Montenegro moderniser fights Serbia's grip

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The Independent Online
Presidential elections in Montenegro yesterday threaten Slobodan Milosevic with what may turn out to be his biggest internal crisis since the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

Serbia's much smaller partner in the now shrunken Federal Republic of Yugoslavia may reject Mr Milosevic's candidate for the charismatic Milo Djukanovic, challenger to the arch-manipulator of the Balkans.

The Slobo-Saddam graffiti comparing the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) with the Iraqi dictator, and now spreading through the towns and villages of this rugged republic, with its scenic, under-exploited and - to landlocked Serbia - vitally important coastline, is merely the most visible sign of the tensions between Belgrade and the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.

The cause of all this is the articulate, and - by the standards of Yugoslav ex-communist politicians - unusually charismatic Montenegrin Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic. While the Serbian opposition coalition which flourished at the time of the Belgrade demonstrations has collapsed in bitter public infighting and mutual recrimination, Montenegro has in Mr Djukanovic a Milosevic opponent who looks as though as he knows where he is going.

This is a country of political junkies. Customers in the bars avidly watch the televised debates of the parliament; taxi drivers listen rapt to the sessions on their radios. And the audience appears to like what it is seeing of its Prime Minister.

The barrage of anti-Djukanovic propaganda unleashed by the state media in Belgrade has had little impact in Montenegro. If, as Mr Milosevic claims, Mr Djukanovic has sponsored cigarette smuggling - which he vigorously denies - then many Montenegrins assume this is simply to ensure that pensioners continue to be paid.

Faced with a deep split in the ruling socialist party between his own reformist supporters and the pro-Milosevic forces led by the Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic, Mr Djukanovic signed a historic deal with the opposition Liberal, National and Social Democratic Parties. It guarantees Mr Djukanovic the parliamentary majority that the ruling party split would otherwise deny him. And it gave him a clear and almost certainly successful run against Mr Bulatovic in the presidential elections.

In return he has agreed a far-reaching political and economic reform programme for Montenegro, whose 650,000 population is dwarfed by Serbia's 10 million. In the process it has set the Montenegrin political leadership on a direct collision course with Slobodan Milosevic, already struggling not to be destabilised by the equally irreconcilable split between the Bosnian Serb party bosses Radovan Karadzic and Biljana Plavsic - now backed by the West despite her history as a ferocious anti-Muslim hardliner - which flared into violence at Banja Luka this week.

Mr Djukanovic, a-35-year old, 6ft-plus economics graduate who is happy to receive visitors at the weekend wearing slacks and a white T-shirt, may not exactly be Tony Blair. But by Balkan standards he is a moderniser. He joined the Communist Party at 16 but he has now become a committed pluralist.

If he wins the presidential election he will install a coalition committed to political and economic reform, including large-scale privatisation: the pact guarantees the opposition parties a new, proportional electoral system, along with the same access to state television and the press as they already enjoy in the increasingly flourishing independent media.

Since Mr Milosevic became FRY President, having completed the maximum two terms as Serbian president, he has been trying, in the precise opposite of devolution, to transfer a series of powers from republic to federal level. In particular he wants to control tax gathering and the secret police in a move which the Montenegrins regard as ending their separate statehood. Mr Djukanovic has pledged to resist, although he emphatically dismisses claims by Milosevic that he is a secessionist.

Monenegro has close cultural and religious ties with Serbia. But it will not accept continued federation at any price. "We want to be in Yugoslavia but not in any Yugoslavia," says information minister Bizidar Jaredic. Chafing against the "outer wall" of sanctions imposed by the West, Mr Djukanovic wants Belgrade to meet the conditions - such as the appearance of indicted Serbs before the Hague war crimes tribunal - which would at last allow it access to international finance.

He knows that his fiercely independent stand has resonances of Slovenia whose secession in 1991 precipitated military intervention from Belgrade. But while Yugoslav national army commander General Momcilo Peresic is probably not a Djukanovic supporter, he has sought to reassure the Prime Minister's associates that he does not want the army involved in what he regards as civil conflict. In any case Mr Djukanovic's preference is for changing Yugoslavia from within, through the power his own government shares with the Serbians in the federal administration. "We will stay in Yugolavia until we are forced out," says Bizidar Jaredic.

Mr Djukanovic supported the student protests against Mr Milosevic at the end of last year; assuming that he wins the presidential elections - and the subsequent parliamentary elections - he is bound to bring his brand of reformist reformism closer still to Mr Milosevic's federal power base. He is likely to replace hardliners with his own supporters in the federal government.

Zoran Djindjic, the former mayor of Belgrade who was removed by Mr Milosevic's henchmen, and a prominent Serbian opposition leader, enjoys close relations with Mr Djukanovic. He says: "Milosevic faces three problems: Djukanovic, Mrs Plasvic in Bosnia and the opposition here in Serbia."

Mr Djindjic is clear that all three forces need to work closely together so that Mr Milosevic cannot exercise his famous talent for dealing with one front at a time; he has successfully split the opposition in Serbia. Mr Djindic adds that, at present, of the three problems for Mr Milosevic, "Djukanovic is the most serious". He could yet be the catalyst for a change which goes well beyond the borders of Monenegro.