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Montenegrin poll sends warning to government, West

PODGORICA, Jun 13, 2000 -- (Reuters) The victory of a coalition backed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in one of two local polls in Montenegro on Monday sends a warning to its independence-minded government and the West.

The government alliance "For a Better Life" won a convincing lead in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica but lost to the opposition "Yugoslavia" coalition in the town of Herceg Novi on the mountainous republic's Adriatic coast in Sunday's elections.

"Psychologically it is really very bad that Milosevic's forces won in Herceg Novi," said Milka Tadic, editor of the independent weekly Monitor in Montenegro, the only republic left alongside Serbia in Yugoslavia.

Miomir Mugosa, a leading member of the governing coalition, blamed Serb refugees for the result, saying they did not appreciate the hospitality they had received in Montenegro, which he said was internationally renowned as a refuge for all.

"They supported a man who destroyed everything they had where they came from," he said. "I don't know what their motive was to give a bloody dictator their vote."

Tadic said there were several thousand refugees in Herceg Novi who got the right to vote in 1992 and could have, along with the large number of pensioners and war veterans there, helped swing opinion towards Milosevic.

GOVERNMENT NEEDS MORE REFORM

But she and other analysts also agreed that the pro-Western government led by President Milo Djukanovic, who has taken control of Montenegro away from Milosevic over the past two years, needed to do more to improve people's lives.

"I would take this as a sign for the government that they have to do more for people so they really feel they live a better life and are not just voting for it," said Kristof Bender, an analyst with the European Stability Initiative.

"It could be interpreted as a wake-up call," said Lisa McLean, program director in Podgorica for the U.S. National Democratic Institute.

James Lyon from the International Crisis Group think tank said it was hard to tell without sophisticated opinion polls what was driving voters but that corruption could be one reason.

"It may be that people were fed-up with the get-rich-quick attitude," he said, referring to perceptions that the government had used privatization and Western funding to enrich itself.

Bender said the simple tactic of pumping money into Montenegro, which the European Union's head of Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana had openly linked with the elections, had proven faulty.

"It is a challenge for Western countries to tailor support so that it really encourages reform and structural changes that benefit ordinary people," he said.

Tadic noted that Herceg Novi had been neglected in contrast to Podgorica, where the government carried out a string of construction works before the poll.

"They didn't even have any water there ten days before the election," she said.

BLOW TO INDEPENDENCE HOPES

Looking further ahead, analysts said the vote was a blow to independence hopes, which had in any case been tempered by fears of a violent response from Belgrade.

"It takes the wind out of the talk that one should move forward quickly with a referendum," Bender said, noting that the Liberal Alliance party which had provoked the early polls to run on a pro-independence ticket had fared worse.

Lyon said it could even encourage Milosevic to try to wrest back control of Montenegro.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this has been a big victory for Milosevic. It will embolden him and make Djukanovic very hesitant about calling a referendum," he said.

Djukanovic last year offered to negotiate with Milosevic on reforming the federation dominated by the much larger Serbia, whose population is 10 times as large as Montenegro's, threatening a referendum on independence if he was refused.

Milosevic has made clear he is not interested in reform and his officials have been pushing Montenegro towards a referendum, saying they will respect it whatever the result.

But the Yugoslav army commanders who report to him and have units based in Montenegro have sent a very different message, condemning separatism and saying they will defend Yugoslavia.

Lyon said the moderate Predrag Bulatovic who leads the pro-Yugoslav opposition in Montenegro, might be able to persuade Milosevic victory in Herceg Novi meant force was not necessary.

Bulatovic offered to resign after the election, which had followed a disagreement between him and Belgrade over the participation of Milosevic's allies in the polls.

But since he is the most popular pro-Yugoslav politician in Montenegro, Milosevic will probably want him to stay.

And plans by the isolated government in Belgrade to crack down on growing popular discontent with an anti-terrorism law indicate a hardening approach.

"Bulatovic may be able to turn around to Milosevic and say, look, we can win this through political means. But the way things are going in Belgrade with this anti-terrorism law, Milosevic may just decide to put his foot down," Lyon said.



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