"Does this mean war?"
The large graffiti message on a wall in downtown Podgorica, Montenegro's capital, captures the air of detached concern gripping this southern Yugoslav republic of 600,000 people.
On the surface, Montenegro doesn't appear especially troubled. Podgorica is filled with luxury cars and smartly dressed people lounging in always-full Mediterranean cafes.
But in contrast to the relaxed atmosphere on the street, local papers describe a republic on the edge of conflict. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and international Balkan experts have been sounding the alarm that yet another Balkan war is looming. As tensions rise between Serbia and its increasingly restive junior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, so does the possibility of a dangerous confrontation between the Army and Montenegrin police.
Despite the strain, local analysts do not expect full-scale war. More likely, they say, are further incidents, such as the Army's brief seizure of Podgorica airport in December. The two governments are playing a high-stakes game of political brinkmanship that serves both of their interests as elections approach.
It's easy to see signs of the tense standoff with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who faces the first major opposition protest in eight months today in Belgrade, and has made a career of exploiting crises outside Serbia to consolidate power at home.
Hotels once filled with tourists are serving as temporary barracks to the 20,000-member Montenegrin police force.
The two republics have been locked in a war of wills for two years, since Mr. Djukanovic beat a Milosevic ally in presidential elections. Since then, the only functioning Yugoslav institution in Montenegro is the Army. At 14,000-strong, it remains a significant presence.
Relations between Podgorica and Belgrade have grown increasingly testy since November, when Montenegro adopted the German mark as its currency, in a slap to the beleaguered Yugoslav dinar. A month later, Yugoslav troops briefly took over the airport in Podgorica in a dispute over a hanger. Observers interpreted the move as Belgrade muscle-flexing. In mid-February, the Milosevic regime began broadcasting state-controlled news to Montenegrins from a Yugoslav Army base, and in early March Serbia imposed an economic blockade on Montenegro, preventing trade between the republics.
The steady escalation has been accompanied by regular warnings from Djukanovic and other politicians that Mr. Milosevic is "preparing something" in the republic, from pro-Milosevic paramilitary groups to an Army-led coup.
"I take the war threat seriously," says Jim Hooper, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. "Milosevic is doing a classic 'operations stairsteps' pressure campaign - escalating the pressures against Djukanovic while trying to find the Western ceiling. Unfortunately, there is none. There is no security commitment from the West, and this will tempt Milosevic even more."
Though similar scenarios took place during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia - and during Kosovo's attempted split from Serbia - it may not in Montenegro. Unlike these conflicts, Montenegrins and Serbs share deep cultural ties and the same religion, making war an extremely risky venture.
Most local analysts do not think the situation will deteriorate that far. "Any effort by the Yugoslav Army to take control by force would pose a risk to Milosevic himself," says Slobodan Samardjic, an analyst at the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade. "Of course, it would be no good if the Montenegrin police provoked the Army in some way, but I don't believe anyone wants another war, and I don't think there will be one," says Belgrade military commentator Miroslav Lazanski.
FOR the moment at least, the high level of tension is proving mutually beneficial to both Djukanovic and Milosevic.
Montenegro has in recent weeks been in the international spotlight and received a significant stream of international aid, while Serbia struggles under a United Nations economic embargo. Djukanovic regularly meets with high-ranking Western diplomats, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Montenegro received a strong show of support three weeks ago in Lisbon, Portugal, at a conference of European Union leaders. The recent donors' meeting of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe was generous in handing out $65 million in aid to the tiny republic.
Milan Rocen, a foreign-affairs adviser to Djukanovic, says the US will give Montenegro approximately $89 million in 2000 through USAID and other programs. The EU donated $58 million in 1998-99, and more aid is coming, along with investment guarantees from the US and Germany.
More important than aid, however, is Djukanovic's political fortune.
Montenegro's political landscape is presently defined by the question of independence. There is no clear majority on the issue, according to opinion polls.
The compromise position, as represented by Djukanovic's ruling party, is for Montenegro to redefine its relationship in the federal government as equal partners with much larger Serbia. That is seen as impossible under Milosevic.
Djukanovic is in a waiting game until the situation changes in Belgrade or until support for independence reaches a critical mass. The results of municipal elections scheduled for June 11 will be a strong indicator of the republic's direction.
For Milosevic, a minor crisis in Montenegro could be a pretext for canceling elections later this year, or he could build patriotic support by pointing to "NATO stooges" across the border. Milosevic could even decide to let the republic go. Slovenia, for instance, broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991 with little resistance from Belgrade.
Although some Army commanders have made threatening statements to Montenegrin separatists, Milosevic said in a New Year interview that Montenegrins are free to leave if they wish. "He wishes to amputate those areas where he does not have absolute control. The question is how? For him, it's important that the responsibility is borne by someone else," says Dr. Samardjic.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society