Montenegro sets date for sensitive election

PODGORICA, Mar 11, 2000 -- (Reuters) Montenegro has set a June date for early elections in two major cities that will be a litmus test for the fate of the independence-minded Yugoslav republic.

A victory for the pro-Western government of Milo Djukanovic would encourage him to continue pulling the republic, the last one left with Serbia in federal Yugoslavia, away from Belgrade.

A strong showing by local supporters of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic could put the brakes on that process.

Either way, the vote is set to boost tensions in Montenegro, where the West fears a new Balkans conflict could break out.

"I have decided to call municipal elections in the capital Podgorica and in Herceg Novi on June 11 this year," President Milo Djukanovic was quoted as saying by the pro-government daily Pobjeda on Friday.

"These will at the same time be a true test of the strategic goals of Montenegro's state policy and its commitment to peace and democracy," said Djukanovic.

The early local ballot was needed after the Liberal Party quit coalitions with Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists that ruled the two towns.

Djukanovic's pro-Western government will have to compete with the largest opposition party loyal to Milosevic - the Socialist People's Party (SNP), which has vowed to defeat the "secessionist leadership" together with pro-Yugoslav allies.

"All forces should unite to oust the regime which is working against Montenegro and its citizens," SNP vice-president Zoran Zizic was quoted by the daily Dan as saying.

Montenegro has distanced itself from Milosevic's government since Djukanovic was elected in 1997.

It has urged Belgrade to hold government-to-government talks on how to reform their joint state, and threatened a referendum on independence if Milosevic rejects reforms.

Serbia has so far refused direct contact with the Montenegrin leadership and yet Podgorica has softened its referendum threat, saying it hoped the crisis would be resolved in the course of 2000.

It acted cautiously on the advice of the West, which fears a repeat of the conflicts which accompanied the independence moves of other Yugoslav republics during the 1990s.

Instead, Montenegro has legalised the German mark as a parallel currency to escape inflationary trends in Serbia and opened its border with Albania.

Belgrade retaliated by banning any trade and by reinforcing troops watching the border crossing.

The West has warned Milosevic not to intervene in Montenegro and Chris Patten, the European Union's external relations commissioner, said in Podgorica on Friday the EU viewed events there and elsewhere with "considerable concern".

"Security and stability are not concerns only in Montenegro, there are other communities as well which Mr Milosevic is seeking to destabilize through his usual, malign activities," Patten told reporters after a meeting with Djukanovic.

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