Embattled Milosevic Opens Another Front

Serb strongman's removal of Montenegro's premier Monday plays into anger with Belgrade - and desire for independence.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has survived war in Bosnia, civil unrest in Belgrade, and a guerrilla movement in Kosovo.

But now the Balkans power broker faces one of the most dangerous confrontations of his remarkable 10-year political career.

On Monday, Mr. Milosevic removed the prime minister in the Republic of Montenegro, which with Serbia makes up Yugoslavia, and installed a political ally of his own.

That power play seems likely to set up a collision with Milo Djukanovic, the popular, US-backed president of Montenegro, whose recent election Milosevic has not recognized.

It also opens what amounts to a fourth front in Milosevic's long quest to forge a "Greater Serbia." Already in Belgrade, a failing economy fuels unrest. In the Serb-run part of Bosnia, the pro-Milosevic camp of Radovan Karadzic has been pushed aside by a pro-West leadership. And in the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo, ethnic Albanians continue their armed struggle.

Though many Montenegrins consider themselves Serbs - Milosevic is of Montenegrin origins - others consider themselves a separate ethnic group and oppose what they see as a dilution of autonomy by Belgrade.

That could give rise to new violence.

"This is one of the riskiest decisions he has ever made," says Vladamir Goati, a senior research fellow at the Belgrade Institute of Social Sciences. "It is impossible to foresee the consequences of this."

Milosevic began as a rising star in Yugoslavia's Communist Party, but adopted nationalist rhetoric in the late 1980s. Under his regime, Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia were encouraged to fight for the dream of a Greater Serbia, ultimately giving rise to the ethnic war in Bosnia.

Only after United Nations sanctions against postwar Yugoslavia, and after the Bosnian Serb leadership became disobedient, did Milosevic adopt the role of peacemaker.

Milosevic's economic and military ties to the Bosnian Serb leadership of Mr. Karadzic made him a useful partner for the international community. In 1995, Milosevic signed the Dayton agreement on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs. Milosevic has leveraged his international stature ever since.

Tension has been mounting between Serbia and Montenegro for months. On Monday, Milosevic orchestrated the firing of former federal Prime Minister Radoje Kontic, a Djukanovic ally. On Tuesday he replaced Mr. Kontic with Djukanovic's chief rival, Momir Bulatovic. The position of premier is considered the most powerful post in the federal government.

"Now Milosevic could install marshal law if he wants to," says Sonja Biserko, the chair of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

The move is clearly intended to bolster Milosevic's position and weaken Djukanovic, a pro-Western reformer who wants to open up Montenegro's economy. Montenegrin parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 31. The outcome of the elections will be crucial in determining the makeup of the federal parliament, which has the power to approve or reject the federal president - currently Milosevic.

The conflict is especially dangerous because it coincides with a growing desire for independence among Montenegrins.

It remains to be seen how Djukanovic will react, but already the Montenegrin Parliament has said it would recognize neither the new federal premier nor any new laws on the federal level.

The possibility of violence looms heavily over the tiny republic with a population of 650,000.

"If someone wants violence in Montenegro, he should know what to expect," Djukanovic says.

There was already rioting in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica for three days leading up to Djukanovic's Jan. 15 inauguration. International observers blamed Mr. Bulatovic, the loser in the election, for instigating the violence.

The attack on Djukanovic coincides with other serious threats to Milosevic's authority. In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians continue to take up arms in their fight for independence, while the Serbian police appear inept at containing the spreading guerrilla warfare. Although preliminary talks began between Serbs and ethnic Albanians last week, the Albanians have threatened to break them off before a meeting scheduled for Friday.

Nevertheless, the six-nation Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia announced that it would not implement the threatened ban on international investment in Serbia.

Ethnic Albanians called the lifting of the ban a premature concession to Milosevic.

In the ethnic-Serbian half of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, the pro-Western government of Biljana Plavsic and Milorad Dodik has successfully replaced the pro-Milosevic camp of Karadzic.

And unrest is growing in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, where the economy is in ruins and students are protesting a measure that would give the government virtual control of universities and academies throughout the republic.

In regard to Montenegro, Milosevic appears to be losing the fight. The US and other Western powers have begun cozying up to the thirtysomething Djukanovic, offering Montenegro financial incentives for its early leanings toward democracy. Montenegrins increasingly view Serbia as a hindrance to their economy, which could probably survive from its Adriatic Sea-based tourist industry alone.

Kiro Gligorov, president of Macedonia, says that Montenegro might be better off financially without Serbia.

"Some of the characteristics of Montenegro speak to the fact that they could live quite well by themselves," he says. "They have enormous possibility."

In a recent poll taken by the Belgrade-based Pulse agency, respondents in both Serbia and Montenegro said they blame Milosevic more than Djukanovic for the widening gulf between the two republics.

Observers say Montenegro is beginning to look more and more like Slovenia before it seceded from Yugoslavia in 1990, touching off the breakup of the country.

"I think, unfortunately, this parallel exists," Djukanovic said in an interview with the Austrian publication Vienna Der Standard. "I am convinced that Slobodan Milosevic is working on the destruction of this Yugoslavia, either consciously or unconsciously."

At this point, neither Djukanovic nor the Montenegrin people appear ready to back down.

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