- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said yesterday that his government would grant independence to Montenegro if the tiny republic voted in an upcoming referendum to break away from Yugoslavia.
Mr. Kostunica's remarks in an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times offered the clearest signal yet that his government will respect the results of an independence referendum. A date for a vote on such a referendum has not yet been set.
"Our government will accept the will of the majority but qualified and weighted majority in Montenegro, under circumstances in which the referendum is completely democratic. It means a clear question, a clear majority," he said.
Asked whether a "clear majority" meant 50 percent plus one, as opposed to a two-thirds majority, Mr. Kostunica said there were "a few possibilities" but that the "most natural" was 50 percent plus one "of the whole electorate."
The Yugoslav leader's comments marked a significant change in his position on an independence vote.
In an interview in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, just over a year ago, he flatly rejected the idea, arguing that any referendum is certain to be manipulated by Montenegro's president, Milo Djukanovic, who supports secession.
"It would be very hard for us to accept a separate referendum in a nondemocratic atmosphere, with the media controlled by Djukanovic," he said at the time.
Mr. Kostunica, a soft-spoken and studious lawyer who turns 58 next month, visited The Times as part of a trip to Washington during which he attended President Bush's National Prayer Breakfast yesterday.
Although the Montenegrin population remains divided over whether to secede, several polls since the October 2000 overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, Mr. Kostunica's predecessor, have shown that more than half of the republic's voters favor independence.
Both the United States and the European Union have urged Montenegro, a republic of 650,000 people, to remain part of Yugoslavia. They fear that a breakup could lead to renewed instability in the war-ravaged Balkans.
Late last month, the EU went as far as offering the Yugoslav federation the prospect of eventually joining the 15-nation bloc as an incentive to keep the country intact.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and defense policy chief, stopped short of proposing a membership timetable but invited experts from both republics to hold talks in Brussels.
Montenegro, however, called the EU proposal "inappropriate" and warned that "no one should expect any changes" in its position.
"We want to maintain future relations with Serbia and in the region as an independent and internationally recognized state," said Montenegrin Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac.
The tiny Adriatic republic was the only member of the Cold War-era Yugoslavia not to break away in the early 1990s, when Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence, prompting Mr. Milosevic to start a series of wars that ended with the 1995 U.S.-brokered Dayton accords.
Montenegro's alliance with Serbia began to crumble in 1997 when Mr. Djukanovic distanced himself from Mr. Milosevic. In 1999, the Montenegrin president supported NATO's air campaign against Serbia over Kosovo.
Mr. Milosevic has been indicted for war crimes. His trial at the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia starts Tuesday.
Political support in his country has substantially diminished, although many people still regard him as a victim, Mr. Kostunica said.
Having denounced the U.N. court as a tool of American foreign policy in his early days as president, Mr. Kostunica said yesterday it has insufficient capacity "to cover everything that happened" in the Balkans during the former strongman's tenure.
An internal Truth and Reconciliation Commission is investigating numerous crimes committed during the past decade, he said.
Asked about two others indicted for war crimes, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic, Mr. Kostunica said the question was "very unpleasant" for him.
He said Mr. Karadzic is in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"Even with foreign military presence there, still no one can say where he is," the president said.
He said he could not confirm reports that Gen. Mladic recently had been seen in Belgrade but said the fugitive general was not "guarded or hidden by the Yugoslav army."
Nearly a decade ago, Mr. Kostunica supported Mr. Karadzic's efforts to win self-determination for the Serbs in Bosnia, though he condemned ethnic cleansing and gave no support to paramilitaries.
Although Mr. Kostunica came to power after a "bulldozer revolution" enforced his election victory, he is no revolutionary.
Rather, he is viewed as a cautious legalist, who symbolizes Yugoslavia's hope for stability and order after a tumultuous decade.
His preferred approach of building a new order on the foundations of the old has disappointed some democracy activists, who fear that the momentum for bringing about real changes may soon be lost.


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