- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, a push by Montenegro for independence has threatened to dismember Yugoslavia permanently.

In an unusual twist, another independence drive is coming from the dominant Yugoslav republic of Serbia.

One political party in the Serbian ruling coalition, the Democratic Christian Party of Serbia (DHSS), has initiated a petition drive for a referendum on independence.

The group needs 100,000 signatures to open debate in the parliament. The petition backers say they already have 140,000 and are shooting for 300,000.

"We're trying to make a political statement," said Milan Protic, a top DHSS official and former Yugoslav ambassador to Washington. "This initiative is pretty questionable, because of the positions of the other parties in Serbian parliament, and we're aware of that."

But the success of the petition drive underscores the ambivalence among Serbs for remaining together with tiny Montenegro.

The two republics are all that remain of Yugoslavia after the secession of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Croatia in the past decade.

A recent poll showed that 61 percent of Serbs are in favor of a referendum on Serbia's status.

What makes the move unusual is that Montenegro, a tiny mountainous republic on the northwestern edge of Serbia, has fewer than 700,000 people, compared with 10 million for Serbia.

That would make Serbia's secession roughly comparable to England declaring its independence from Great Britain.

In March, an accord was signed between Serbian and Montenegrin officials agreeing to preserve a joint state, to be called Serbia and Montenegro rather than Yugoslavia. It calls for a new constitution and for any referendum on independence to be put off for three years.

The deal followed months of heavy diplomacy by European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. The United States and European Union have opposed separation.

The so-called "Belgrade Agreement," however, is short and vague. Serbian and Montenegrin officials must flesh it out and come up with a workable constitutional charter that would then be approved by the Serbian, Montenegrin and Yugoslav parliaments. That's a tall order, many here say.

A recent report by the think tank International Crisis Group said the agreement "may not be implementable even with good-faith efforts in both republics."

It's not just Serbia that could derail the deal. Shortly after the Belgrade Agreement was signed, the Montenegrin government collapsed because the pro-independence Liberal Party dropped out of the ruling coalition. Then, local elections in Montenegro last week gave a boost to the Liberals, who now will have more leverage.

Until recently, most political parties in Serbia and Montenegro have gone along with the preservation of the joint state because Western governments have promised that is the quickest way to becoming integrated into the EU and NATO.

But Serbia's DHSS is banking on the fact that, at some point, the deal will break down.

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