Montenegro may not yet be an independent state, but it's increasingly acting that way. There is little question about the country's direction - but there's great debate over the strategy, timing, and impact of statehood. More than at any time since the disintegration of Tito's Yugoslavia, there is overwhelming consensus in the republic regarding Montenegro's statehood.
The psychological barrier to independence has been breached since NATO's successful war against Serbia. Recent opinion polls indicate that nearly 70 percent of the population would back independence. While half of this number are committed Montenegrenists, the rest are loyal supporters of President Milo Djukanovic and will follow his lead out of the remnants of Yugoslavia.
The independence position is based largely on pragmatic grounds. Remaining united with Serbia assures Montenegro will be tethered to Slobodan Milosevic's sinking ship. Leaving the Serbian federation will reverse the trends of economic decline, poverty, social unrest, and international isolation - and launch Montenegro on the road to integration with Europe.
Most Montenegrins have few illusions about where the future lies - they don't want to remain in the continent's blank spots and gray zones.
Political support for independence has reached an important threshold. Mr. Djukanovic's fence-sitting has become increasingly untenable. The NATO intervention and the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact presented Podgorica with a sharper choice in which ambiguity is no longer a viable alternative.
During the past few years, the young government has acquired the resources not only for resisting Mr. Milosevic but also for escaping from his grip. Montenegro is more prepared than Croatia or Bosnia in 1991 or Kosovo in 1999 to challenge Belgrade's domination. Diplomatically, politically, organizationally, economically, and militarily Podgorica can survive without Belgrade.
Despite initial hesitation and suspicion, a broad range of political forces - including ex-communists, old Titoists, democrats, conservatives, and nationalists - supports Djukanovic. This too is based on pragmatic calculation that the ruling team is best positioned to deal with Belgrade.
Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and other former Yugoslav satellites did not achieve independence as fully democratic states; neither did the Soviet satellites escape from Moscow as fully formed democracies. Montenegro is now in the same position.
The Djukanovic government can be a catalyst for independence and democracy. It can help ensure that statehood is constructed on a nonnationalist basis in which the country's minorities - Serbs, Albanians, Muslims, and Croats - are involved in the political process and where citizenship is based on residence, not ethnicity.
Alongside statehood, Montenegro will need to launch a process of economic transformation based on market competition, transparency, and legalism. This will not only stimulate entrepreneurship but also attract foreign investment.
Moreover, as a sovereign country, Montenegro can plug into regional reconstruction programs and move toward association with the EU. Montenegro's size could be turned into an asset - it's much easier to ensure progress among a smaller, more homogenous population than within a cumbersome and ungovernable entity like Yugoslavia.
The strategy for independence seems clearer. In August, Podgorica issued a platform for a loose confederation with Serbia. Belgrade has ignored the offer. Montenegrin officials now assert the platform timetable is fast expiring. Its rejection will leave Podgorica with only one option: full independence.
Podgorica is running out of short steps and must soon take a big leap. Plans are under way to hold a national referendum within five months.
Djukanovic's critics charge that he has deliberately delayed independence in expectation that Milosevic will be dislodged by the Serbian opposition and that a new political agreement can then be forged. But such a prospect has become redundant, given the abject failure of Serb democracy and the collapsing economy of the Yugoslav federation.
Observers continue to guess Milosevic's next moves in Montenegro. Aside from surrendering Montenegro altogether, the Serb czar has three violent options: a military coup and occupation; the promotion of regional and ethnic conflicts; or the launching of a full-scale civil war.
Although these options are likely to fail, it doesn't guarantee Belgrade won't attempt to destabilize Montenegro in order to prevent its separation.
More likely, Milosevic will engage in low-level provocations, intimidations, and even assassinations to unbalance the Montenegrin leadership. He will endeavor to sow conflict within the governing coalition, heat up tensions in the Sandjak region of Montenegro by pitting Muslims against Orthodox Christians, and threaten to partition northern Montenegro if Podgorica pushes toward statehood.
In this ominous environment, Western states can pursue several paths to strengthen Montenegrin democracy and head off a Serbian assault.
Financial help for the monetary system, coupled with a reconstruction program for a nation of only 640,000 will not be expensive, but it will increase public trust in the embattled government and undercut the destructive forces loyal to Belgrade.
Assistance for institutional restructuring, media development, and multiethnic cooperation to avert a war is preferable to reassembling them after a war as the international community is trying to do in Kosovo. And above all else, Milosevic must become fully aware that any strike against Montenegro will be his last battle. NATO leaders should make sure that he gets the message by preparing contingency plans to militarily help the Montengrin authorities in case of a Serbian attack.
*Janusz Bugajski, director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, has just returned from Montenegro.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society