Killing feeds fear on eve of Yugoslav elections

Policeman shot dead in Montenegrin capital as opposition leader bids to end decade-long rule of brutal Serb dictator
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Theoretically, the clash was just a drunken brawl. But it does not feel like that, in a republic already living on the edge of its nerves. On Thursday night, a supporter of Slobodan Milosevic - who had been a member of a particularly notorious army battalion - shot dead an off-duty Montenegrin policeman. It may remain an isolated incident; or it may be remembered as the first fatality in a war that could begin at any time.

Theoretically, the clash was just a drunken brawl. But it does not feel like that, in a republic already living on the edge of its nerves. On Thursday night, a supporter of Slobodan Milosevic - who had been a member of a particularly notorious army battalion - shot dead an off-duty Montenegrin policeman. It may remain an isolated incident; or it may be remembered as the first fatality in a war that could begin at any time.

Momo Mojasevic, 20, formerly of the Seventh Battalion of the pro-Belgrade military police in Montenegro - which are seen as possible shock troops in a military coup against the pro-Western republic of Montenegro - killed 26-year-old Nebojsa Zekovic, a member of Montenegro's special police forces (the republic's first line of defence against Belgrade).

Both sides quickly lined up to give their spin on the bloodshed. The army spokesman argued that this was a mere matter of drunkenness, of no great consequence. But he insisted, too, that the dead man had fired the first shot, before Mr Mojasevic returned fire with his six lethal bullets. A spokesman for the Montenegrin police claimed that two policemen sitting in the cafét had been "constantly provoked" by three soldiers, and that Mr Zekovic was shot as he went to his car.

At the restaurant itself, in a suburb of Podgorica, Montenegro's capital, nobody wanted to discuss the death.

"It's a private matter," the café owner and his wife repeated over and over. It may indeed have been a private matter, but the private and the political are constantly intertwined in this part of the world and the killing has added to the tensions in Montenegro.

Tomorrow's Yugoslav elections will be crucial for the future of Serbia. This is the moment when it becomes clear whether Serbs are ready decisively to reject the man who has led them to so many disasters - and has resisted all attempts to oust him from power.

Even if a majority votes to get rid of Mr Milosevic, most in Belgrade assume that there will be fraud, or that the President will produce another trick from up his sleeve. His term runs until next year, and officials said this week that he will in any case not give up his post until then.

The tiny republic of Montenegro has been at loggerheads with Belgrade for more than two years. Like the other Yugoslav republics before it, Montenegro - traditionally, Serbia's closest ally - is increasingly inclined to break away from the political and economic dead weight of Belgrade.

Independence still seems almost unthinkable; it would no doubt be accompanied by war. And yet, if Mr Milosevic remains in power, it seems equally unthinkable that Montenegro will remain in the federation. That is one reason why the stakes are so high.

Government posters in Podgorica urge people not to use their vote in today's elections, which are described by the Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, as "illegal". One focuses on an electoral list, showing Montenegro as merely the 27th in a list of Yugoslav electoral regions.

This goes to the heart of Montenegrin complaints about the recent changes to the Yugoslav constitution - which mean that Montenegro loses all the rights that it enjoyed one of six sovereign republics in the old Yugoslavia. The new voting system is based on the number of votes, which means that, in the Serb-heavy diminished federation, tiny Montenegro can be out-voted by Big Brother Serbia for ever and a day.

The pro-Milosevic opposition in Montenegro will thus organise the elections in a kind of political void. As in Kosovo - where the United Nations administration is eager to wash its hands of the election, and where the Albanians are certain not to vote - victory for the supporters of Mr Milosevic is pre-programmed, since his opponents have no reason to vote at all. What comes after is, however, much less clear.

The prospect of war between the two sides still seems so lunatic that it sometimes seems it cannot be real. But plenty of lunacies have taken place in the past decade; it would be foolish to write this one off as impossible. The cover story in this week's edition of Monitor , Montenegro's main current affairs magazine, is headlined "Elections, the military and D-Day", and explores in detail the possibility of military moves by Belgrade against Podgorica. The article concludes: "One should not underestimate the seriousness of Milosevic's military experiment in Montenegro."

Everything hangs on one man. The prospect of a war between the two republics will once more be out of the question, if Mr Milosevic peacefully departs the stage after tomorrow's elections. But that is a very large if.

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