Containing Milosevic

The Yugoslav election that President Slobodan Milosevic will stage and steal on Sept. 24 is more than a farce. It is also a cautionary tale for the concerned outsiders, including the United States, who will closely watch what follows. Especially in Montenegro.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is composed of two nominally equal entities, Serbia and Montenegro. It is a sorry remnant of the federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces put together by Marshal Tito after World War II. Mr. Milosevic's brutal obsession with Serb supremacy drove out Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. His campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Albanian majority in Kosovo last year brought NATO's intervention. Now he wants to tighten his grip on what is left.

The election is meant to keep him in office, having rejiggered the constitution to let him rule eight more years. But it is also intended to reduce the status of Montenegro, making it in effect an appendage of Serbia. That is where the US, the European Union, and NATO come in. No one wants to see Milosevic, the indicted war criminal, expand his power. Western nations have been urging the feckless Serb opposition to unite and defeat him at the polls. They have also been trying to persuade Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic not to boycott the election. Not voting, they argue, would be handing Milosevic victory on a platter, legitimizing his regime and his plans to subjugate Montenegro. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has even appealed to Mr. Djukanovic.

Unfortunately, both appeals are misdirected. The problem with the Serb opposition is not its disunion, but its nature. It's not against Milosevic for launching the disastrous Yugoslav wars, but for losing them. The presidential candidate of 15 of the 18 opposition parties, Vojislav Kostunica, is as much a Serb nationalist as Milosevic. He is also openly anti-American.

As for Montenegro, the act of voting in an election that Milosevic has arranged to win by a landslide would make Djukanovic an accomplice in his country's humiliation. Balkan experts and high-level analysts like the International Crisis Group believe he must boycott the fraud in order to maintain Montenegro's integrity.

This republic, not quite the size of Connecticut, with a population of 650,000, has figured in Balkan history for a thousand years. Recognized as an independent state in the Byzantine empire, it fought Turks and Serbs in the ensuing centuries, was absorbed by each in turn and emerged as itself, gaining international recognition as an independent kingdom in 1878. Submerged by the Serbian monarchy in the new Yugoslavia after the World War I, it came into its own again under Tito.

Milosevic has tried to bring Montenegro to its knees with a complete economic and financial blockade. Fifteen thousand Yugoslav troops under his command are stationed there, and he might even count on the support of a quarter of the people, should he order an uprising.

Montenegro is not your classic democracy. Its leaders have grown rich on smuggling and have run the country as a business. It is a black hole for cars stolen all over Europe. Super-speed boats, aptly named cigarette boats, take less than three hours to cross the Adriatic Sea to Mafia markets in Italy. Yet, it is not a Milosevic-style secret-police dictatorship. Its ethnic majority lives easily with large Muslim and Albanian minorities. Djukanovic's model is Western. He has harbored Serb dissidents, and he says he will collaborate with the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.

It would be more than a crime to let Milosevic take over Montenegro. That would give him a new lease on life internally and a stretch of Adriatic coast with a working port for external operations. The US, the Europeans, and NATO have vaguely assured Djukanovic of their support. But in the run-up to Sept. 24, they have been silent. If Milosevic runs true to form, he could confront them with a variation of last year's Kosovo crisis.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a former correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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