Yugoslavia's junior partner walks fine line between Milosevic, West

Kosovo war has heightened tensions as Serbia tries to consolidate

Vladimir and Sposoje share more than the same last name of Popovic. Both of them, despite differing viewpoints about Montenegro, have also lived there in peace their entire lives. That they've managed to do so, resisting the pull of ethnic nationalism that has gripped neighboring regions, is a Balkan success often left untold - but now on the verge of coming undone.

The two Popovics aren't shy about putting forward their viewpoints. For Vladimir, there's no question whether Berane, a northern Montenegrin hamlet, is part of Montenegro. "This is Serbia," says Mr. Popovic, a university student, tapping his finger on the table of a roadside cafe in this indisputably Montenegrin town at the foot of the Balkan range. "Serbia," he repeats, "not Montenegro."

Less than 60 miles south, in another cafe, Sposoje fails to see why people should keep referring to Serbia and Montenegro in the same sentence. The two countries form the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but this Mr. Popovic, a bartender in Cetinje, the historical capital of Montenegro, believes they shouldn't.

"This is our country, and it should be independent," he says. "It should not be part of the Greater Serbia project that they have been preparing for the last 50 years."

Analysts say that, if prolonged, NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is bound to have disastrous consequences for Montenegro and could turn this quietly multiethnic state into the scene of another violent Balkan war.

"Each bomb over Serbia, even if it provokes no physical damage to Montenegro, is hugely destabilizing," a Western diplomat says. "Half the population here is pro-Serb, and each airstrike is ammunition in the hands of the extremists."

Pressing a hand over what he calls his "Serbian heart," Vladimir Popovic agrees. "Now we have a purpose; adversity has united us," he says, "Even if I was not for Milosevic, now I am." Popovic No. 2 shares the same sentiment. "It would be stupid to fight against each other now ... but we will defend Cetinje."

Relations between Serbia and Montenegro have oscillated wildly over the centuries between love and hate. Montenegro succeeded where Serbia and every other Balkan state failed, preserving its independence from the invading armies of the Ottoman Empire for more than five centuries. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, Montenegro helped Serbia fight many of its battles, only to find itself annexed to it in 1918, 40 years after its independence had been formally recognized in the Berlin conference of 1878.

In 1992, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegro chose to remain with Serbia and with it form the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on the basis of an "equal partnership." This partnership, says Radovan Radonjic, a law professor at the University of Montenegro, "was never equal.... Serbia is six times the size of Montenegro, its population is 15.9 times greater, and its [gross domestic product] 19 times bigger. How can anyone talk about equality?"

Tensions accumulated rapidly. In the last seven years, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has gone from being portrayed in the Serbian media as an honest friend to a vociferous enemy far too inclined to wash Yugoslavia's dirty laundry in public. Interestingly, Mr. Djukanovic has remained committed to the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia: He parted company with Mr. Milosevic over issues of economic reform and the opening of Montenegro to the influence of the West.

The NATO bombing campaign has brought the existing tensions near the breaking point. Serbia has tried to impose martial law, silence the press, and force Montenegrins into the Yugoslav Army. But Djukanovic's government has resisted each attempt by Serbia to draw it into the conflict, proclaiming its neutrality in increasingly forceful tones and pitting its own 8,000-strong police force against the 12,000 troops of the Second Yugoslav Army stationed here in Montenegro.

"If someone is going to fight against us, even if that is the Army, the armed police forces are ready to defend Montenegro," Vukasin Marash, the Montenegrin minister of police warned earlier this week.

Given the high tones of protest, there has been speculation over the possibility of a coup attempt by the Second Army against Djukanovic's budding democracy, but Montenegrins are unanimous in saying that such an attempt would lead to war. "If [Milosevic] tries a coup, there will be bloodshed here beyond anyone's imagination," says Dradan Bukumira, editor in chief of Radio Boje, an independent station broadcasting out of Berane.

Analysts have argued that Milosevic is too busy with Kosovo to crack open another front in Montenegro. "Milosevic is being very clever," says Mr. Radonjic, the law professor. "He might be a catastrophic strategist, but he is a good tactician."

According to one Western observer, part of Milosevic's strategy may rest on the assumption that NATO will send in ground troops, in which case Montenegro might be tempted to forsake neutrality and take arms against what many citizens would consider a foreign invasion. "If NATO comes anywhere near here, we will fight," says Dejan Savicevic, Montenegro's greatest contribution to international soccer. "I would never go fight for Serbia in Kosovo, but if NATO sends its troops, I will personally pick up a gun."

A second scenario, also resting on the premise of a ground intervention on the part on NATO, has Montenegro splitting apart along ethnic seams, with half the country joining the fight and the other half jumping on the opportunity to gain independence.

Says Gisela Dajkovic, a Slovenian married to a Montenegrin, "Whichever way you look at this mess, it only spells trouble for us."

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