JANE PERLEZUS fears Montenegro may be target for Milosevic
August 5, 2000
The United States is increasingly worried that Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav leader, will move militarily against Montenegro, the junior republic in Yugoslavia, forcing Washington and NATO into the awkward position of deciding how to react, Clinton administration officials said yesterday.
Mr. Milosevic's possible use of his Yugoslav Army troops and special forces stationed in Montenegro to undermine President Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro or even strike against him was discussed at a White House meeting this week and at NATO headquarters 10 days ago, the officials said.
The fears about Mr. Milosevic's intentions toward Montenegro have become more acute since he unilaterally changed the Constitution to arrange presidential, parliamentary and local elections on Sept. 24.
Mr. Djukanovic, who has forged a path in opposition to Mr. Milosevic for more than a year, has refused to take part in the elections and has rebuffed pleas from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright to participate in them.
Mr. Milosevic has called the elections in an effort to remain in power for an additional eight years, a prospect that particularly distresses Dr. Albright, one of his most forceful administration opponents. She has been eager for Mr. Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists to participate in the elections, partly to increase the chances of Mr. Milosevic's defeat and partly to minimize the risk of Mr. Milosevic's using force. Montenegro has been receiving American financial assistance for the last year.
If Mr. Djukanovic refuses to participate -- and both he and the United States have called the elections illegal -- then Mr. Milosevic will be more tempted to move against him, administration officials said.
About 15,000 Yugoslav Army troops are based in Montenegro, along with 1,000 men of the seventh military police battalion. Arrayed against those forces are 15,000 Montenegrin police officers loyal to Mr. Djukanovic.
Mr. Milosevic put the army units on high alert last month while he was changing the Constitution. "This was a reminder of their ability to act with little or no warning," a NATO official said.
As for timing, the Yugoslav leader has several options, all potentially embarrassing to the Clinton administration in the fall presidential campaign. Some military action against Mr. Djukanovic after the elections on Sept. 24 would be most likely, administration officials said.
At the North Atlantic Council last week, Mr. Milosevic's designs on Montenegro were discussed at some length, a NATO official said. None of the 19 alliance members had much enthusiasm for any sort of action against Mr. Milosevic over Montenegro, the official added.
NATO members saw few parallels between Montenegro now and Kosovo last year. They could not cite a legal basis for intervention, officials said. A human crisis in Kosovo was used as the rationale for that conflict. And with a presidential election in the United States and the declining popularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, domestic political considerations were uppermost.
The American national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, said yesterday that he would not speculate about what Washington or NATO would do if Mr. Milosevic moved against Mr. Djukanovic. "We support Djukanovic," Mr. Berger said. "We believe he has broad support in NATO. It would be another mistake for Milosevic."
Mr. Berger stressed that he believed that it was important for the opposition parties in Serbia to run as effective a campaign as possible against Mr. Milosevic. Then, if Mr. Milosevic stole the election, the opposition would have a reason to mobilize street demonstrations against him, Mr. Berger said.
"I remind you of Marcos," Mr. Clinton's adviser said. "That was the beginning of the end."
In 1986, Ferdinand E. Marcos of the Philippines claimed victory in rigged elections and was eventually toppled through street protests.
Washington has tried to enlist the help of Russia, which traditionally has warm ties with Serbia, the main republic in Yugoslavia, to dampen Mr. Milosevic's ambitions in Montenegro. To that end, President Vladimir V. Putin was persuaded last month at the Group of Eight summit meeting in Okinawa, Japan, to sign a communiqué that expressed concern about the legality of the elections.
In addition, the secretary general of NATO, Lord Robertson, wrote to Mr. Putin asking him to dissuade Mr. Milosevic from moving against Montenegro. The Russians have not been cooperative. A NATO official said yesterday that the Russian ambassador to NATO, Sergei I. Kislyak, had told Lord Robertson that Mr. Putin's agreement to the communiqué in Okinawa did not guarantee Russian support for it.