Montenegro: Hotspot in the making?

Yugoslav republic tilts toward independence

By John Christensen

January, 2000

The Balkans are notorious for ethnic enmity and violence, and observers have taken to monitoring the region the way scientists do an awakening volcano. With tensions in Kosovo reduced to a simmer, the consensus is that the next Balkan hotspot is likely to be >Montenegro.

Officially a Yugoslav republic, Montenegro has been carefully separating itself from the government of Slobodan Milosevicin the past two years, at no small risk to its peace and stability.

Montenegro is a mountainous, heavily forested area with a narrow strip of land along the Adriatic Sea. Although poor and holding a population of only 650,000, its stunning coastline is a tourist destination and has Yugoslavia's only seaports.

Montenegrins are Serbs. They speak Serbo-Croatian, use the Cyrillic alphabet and many worship at the Eastern Orthodox Church like other Serbs.

"But Montenegrins regard themselves as high-caste Serbs, the warrior Serbs," says William N. Dunn, professor of public policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public an International Affairs. "There's a martial spirit there, and a sense of being separate that's important in Montenegro."

And, says Janusz Bugajski, director of Eastern European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., "They feel that Montenegro's days with Yugoslavia are numbered. Especially with Milosevic in power."

Mark replaces dinar

The only Balkan state that was never subjugated, Montenegro was settled by Slavs in the 7th century and maintained its independence even when Serbia fell to the Turks at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Over the centuries Montenegrins have fought the Turks and Albanians, and during World War II harried the Italians and Germans.

Ethnic Albanians and Muslims constitute only 10 percent of the population, and support president Milo Djukanovic in his efforts to separate Montenegro from Yugoslavia. Djukanovic, who became president in 1998, opposed Yugoslav policy in Kosovo and told Montenegrins they did not have to serve in Kosovo with the Yugoslav army.

Montenegro has also taken control of its borders, operates its own customs service and has built up the police as a counterforce to the 15,000 Yugoslav troops stationed in the republic.

In November the German mark was introduced as a parallel currency, and the Yugoslav dinar may be phased out by the end of January. Plans to privatize a number of state businesses -- including telecommunications and electrical companies -- are also under way.

In short, Montenegro has begun to function as an independent entity, and Djukanovic has submitted a proposal to Milosevic asking him to ratify this changing relationship.

'All available means'

Milosevic, who tried to undermine similar efforts in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, has sent mixed signals to Montenegro. In late December he said Montenegrins should hold a referendum and "have the right" to choose independence.

A few days later, however, Yugoslavia Deputy Prime Minister Vojslav Seselj said the government should use "all available means" to prevent Montenegro from seceding.

Seselj is an ultra-nationalist hard-liner, and often says what Milosevic is thinking. His remarks were regarded as a signal that Yugoslavia, which would be landlocked without Montenegro, will not let it leave quietly.

Observers say a referendum will be held in the spring. Says Djukanovic adviser Miodrag Vukovic: "This is the year of denouement."

Bugajski says 30-35 percent of the Montenegrins favor independence and closer ties with the West. Another 35 percent oppose it, and the rest, he says, "support Djukanovic and would probably support independence as their only choice."

The question, of course, is what Milosevic will do.

James Hooper, executive director of the non-profit Balkan Action Council in Washington, says that during the Kosovo conflict NATO warned Milosevic it would intervene if he went into Montenegro.

"I don't believe that guarantee is still in effect," Hooper says. "Meanwhile, he has threatened to annex the northern part of Montenegro, he's trying to undermine the economy and he's trying to control various things, like the airport."

In December, Yugoslav army units occupied the airport in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital. Although they eventually withdrew, it was considered a warning from Milosevic.

A destabilizing force

Hooper says Yugoslavia also has sent 2,000 paramilitary troops into Montenegro, and the fear is they may trigger a civil war between pro- and anti-independence forces.

"Instead of a clear invasion or a cleansing policy," says Bugajski, "Milosevic might introduce a state of emergency after staging public protests or armed civil conflict, something that would be more difficult for NATO to intervene against."

Hooper, a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service who retired in 1997, thinks Milosevic may try to replace Djukanovic and others, believing that NATO lacks the heart for more fighting.

"That would undermine NATO in the region and make it more difficult to keep Kosovo stable," Hooper says. "It would show that NATO has lost credibility and raise questions about American leadership."

Montenegro needs $40 million to stabilize it during this perilous period, says Hooper: "It would be a sound investment in a country that has done everything we've asked of it."

The experts also agree that Milosevic should be warned before he plays what Bugajski calls "the Montenegro card."

"It's always just a matter of time and direction where he will strike next," says Hooper. "He's a permanently destabilizing force in the region."

"Milosevic may think we're bluffing," says Bugajski. "We should let him know that we will hit certain targets in Serbia, that there will be a military reaction if there's a crackdown in Montenegro. Milosevic doesn't believe in threats of force. He believes in the use of force."