WAR IN THE BALKANS: Sleepy city may be new spark for war

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The Independent Online
THE OLD royal capital of Montenegro has a sleepy and faded feel to it these days. Clouds of Balkan cigarette smoke; leisurely, leather- jacketed chats in the outdoor cafes; a lazy tranquillity, and remembrance of grander times. It does not feel like the centre of the universe, even a Balkan universe. It may, however, become the epicentre of the next war. Already, extraordinary confrontations have occurred.

The inhabitants of Cetinje, a small town in a small Yugoslav republic, like to inhale the heady fragrance of a history now vanished.

In the old royal palace - a museum which has a clutch of attendants but no visitors - dozens of moth-eaten Turkish flags are on display, a reminder of the Montenegrin mantra: this is a nation which has never been defeated.

Until 1918, Montenegro was an independent state. Cetinje has a clutch of almost grand, and now-peeling, buildings that once served as the British embassy, the French embassy, and more besides.

Now, as they watch the lunacy that Yugoslavia has already descended into, many inhabitants of Cetinje are keen to turn the clock back to what they perceive as a golden age. The sepia photographs of Montenegrin chieftains may well yet come back to life. Such a resurrection is unlikely to be peaceful. Cetinje could be the flashpoint for a civil war that many in Montenegro believe is around the corner.

The Cetinjans may yet get their chance in the limelight. An explosion here would cause yet more detonations throughout the Balkans.

If you are in search of potential armed chieftains, you do not need to go far. At the Gaeta cafe, where pictures of the old royals decorate the walls, Bozidar Bogdanovic proudly describes how he and his fellow Cetinjans recently achieved a remarkable feat: they ran the all-powerful Yugoslav military out of town.

As Cetinjans tell it, it was like this. Slobodan Milosevic's military police arrive, to deliver draft notices to young Montenegrins. The Cetinjans don't like it, and tell the military police so. The much-feared military police retreat in disarray.

It sounds like a storyline from Herge's Adventures of Tintin, with Snowy snapping at the departing gunmen's heels. But it is also Balkan-real: Yugoslavia in its final death throes, spring 1999.

In the Gaeta cafe, Killing Me Softly is playing. Mr Bogdanovic, the plump and besuited cafe owner, explains how 30 Cetinjans trailed the group of military police around town, before springing into action to defend Montenegrin national honour. In the words of Mr Bogdanovic: "We told them: `Get out of here. If not, you'll lose your lives'." When the humiliated Yugoslav military drove out of town, it was, says Bobo Vujecic, another participant, "a fantastic feeling".

Nebojsa Rajovic, one of the men who the military police tried to seize, insists that he was unafraid. "I wasn't frightened. I consider it's an occupation army, in the service of a madman." He feels confident. "After this incident, they will not be back."

Cetinje's would-be fighters - who proudly display their weapons in full view of passers-by - are little bothered by the prospect of bloodshed on a grand scale.

Nebojsa Rajovic's cafe is called .357, a magnum reference; the local disco is called the Vendetta. Gun-happy? Just a bit.

Mr Bogdanovic's son Nikola says: "I'm not worried about civil war. It's the same thing whether we defend our country with politics or weapons. Montenegro has always waged wars for its freedom."

You could take all this as mere strutting - except that the bullets are real.

The Montenegrin government in Podgorica, with less bravado than the men in Cetinje, is bracing itself for an attempted military takeover. One of these days, Slobodan Milosevic - who looks increasingly likely to survive the Kosovo conflagration - will want to bring Cetinje back under Belgrade's control. If that happens, the gunfire will resound around the Balkans, even as diplomats prepare to congratulate themselves on a "settlement" in Kosovo.

In Yugoslavia, the splitting of the indivisible atom may only be a matter of time. Serbia and Montenegro have long seen themselves as inseparable brothers in arms. Now, "We love independent Montenegro" stickers are everywhere.

Even the church has been infected by the breakaway mood. Mihailo, a bishop with a flowing white beard, leads the recently re-created Montenegrin Orthodox church, no longer on speaking terms with the Serbs. Just down the road, Serbs still occupy Cetinje's monastery, much to the chagrin of the Montenegrins.

This is a country where religion is often a continuation of war by other means. For the moment, the two sides toss barbed comments across the religious barricades, even as Bishop Mihailo declares: "We need to have a Montenegrin state. We have a right not to be controlled by Belgrade."

The Montenegrin bishop is indignant, too, that the heir to the Montenegrin throne, a Parisian who visited Montenegro recently, was described by the Serbs as a "Catholic bastard".

All of which feels like good knockabout stuff. But if the tensions explode, Bishop Mihailo argues: "I'm afraid, God forbid, that the living will envy the dead."

Theoretically, Montenegrins and Serbs might once more live happily together, as they used to. But it seems increasingly difficult to imagine.

If Mr Milosevic stays in power for much longer - and what's a few more months, after all these years? - violent clashes between the two sides seem almost inevitable.

Would-be fighters in the Gaeta cafe seem almost to relish the prospect of bloodshed. "I think the Serbs are trying to get Montenegro into a war," says one. "If they force us to wage war, I wouldn't be afraid."