- The Washington Times - Monday, April 29, 2002

Serbia's deputy prime minister says a recent agreement allowing Montenegro to hold a referendum on independence could trigger further disintegration and instability in the Balkans.
"I am concerned about the agreements relating to a new Union of Serbia and Montenegro," said Nebojsa Covic in an interview Friday at the Embassy of Yugoslavia. The two republics are the only remaining members of what was once a six-republic Yugoslav federation.
"If we allow this precedent to take place, secessionist referendums will spread throughout the region. The Albanians in Kosovo will want to hold a referendum. So will the Croats and Serbs in Bosnia. There will be no end to the process of disintegration.
"We therefore need to be cautious and careful in order to promote regional stability and security," Mr. Covic said.
The comments were the latest sign of a split in the ruling coalition between Serbia's Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.
Mr. Kostunica has criticized Mr. Djindjic's government for agreeing to hand over suspected war criminals including former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to the U.N. tribunal at The Hague, which is prosecuting those charged with having committed atrocities during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In a bid to prevent more ethnic violence, Mr. Kostunica brokered an agreement on March 14 in which Serbia and Montenegro would restructure their ties and formally drop the name Yugoslavia. The pact would create a new Union of Serbia and Montenegro joining the two republics in a loose confederation.
The agreement allows Montenegro to hold a referendum on secession three years after the accord is adopted by the parliaments of both republics satisfying the demands of Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who left home yesterday for a visit to Washington.
Mr. Djukanovic, who seeks to eventually forge an independent state, is expected to discuss his republic's relationship with Serbia during talks with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell today. Mr. Djukanovic's prime minister resigned last week in a dispute over the independence issue.
Mr. Covic warned that the referendum arrangement could lead to further instability in the Balkans.
"We must stop the disintegration process in the region. Under Milosevic it was understandable that the other republics wanted to get away and secede but now any partition or secession will be done under democracy in Belgrade," said the 44-year-old former mayor of Belgrade.
Mr. Covic said he hoped the agreement would persuade Montenegrin secessionists to call off their demands for a referendum, saying the three-year interval following the pact's implementation "will allow the separatists to see that the disintegration of their country will not make sense."
However, Belgrade is facing secessionist threats not only from Montenegro, but also its southern province of Kosovo. Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova has called on the world to recognize the territory of more than 2 million as an independent state.
Kosovo legally remains part of Yugoslavia but has been a de facto international protectorate since June 1999, when NATO bombing ended oppression of its ethnic Albanian majority by Mr. Milosevic's nationalist regime.
Mr. Covic said that his government is "strongly opposed to a change in Kosovo's borders," adding that the 226,000 ethnic Serbs and 40,000 Gypsies who were expelled from the province after NATO's bombing campaign have not been allowed to return to their homes.
To grant the province independence "would lead to the creation of ethnically clean states that would threaten regional stability," he said.


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