Frontline Podgorica, Montenegro: Breaking up from Serbia is hard to do

TO KNOW how dead Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia is, come to Montenegro, Serbia's last remaining partner in the Yugoslav federation.

"There is no Yugoslavia," said an elderly ethnic Albanian man, when we asked if the taxi, in which he was travelling from Pec in Kosovo to his home in south-western Montenegro, had crossed the border. Questioned about the presence of the occasional Yugoslav army truck or soldier, he explained: "That is Serbia's army. Not Montengro's."

Srdjan Darmanovic, a legal scholar and pro- democracy activist in the capital, Podgorica, said: "Montenegro does not recognise the federal government at all. We have taken as much autonomy as we can and still legally be part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia."

Suddenly, Montenegrins, who fought side by side with Serbs against independence- minded Bosnians and Croats, remember a whole history of independence from Serbia. As President Milosevic's Serbia sinks further into economic turmoil and international isolation, Montenegro is trying to bale out, without provoking a new conflict.

Miodrag Vlahovic, Mr Darmanovic's partner at Montenegro's Centre for Democracy and Human Rights, gives a long and angry lecture when confronted with a Western reporter unfamiliar with Montenegro's two centuries of independence before it was "occupied" by Serbia in 1918.

Montenegrins have em-erged with credit from the war in Kosovo. While Serb forces and paramilitaries were slaughtering and driving out hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians, Montenegro was accepting thousands as refugees. Many Montenegrins also refused to respond to draft notices into the Yugoslav army to fight in Kosovo.

For their pro-Western policies, Montenegrins have been rewarded by being excluded from some of the economic sanctions that Western countries have imposed on Serbia. Montenegro Airlines will be allowed to land planes in Europe, whereas Belgrade's are still banned. Montenegro is receiving economic assistance, and was invited to participate in the pan-Balkan stability summit in Sarajevo two months ago, from which Serbia was excluded.

This week, Montenegrins sat in cafes and shops glued to their televisions, watching parliament debate a citizenship law that would give them their own passports.

The passport issue is one of a dozen - including whether Montenegro will get its own currency, foreign policy, and border controls - which the pro-Western government of President Milo Djukanovic put forward in an ultimatum to Serbia last month. Tuesday was the deadline for Serbia to respond but, with the deadline looming, the head of the Serbian parliament, Mirko Marjanovic, dodged the issue by referring it to the federal Yugoslav parliament - a body that Mr Djukanovic's government does not recognise.

Analysts are convinced that if Montenegro was to carry through its threat of holding a referendum on its status, the people would vote overwhelmingly for independence, and Serbia would be cast out on its own. A recent poll shows that less than 30 per cent of the population supports remaining part of Yugoslavia, with nearly 70 per cent favouring moves towards independence.

But various internal and external pressures force Montenegro to exercise extreme patience and caution in its steady move toward separation from Serbia.

Western governments that support President Djukanovic have nevertheless warned him that they want to avoid another Balkan crisis for the moment. They already have their hands full with Kosovo and Bosnia, where Nato has deployed about 80,000 troops. A bigger problem is that Western countries are still uncomfortable with the idea of new borders in the Balkans.

"Montenegro is a hostage of the Kosovo issue," Mr Darmanovic complained. "The West doesn't have a political solution for Kosovo, they have a military solution: a military protectorate. But they still want to maintain the illusion of Yugoslavia."

Consequently, Montenegro - a beautiful, fir-covered mountainous republic with a splendid Adriatic coastline - is kept in limbo. And President Djukanovic's government continues its delicate balancing act, striving to achieve as much autonomy as possible without provoking Serbia to send in troops.

"After Bosnia, we realised the international community pursues a policy of too little, too late," one Montenegrin analyst said. "And so we are patient. Milosevic needs a new flashpoint. If he starts war here, he will lose."