At least for now, the crisis in Kosovo appears to be easing. But already Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be dealing with another Balkans trouble spot: the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, which has been increasingly distancing itself from the country's dominant republic, Serbia.
A meeting on July 14 in Belgrade between delegates from the Montenegrin government and Mr. Milosevic's ruling party may represent a turning point in their relationship.
Montenegro, which objected to Serbia's handling of Kosovo, among other issues, and has developed strong ties with the West, is expected to ask for full equality between the two republics at the meeting. But more important than any specific demand, Montenegro wants to see a fundamental democratic change in Serbia.
"We want Serbia to give up nationalism and accept democracy. We would like Montenegro and Serbia to both have democratic governments and a clear relationship on paper," says Misko Vukovic, an adviser to President Djukanovic on the constitutional system and a top-ranking member of Montenegro's ruling party. "We want [Milosevic's] Socialist Party to be honest and straightforward and not play the political games it has in the past."
The talks are expected to deal with a constitutional crisis that dates back to May 1998, when the party of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, the Democratic Party of Socialists, won elections in Montenegro. According to Yugoslavia's Constitution, Mr. Djukanovic's party should have then sent its representatives to Yugoslavia's federal parliament, which should have elected a new Yugoslav prime minister from Montenegro's ruling party.
Instead, the Milosevic regime used a constitutional court ruling to retain control, and Montenegro's new party never came to parliament. In addition, longtime Milosevic ally Momir Bulatovic, who lost to Djukanovic in Montenegro's presidential elections, became Yugoslavia's new prime minister.
Since then, the relationship between the two republics has become increasingly hostile, and the situation threatened to escalate into violence during the war. Montenegro no longer recognizes Yugoslavia's federal authority, while Serbia continues to sink further into isolation. Montenegro, furthermore, has threatened to arrest any of Yugoslavia's indicted war criminals who set foot on its territory.
If the crisis can't be solved at the July 14 meeting, Montenegro may hold a referendum this fall for independence. Similar scenarios have caused wars in this tumultuous region over the past 10 years.
Historically, Montenegro and Serbia have been friendly, and the current crisis between them is more political than ethnic - although some Montenegrins wistfully look back to their kingdom that came to an end after World War I, when Montenegro became a part of Yugoslavia.
Montenegrins and Serbs speak the same language and share the same Orthodox Christian faith - although there are separate Montenegrin and Serbian churches. Montenegro has 600,000 people, while Serbia has 10 million.
Montenegro's political goals may be fueled by a desire to insulate itself from the monetary and political chaos that could overwhelm a destabilized Serbia in the coming months. Although Montenegro was bombed during NATO's campaign, the West largely spared it the devastation and international isolation that has befallen Serbia.
Montenegro's leading bankers and economists reportedly want the republic to have its own currency to protect itself against possible economic chaos in Serbia. And even some in Serbia agree. Bogoljub Karic, a powerful businessman and a minister without portfolio in the Milosevic government, says that Montenegro should be given whatever it wants, including its own money and the resignation of Mr. Bulatovic, Yugoslavia's current prime minister.
"Bulatovic should be happy to give his seat to the ruling party. He can wait for his chance in the next election. Montenegro needs to have full representation in federal government, and we need to do everything possible to enable the republic to remain a part of Yugoslavia," Mr. Karic says.
Karic argues that Montenegro's independent economic aspirations would help Serbia and that the two republics have common financial interests.
But Karic acknowledges that not everyone in Yugoslavia's federal government shares his view. Still, he was in Montenegro on July 13 meeting with Djukanovic, whom some Westerners see as a long-shot successor to Milosevic.
Montenegro has chosen to initiate talks at a moment of political crisis. Serbia is convulsing under daily demonstrations, and support for Milosevic is eroding quickly.
"This meeting can be viewed as yet another form of pressure on Milosevic who has virtually no bargaining power left," says a Belgrade analyst who did not want to be named.
But the chances of Yugoslavia ceding to Montenegro's demands are dim. Yugoslavia's president - currently Milosevic - is elected by federal parliament. Milosevic would be in an immensely weaker position if Montenegro's ruling party were fairly represented in this governmental body.
In addition, Serbia's ruling parties have been sounding more intransigent in recent days as the political opposition builds momentum by the hour. One of the opposition's key demands is to resolve the constitutional crisis between Montenegro and the federal government.
The West, meanwhile, has repeatedly warned that it would not tolerate a move of force against Montenegro. The Yugoslav Army announced July 12 that it was not planning a coup in the republic as has been suggested recently by NATO sources. The Yugoslav Army reportedly has 15,000 soldiers remaining in Montenegro after a buildup there during the war in Kosovo.
Still, some are holding out hope. "I am an optimist," says businessman Karic. "This problem has to be solved. If that doesn't happen, we'll have bigger problems."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society