For weeks, the big question in Montenegro was whether the Federal Army of Yugoslavia would attempt a coup to bring this vociferous democracy back into the fold of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Serbia.
Journalists flocked to this ragged corner of the Balkans on "coup watch." Television commentators argued endlessly over whether Mr. Milosevic could really afford a military coup in the smaller of the two republics that make up postwar Yugoslavia - and the civil war that would likely ensue here as a result of it.
The prevailing theory was that he couldn't. With the prospect of 200,000 NATO troops converging in Kosovo, analysts reasoned that the Yugoslav president would not risk opening a second front in Montenegro.
Political analysts and ordinary Montenegrins now say that any ground attack by NATO could well solve Milosevic's problems here by plunging Montenegro into a civil war of its own reluctant making. The civilian population is under increasing pressure to take sides: with the Federal Army if they are for Milosevic and the Yugoslav Federation, and with the police if they are for Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic and Montenegrin independence.
Mr. Djukanovic is Western-backed, and a Montenegro under his control has been viewed by the West as a bright spot in the troubled Balkans.
How Milosevic gains ground
Both sides within Montenegro have condemned NATO's attack, but so far only the core pro-Milosevic camp has come to the conclusion that the daily bombardments are a good enough reason to join Milosevic in his war against the West.
The Milosevic camp could gain with a ground invasion, observers here say. The physical presence of NATO troops on what, after all, remains Yugoslav soil, is likely to have a much heavier psychological impact on the Montenegrin people - whose national consciousness was formed over 500 years of constant war.
"With NATO troops on the ground it will be much easier for the pro-Milosevic forces to touch on a nerve when making their customary accusations of cowardice," a Western observer said last week, requesting anonymity.
Apart from that, the observer added, "things will reach a critical point [in Montenegro]" as soon as the first NATO invasion troops get to Albania and Macedonia.
"If the government insists on its neutrality, and the Army sees that it has sufficient backing from the population to act," he said, "it might try to take control of the police," a 10,000-strong force that answers only to the Montenegrin government and that has resisted attempts by the Federal Army to incorporate it in its ranks.
A precarious balance
At a pro-Milosevic rally in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, last week, Momir Bulatovic, the federal prime minister, told a crowd of 10,000 people that the conflict between the Army and the police had to stop. "It cannot be allowed that the police in Montenegro are equipped and trained for conflict with the Army of Yugoslavia. The only solution is to bring the police under the control of the Army."
The police, he added, "must obey or they will cease to exist."
So far, the two armed forces have maintained a precarious balance.
Last week, when the Yugoslav Second Army, which has 12,000 troops, was ordered to shut down the border between Montenegro and Croatia, the government and representatives from the Second Army command met in two marathon sessions.
The compromise they eventually came to left the police in charge of the old border crossing, and the Army in control of a new one a few miles down the road on the Montenegrin side. When the Army refused to let someone in, the Montenegrin police started a lengthy mediation. A French TV crew that had been turned away by the Army was allowed in 24 hours later. Similarly, a British journalist who had been categorically denied entry one day was escorted in the next.
According to a member of the pro-Milosevic Socialist People's Party (SNP) with close ties to the Army, people at Army headquarters in Belgrade were none too pleased. "The Second Army had the order to shut the border and it didn't," the SNP party member said. The Second Army's reluctance to impose total control and risk an armed confrontation with the police, as well as the government's willingness to share control of the border provided a perfect example of the sort of give-and-take that has kept Montenegro relatively stable. This despite the fact that it shares a border with Kosovo, that its justice minister is resisting the draft, and that its deputy prime minister has been served with an arrest warrant for stating weeks ago that the war in Kosovo wasn't worth the life of a single Montenegrin.
Potential for violence
This give-and-take, observers say, works exclusively on the widely accepted premise that a civil war in Montenegro would involve real fratricide. Blood relatives in the Army and the police could turn against each other in what many here believe would be the most violent Balkan war yet.
Montenegro's population is 620,000 according to a census in 1991. Podgorica's 150,000 inhabitants all seem to know each other. The traffic noise here is punctuated by the honked hellos of drivers speeding past each other; new arrivals in restaurants and cafes generally need a good five minutes to shake hands with all of their acquaintances.
Sasa Mitrovic, a producer for Montenegro's state television, put one arm around Stojan Radovic's shoulder in a crowded night spot in Podgorica last week. "Who knows where we will be a month from now," he told his old school buddy, "You will probably be shooting at me and I at you."