With a big victory in Sunday's parliamentary elections, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic inched one step closer to a confrontation with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that could trigger the final split of Yugoslavia.
Although Mr. Djukanovic was not on the ballot, his coalition, For a Better Life, easily defeated the political party of Momir Bulatovic, a protg of Mr. Milosevic who was recently named Yugoslav premier.
The victory confirms that Djukanovic will continue to be a formidable opponent for Milosevic, who has ruled Yugoslavia for the past decade with an iron grip.
Montenegro, which along with Serbia makes up postwar Yugoslavia, now represents perhaps the most dangerous front for Milosevic, who is already losing control in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Belgrade.
"Djukanovic is Milosevic's first enemy with real power," says Srdjan Darmanovic, a political analyst at Podgorica University. "[He] can't stop Djukanovic without using the army."
There is growing sentiment for independence in Montenegro, a mountainous republic of 630,000 people that is Yugoslavia's only link to the sea. Montenegrins, many of whom are armed, increasingly blame Milosevic for their international isolation and devastated economy.
"Inside my heart, I know that we cannot live with Milosevic," says Radomir Sekulovic, a spokesman for Djukanovic's Ministry of Information.
The results of the elections will help determine the makeup of the upper house of the federal parliament, which in theory has the power to approve or reject Milosevic. Observers say that could take time.
According to analysts, this election, observed by more than 120 monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is one of the most carefully monitored votes in Balkan history.
Observers had worried that the Bulatovic forces would not recognize the results, possibly leading to riots like the ones that spread through Podgorica when Djukanovic was inaugurated in January. But yesterday Bulatovic appeared to have accepted the results. Turnout was high.
In contrast with the voter apathy in Serbia, Montenegrins spent the days leading up to the election arguing, comparing statistics, and spray-painting campaign slogans.
Djukanovic was once a protg of Milosevic and a close political ally of Bulatovic. But he split from the regime a year ago and quickly gained the support of the United States, which pledged financial assistance and investment. Unlike Milosevic, he has tried to protect minority rights in Montenegro.
"Djukanovic is ethnically tolerant," says Ferat Dinosha, a recently appointed ethnic Albanian government minister.
Djukanovic wants to declare Montenegro an ecological state, which would close heavy pollution-producing factories and strengthen the tourism industry. He also wants to make the entire country a customs-free zone.
His opponents call him a smuggler. He is said to control a substantial "transit business," in which foreign goods coming to Montenegro can bypass the Belgrade-imposed federal tariff in return for a cut.
Two weeks ago, Milosevic ousted the pro-Djukanovic federal premier and replaced him with Bulatovic. As a result, the Montenegrin parliament is not recognizing the federal government, and vice versa.
"The separation has already begun," says Olivera Nikolic, a political reporter for the independent Radio Antenna. "The only question now is whether it will be violent."
Already in neighboring Kosovo, ethnic Albanians are fighting for independence in a rapidly escalating guerrilla war. In Belgrade, students and independent journalists are protesting a move by Milosevic to consolidate his control over the media and the university. And the ethnic Serbian half of Bosnia seems to have slipped away from Milosevic with the recent election of a pro-Western government.
Djukanovic's strength and popularity appear to be growing every day. The only question is how far he and his people are willing to go.