The possibility of Montenegrin secession would have seemed unthinkable until a couple of years ago. The relations between Serbia and Montenegro have been close - much closer than between any of the other six republics of the old Yugoslavia - but are nowdangerously fragile.
In the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, the reformist government of President Milo Djukanovic has proposed the creation of a looser federation - "our last offer", as the Foreign Minister, Branko Perovic, described it to The Independent - which will be discussed in Belgrade today. If Serbia fails to compromise, a referendum on independence will be held within the next few months.
The Belgrade propaganda machine has trained its heavy guns on Montenegro in recent days, in moves reminiscent of the campaigns against the Croatian and Bosnian governments at the beginning of the Balkan wars. Politika, the pro-government daily, this week declared: "Podgorica's insistence on pursuing its dispute with officials in the Yugoslav capital is a cover for manipulation, hiding a much deeper conspiracy that could be the undoing of Montenegro and of Djukanovic as well."
Belgrade has sought to create an armed federal police in Montenegro, which the Montenegrin government fears could be used against the elected authorities. Montenegrin officials claim that about a hundred pro-Milosevic loyalists are being recruited daily.
A statement by the general staff of the Yugoslav Army condemned "political propaganda" on the possible use of the army against Montenegro, and said that the army was a "depoliticised state institution". Most observers would argue that the army has, on the contrary, been deeply politicised on behalf of the Milosevic regime.
Even if theoretical agreement is reached today, the problems are not over. Mr Djukanovic's coalition partners in Podgorica insist the time for talking to Belgrade has passed - at least while Mr Milosevic remains in power.
In some respects, that appears to be the view of Mr Djukanovic himself. Earlier this year, he told The Independent that Montenegro would not stay in the Yugoslav federation if Mr Milosevic remained in office. The political and economic cost, he argued, would be too high.
When Montenegrins look at the chaos of Serbia today, and note that Montenegro, because of its anti-Milosevic policies, suffered little bomb damage, they are more inclined to turn from the pro-Milosevic party of Momir Bulatovic, who is Yugoslav prime minister and opposition leader in Montenegro.
An independence vote would certainly be split. The north of Montenegro especially remains pro-Serb. This would provide an excuse to give weapons to pro-Belgrade rebels "in defence of the federation", as has happened elsewhere. The one point on which all sides are agreed is that a civil war here would be unimaginably bloody.Reuse content