showing an unprecedented level of judicial independence. The Constitutional Court in Podgorica ruled that President Bulatovic's attempt to split the party ticket was illegal, since Djukanovic had secured the party nomination first. Intervention by a Belgrade court allowed Bulatovic to run.
"We said that such interference by the Constitutional Court of Yugoslavia could lead to the destruction of the Federal Republic in every sense," says Blagota Mitric, president of Montenegro's highest court. Such resentment against Belgrade's semi-legal meddling runs high in Podgorica. "The forces for independence in Montenegro wouldn't be so strong if Serbia were democratic," says Danilo Burzan, editor in chief of the independent news agency Montena-Fax.
Recent elections in Serbia give Montenegrin reformers even more reason for concern. The fascistic Serbian Radical Party, which intends to strip Montenegro of its republican status in the expansionist program of "Greater Serbia," is the only party rivaling Milosevic's leftist coalition.
Supporters of Montenegro's independence are united by economic pragmatism. Half of the republic's coastline is beach, and Belgrade critics claim that with a population of only 500,000, Montenegro's battered economy could easily recover with foreign investment in tourism and shipping. Skeptics say that the Montenegrin government's plans to establish a free-trade zone would do little more than provide a legitimization for money laundering and illegal trading.
A radicalization of the Belgrade political scene could solidify support in Montenegro for independence. With Montenegro providing Serbia with its only access to the sea, it is unlikely that Belgrade will let go without a struggle.