War in Europe: Charity updateWaiting for the endgame

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The Independent Online
The pavement cafes are full, the streets are busy, the cinemas are open. Crowds stroll in warm sunshine. But normality is not an appropriate word for Podgorica, capital of the little Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. Podgorica, formerly known as Titograd, is not yet a name that most people in Britain would recognise - just as the name of the Kosovo capital, Pristina, was unfamiliar until recently. As with Pristina, that could all yet change.

Part of the abnormality of Montenegro is a result of the Serb war on Kosovo Albanians. Montenegro has taken in tens of thousands of refugees, with a flood of Albanians fleeing Kosovo last autumn and another mass influx in recent weeks. The refugees have increased the 600,000-strong population by 15 per cent.

Partly, it is the result of Nato's war on Belgrade. Each day - sometimes several times a day - the air-raid sirens blare, as Nato planes fly over. Last week saw the heaviest bombardment yet. In the early hours, explosions and anti-aircraft fire brought Montenegrins on to their balconies, muttering angrily. In the Montenegro Hotel - in effect the journalists' headquarters - photographers and cameramen jostled for position in search of panoramic views of the orange flashes on the horizon. At the end of the late-night movie on TV (Sleepless in Seattle one night last week), an on-screen message gives an update of the latest damage and injuries, even as the Hollywood credits roll past.

Above all, however, the abnormality is connected with Montenegro's own troubled relationship with the Yugoslav federation, of which it still forms a part. As you walk along the main, tree-lined boulevard you pass armed police in camouflage and bullet-proof vests every few metres. They are there to defend the Montenegrin government from Slobodan Milosevic's government in Belgrade, in other words a first line of defence in a possible civil war.

At the Montenegro Hotel, a friendly receptionist boasts that he has two Kalashnikovs at the ready, awaiting any eventuality.

The relationship between the federal authorities in Belgrade and the republican authorities in Podgorica was once amicable. Now, in the words of Milka Tadic, publisher of Monitor, a leading news magazine: "You have two orders in this country - which means you have no order."

The Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, was elected in 1997, defeating Mr Milosevic's ally, Momir Bulatovic. Mr Milosevic was furious - and determined to bring Montenegro to heel. In recent days, the signs have multiplied that Belgrade is eager to topple the government that has so sharply condemned Mr Milosevic and his policies. Last week his army moved troops into Montenegro - despite the publicly voiced concerns of the government - in what many believe is the first preparations for a military coup.

An open letter to the commander of the Yugoslav army in Montenegro, published in this week's Monitor, is headed "Prevent disaster in Montenegro". The two-page letter appeals to General Milorad Obradovic "as a professional officer", and claims: "A military coup has no prospect of success, militarily or politically." It points out that the experience of war in Croatia and Bosnia shows that "technological superiority is not enough to make the weaker opponent surrender immediately". The authors warn that a civil war in Montenegro would be "brutal and with incalculable tragic consequences".

Few would quarrel with that conclusion. Many in Montenegro argue that civil war is unthinkable - precisely because it would be so hideous. Political optimists have not, however, had a good run in the Balkans in the past decade. I recently rediscovered a hoarded Yugoslav magazine interview with the Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegovic, published just weeks before war was unleashed in Sarajevo in 1992. The cover headline quoted his prediction: "There won't be a war."

Most Bosnians did not want a war - just as most Montenegrins do not want a war today. But, as Bosnia vividly demonstrated, if politicians are determined enough, anything is possible.

Throughout the Balkan wars that began eight years ago, the pattern has always been the same. The West has refused to focus on a conflict well beyond the point where it is undeniably looming. Western politicians wait until the house is in flames before reluctantly reaching for a small fire extinguisher. Much later, they call for the fire brigade. Traditionally, the chief arsonist has also been asked for his help and advice in putting the fire out.

When Slovenia was engulfed in a tiny war, Europe ignored Croatia's worries that it would be next. When the bloodshed in Croatia was in the headlines, Bosnia was slapped down. When a Bosnian settlement was agreed in 1995, Kosovo was left on one side. And now, it may be Montenegro's turn.

Government posters in early 1992 described Bosnia as "delicate as a drop of water in the hand". Multi-ethnic Montenegro - where Montenegrins form only 60 per cent of the population - could describe itself in similar terms. Its last census - before the recent arrival of Kosovars - showed its population consisted of 14 per cent Muslims, 9 per cent Serbs and 6 per cent Albanians

Montenegrins pride themselves on tolerance; but they also pride themselves as a nation of fighters. This spectacularly beautiful country - where every road through the mountains and along the Adriatic coastline opens astonishing, panoramic views - is also a place where cliches about Balkan violence come true. One memorable scene in an old Yugoslav film called Montenegro was a posed group photo, including a cheerful man who a moment earlier had been embroiled in a dispute and therefore had an axe protruding from his head.

The very name "Black Mountain" - Crna Gora, as the Montenegrins themselves call their country - is said to have been bestowed upon Montenegro by would-be invaders who found themselves unable to conquer this proud nation. It remained unconquered by both the Ottomans and the Venetians who ruled the territory all around. Nobody can trample on the Montenegrins. Not even (or especially not) the Serbs, with whom their history is so closely linked, and whom many Montenegrins still see as their "brothers". There is increasing support for independence from the Serb big brother in the rump Yugoslav federation, to break free of the spiralling Belgrade madness. An increasing number of Montenegrins hark back wistfully to Montenegro's status as an independent Balkan kingdom before 1918.

Mr Milosevic does not like to fight on two fronts at the same time. Traditionally, he has liked to have one conflict at a time, to maintain his power. Increasingly, it seems that this final endgame may be near - even as the international headlines start talking about potential "solutions" for Kosovo. One after another, the man who claimed he would strengthen Yugoslavia has driven all the other republics out in a succession of bloody wars. Macedonia was the only one to escape without a fight. Few Montenegrins are betting that they can get away without suffering the last lash of the dying monster's tail.