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Crisis 1999
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Montenegrin faction presses for independence

The Montenegrin independence movement has moved into high gear as NATO troops move into Kosovo. With Milosevic licking his wounds and NATO present in the region in force, now appears as good a time as any for Montenegro to secede from the Yugoslav Federation. However, there is a great deal weighing against secession, not the least of which is the impact a Montenegrin civil war would have on NATO efforts to stabilize Kosovo.

Therefore, the pro-Western government of President Milo Djukanovic appears willing to postpone an independence bid for the time being. The question is, will Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic force the issue in Montenegro, generating a new crisis in an effort to remain in power?

Montenegrin Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Zarko Rakcevic on June 16 rejected calls by the Liberal Alliance to pull his party out of the ruling coalition, a move that would force early elections and, the Liberal Alliance hopes, facilitate efforts to achieve Montenegrin independence from Yugoslavia. Rakcevic said that the Montenegrin government did not support independence moves at this time because Montenegro remained "under military siege." He also said that, besides the heavy Yugoslav army presence in the province, the refugee crisis inside Montenegro and the international community's desire to achieve peace in Kosovo by keeping the province under Yugoslav sovereignty both stood in the way of Montenegro's independence bid. The SDP does, however, support the movement for Montenegro's eventual independence.

There have been rumblings in Montenegro for and against independence since well before the Kosovo crisis broke out. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has gone so far as to blockade the smaller of Yugoslavia's constituent republics, in an effort to undermine Montenegro's pro-Western leadership. When Milosevic's chosen candidate, Momir Bulatovic, failed both to defeat Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro's presidential elections and to bloc Djukanovic from taking office, Milosevic named Bulatovic Prime Minister of Yugoslavia. Bulatovic and his pro-Belgrade Socialist People's Party staged a series of demonstrations against the Djukanovic government during NATO's bombing campaign, in response to Djukanovic's declaration of Montenegrin neutrality in the conflict. As the conflict progressed, Yugoslav Army troops increased their presence in the republic and stepped up pressure on the Djukanovic regime -- seizing border posts and ports, surrounding Podgorica, clamping down on the foreign and local media, attempting to force conscription, and attempting to assert control over the Montenegrin police. With the prospects of a Belgrade backed coup d'etat in the republic apparently high, the U.S. and NATO repeatedly vowed to retaliate if Milosevic moved against Djukanovic.

Milosevic did not make a move, though the pressure on Montenegro has not eased, nor have the pro and anti- independence rumblings. On June 16, Bulatovic warned that "duality of power in Montenegro" would not be tolerated, and that Belgrade would not allow for "the independence of Montenegro and the breaking off of Yugoslavia." On the other side, Liberal Alliance leader Miodrag Zivkovic has called on the Djukanovic government to seek Montenegrin independence or, if not, to at very least help overthrow Milosevic. Along with the Liberal Alliance, the Movement for Independent Montenegro -- a group of intellectuals, academics, writers and media representatives founded on June 10 - - is actively campaigning for Montenegrin secession. Somewhere in the middle, a group of Montenegrin academics has drawn up a proposed redefinition of the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro, which would guarantee equality between the two and minimize the role of the Yugoslav federal government. And Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic suggested on Pancevo Radio on June 15 that a Montenegrin from Djukanovic's party should hold the post of Yugoslav prime minister. The Montenegrin Information Ministry said that Djukanovic himself was not seeking a federal office, despite Draskovic's suggestion and other speculation that Djukanovic might seek the Yugoslav presidency.

Djukanovic has trod a careful line, arguing during visits to Bulgaria and Romania this week that Montenegro would only remain in the Yugoslav Federation if Serbia chooses a path of democratization. Djukanovic said that Montenegro could hold a referendum on independence if Milosevic and his allies remained in power in Belgrade, but insisted that now was not the time for such a move. Djukanovic argued that a referendum could not be held while a state of war still existed, and that peace and stability were prerequisites for an independence vote. While Djukanovic has hesitated on a Montenegrin independence bid, he has continued to reach out eagerly to the West, receiving assurances during a meeting with European Union envoys Wolfgang Petrich and Claus Boneman that Montenegro would play a direct role in the Pact for Southeast European Stability. Djukanovic met U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Cologne on June 9, where he received assurances of continued U.S. support and reaffirmed his earlier offer to provide logistical support to NATO operations in Kosovo. Djukanovic is scheduled to meet U.S. President Bill Clinton next week in Slovenia.

The eagerness of Montenegro's independence advocates to move quickly is easy to understand. With Milosevic licking his wounds, assurances of NATO and the West's good will, and NATO forces present and still on a war footing in Kosovo and throughout the region, now appears to be a perfect time to secede. However, there is much standing in the way of an independence bid at this time. The Yugoslav Second Army, headed by pro-Milosevic officers, is still on a war footing in Montenegro. The battle hardened and bitter Third Army, withdrawing from Kosovo, could be rapidly deployed to Montenegro. As Rakcevic pointed out, Montenegro still hosts some 120,000 refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia -- equivalent to 20 percent of Montenegro's population -- and though the ethnic Albanian refugees are filtering back into Kosovo, Serbs and Montenegrins are now leaving Kosovo for Montenegro.

Additionally, while NATO has vowed to defend Montenegro against Serbian aggression, it has not promised to help the republic secede. In fact, with its hands full in Kosovo, a civil war in Montenegro could not come at a worse time for NATO. It would also do nothing to support NATO's efforts to stave off the Kosovo Liberation Army's independence campaign. Finally, while the West appreciates Montenegro's democratic political leanings, it would like to see the same in Serbia, and there is a better chance of achieving that with Montenegro assisting from inside the federation than with the republic generating a new burst of Serbian nationalism and hostility by seceding.

Thus, with assurances of Western aid, Djukanovic appears willing to delay Montenegro's independence movement for now. Through careful coordination with the West and with Serbian opposition forces, he may be able to swing nearly as good a deal without breaking up the federation -- though perhaps diluting Yugoslavia to more of a confederation. The question is, will Milosevic, eager to retain power, attempt to force a new confrontation in Montenegro?

Source: Stratfor Kosovo Crisis Center

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