Montenegro election threatens Milosevic

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YUGOSLAVIA'S strongman Slobodan Milosevic will confront a dire threat to his 11-year rule if voters in the small republic of Montenegro, one of two republics left in Yugoslavia, elect his bitter enemy as their president, writes Marcus Tanner.

Voters yesterday were offered a straight choice between Milo Djukonavic, 36, a pro-Western reformer who has called for Mr Milosevic's removal, and Momir Bulatovic, 42, a Milosevic protege. Mr Djukanovic has flirted openly with the possibilities of Montenegro's secession, a move certain to encounter violent resistance in Belgrade, and which would leave Serbia on its own in Yugoslavia.

Polls suggest Mr Djukanovic may triumph - narrowly - in the republic of 650,000 people, but Montenegro remains sharply divided - as it has been since union with Serbia after the First World War - between supporters of Serbia and of Montenegrin independence.

With a small population, Montenegro can only aggravate Serbia's misery; it cannot challenge 9 million Serbs militarily. But Mr Djukanovic's election would be a disaster for Mr Milosevic, now encumbered suppressing the separatist war in Serbia's southern, Albanian-majority province of Kosovo.

When fighting erupted between the nationalities in the old Yugoslavia in 1992, Montenegrins hurried to the side of their fellow Orthodox Serbs against Catholic Croatia. But in recent years, disillusion with Serbia's confrontational policies - and the poverty it has brought in its wake - has set in, feeding a separatist movement that fondly recalls the days before 1918 when Montenegro was independent.