- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2001

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — This was supposed to be the Balkans next flash point.
As former President Slobodan Milosevic tightened his grip over Yugoslavia in the last years of the 1990s, Montenegro began to break away. The West, aiming to weaken Mr. Milosevic, supported moves toward independence. Mr. Milosevic rattled his sabers, and analysts darkly predicted war.
But that was last year. Voters yesterday gave a solid majority to independence-minded candidates in elections for Montenegros parliament, according to early unofficial returns, and all signs are that they will achieve their goal without violence.
With 65 percent of the vote counted, President Milo Djukanovics Victory Belongs to Montenegro coalition led with 43.3 percent of the vote. The anti-independence Together for Yugoslavia bloc trailed with 39.6 percent, the state electoral commission announced.
Mr. Djukanovic had said that if the ballot provided a clear mandate, he would call a referendum on independence, probably for early July.
But no one is predicting war. The change hasnt taken place here, but in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia and of Serbia — the only other republic remaining in Yugoslavia after Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia broke away in the early 1990s.
When a pro-reform government led by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica took over in Belgrade last year, Mr. Kostunica said he would respect the will of Montenegrin voters though he hoped they would choose to stay within Yugoslavia.
"Belgrades new authorities will behave really democratically," Mr. Kostunica said last week. "They will accept even something that would separate Montenegro from Serbia."
Western observers take the Yugoslav leaders assurances to heart. Mr. Kostunica "will never use force, will never use dirty tricks to keep them in," said one Belgrade-based diplomat.
Similarly, the issue has lost some urgency among ordinary people. Both in Serbia and in Montenegro, many say they just want the situation resolved one way or another.
"Everyone is just saying, 'Lets get it over with," said Ana Mitrovic, 23, an electrical engineering student in Podgorica.
Montenegro already functions nearly independently. People use the German mark rather than the Yugoslav dinar. The government conducts its own foreign policy and collects its own customs duties. Only the army and air-traffic control systems remain in federal government hands.
But some worry that official Montenegrin independence will encourage other separatists in the region — notably ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
"Any change of borders in the region will revamp unquenched thirst for new states and push us into a whirlwind of new, armed conflicts, crises and instability," Mr. Kostunica said, in a thinly veiled reference to Kosovo.
The decision ultimately may not be for the Montenegrins to make. The international community, especially the United States, holds significant sway over affairs here, though American goals for Montenegro are not entirely clear.
After Mr. Milosevic was ousted, international officials began to argue that for the sake of Balkan stability, Montenegro should stay within Yugoslavia. Earlier this month, the six-nation Contact Group on the Balkans — which includes the United States and Britain — said it wants a "democratic Montenegro within a democratic Yugoslavia" and hinted that Western countries may cut back aid if Montenegro continues to push independence. But there are signs that resistance is weakening.
The United States has been relatively quiet on the issue lately, and Europe has softened its rhetoric.
One reason is that the West may find it easier to exert its authority on an independent Montenegro.
Mr. Djukanovics government is widely seen as corrupt: Top executives at state-owned companies, which dominate the economy, must be members of one of the parties in the ruling coalition.
The argument that Montenegrin independence would fan the flames in Kosovo is losing credibility, too. "They arent going to get any more pro-independence than they already are," said the Belgrade-based diplomat.

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