Once again, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has put his political opponents off guard, producing a new but risky strategy for remaining in office: direct democracy.
Yugoslavia's federal parliament enacted changes to Yugoslavia's Constitution on Friday that will allow Mr. Milosevic to serve two more four-year terms. They also tilt the balance of power in pro-Western Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, and could push the republic toward civil war.
Justice Minister Dragan Soc warned that the constitutional changes would lead to the further breakup of Yugoslavia. "There is no Yugoslavia with a humiliated Montenegro," he told parliament during a heated debate last week.
In an eight-hour emergency session that ended early Saturday morning, Montenegrin lawmakers passed a resolution rejecting the constitutional changes. Montenegro will no longer recognize any legal or political acts adopted by Yugoslav federal authorities, they said.
"Montenegro as a federal unit and Montenegrin citizens as equal citizens of Yugoslavia no longer exist as a constitutional category," Ratko Vukotic, head of the Supreme Court, was quoted as saying by Montenegro's news agency Montena-Fax.
Although Milosevic opponents decried the hastily enacted constitutional changes as political manipulation, the new system is, ironically, more democratic. The Yugoslav president and Montenegro's representatives in federal parliament will now be elected by direct vote instead of by parliament. "The tendency in federal systems everywhere is toward more direct democracy. In modern times, if you are not directly elected you don't have the support of the people. Direct elections are a good thing," says Aleksa Djilas, a historian and Milosevic observer. Mr. Djilas adds, however, that any serious constitutional changes should be preceded by a long debate. "They voted to change the Constitution as if it were a minor procedural issue," he says.
Many observers had expected Milosevic, who is under indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, to become Yugoslavia's next prime minister, an office technically more powerful than the presidency. The Constitution prohibited Milosevic from serving another term as Yugoslav president. He had already served the maximum two terms as Serbian president.
Instead, Milosevic has decided to trust in the people. Although the strategy contains risks, a victory by popular ballot would give him democratic credibility.
Taken as a whole, Serbia's opposition is much more popular, but polls show Milosevic can beat any opposition candidate in a one-on-one contest. "Today, Milosevic would receive 25 to 30 percent of the vote, a figure that nobody from the opposition can rival," says Srbobran Brankovic, with Medium, an independent polling agency in Belgrade.
But it's not enough to win the presidency. Milosevic must also control the federal parliament, and the changes to the Constitution also simplify that task.
Previously, Montenegro's parliament chose its representatives to the upper house Chamber of Republics. Now, Montenegrin voters will elect their representatives, giving Milosevic supporters more power against President Milo Djukanovic's ruling coalition.
The point is somewhat moot, because Mr, Djukanovic has refused to send representatives to federal parliament since 1998.
Montenegro is gradually distancing itself from the Yugoslav federation. Today, the only remaining federal institution is the Yugoslav Army and Navy, with an estimated presence of 25,000. Montenegrin leaders accuse Milosevic of using Army units to stir up unrest and pave the way for a possible coup.
Nebojsa Covic, an opposition leader in Belgrade, said he expected Milosevic to step up pressure on Montenegro. "In the next week or so, the Yugoslav parliament will adopt the famous antiterrorism law," he told reporters, referring to a proposed security law that critics say will threaten basic human rights. "Together with the amended Constitution, it creates great potential for Milosevic's negative imagination and a showdown with political opponents."
The West has given Montenegro millions in financial aid, at the same time warning the republic to move slowly on a referendum to separate from Yugoslavia. Montenegrins remain sharply divided on the issue. After the latest changes, it seems clear Djukanovic will not take part in federal and local elections expected in November and may pursue the referendum option.
Djilas notes, however, that Milosevic allies in Montenegro, who control a number of towns, may participate in the vote anyway. "That would mean Montenegro's representatives in federal parliament would consist entirely of Milosevic supporters, which would help Milosevic immensely in parliament. That is precisely what happened in Kosovo when Albanians boycotted elections.
"Montenegrin separatism may be Milosevic's political ally as Albanian separatism was in Kosovo, before NATO's bombing campaign," Djilas says.
*Material from the wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society