- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

ROME — The tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro will offer the United States or Russia the use of a base on its Aegean coast if it wins independence from Serbia in a referendum Sunday, diplomats say.

A veteran U.S. diplomat based in the Balkans, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic “is expected to offer the Russians, as well as the United States, a naval base or basing facilities, if only for economic reasons.”

Mr. Djukanovic has denied such speculation in the past.

Montenegro, a mountainous, sun-drenched republic of 650,000, is to vote Sunday on whether to remain part of a federation with Serbia.

Montenegro historically has had close ties to Russia. Montenegrin diplomats have been active in Moscow trying to revive the old relationship to set off a “bidding war” for use of the state’s strategically located military facilities, the diplomat said.

Internal opinion polls show that as many as 56 percent of voters support a clean break from Serbia as official campaigning for the plebiscite ended yesterday.

Under rules imposed by the European Union, at least 55 percent of voters must support independence for the union with Serbia to be dissolved, a move that Brussels fears could encourage ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo to accelerate their drive for independence from Serbia.

European officials also worry about Montenegro’s reputation as a haven for organized crime.

Mr. Djukanovic began a drive for independence in the 1990s, as Montenegrins objected to conscription in wars against Croatia and Bosnia.

The navy of Serbia-Montenegro has started selling real estate and equipment as part of reforms to prepare for membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.

A Montenegrin government paper says the republic plans to downsize its military if it becomes an independent nation.

Its future army would have just 2,400 soldiers, a single helicopter instead of an air force and a coast guard using speedboats instead of a navy.

Montenegro could provide an alternative base for U.S. warships close to Kosovo, defense analysts say.

The U.S. Navy already has informal basing rights at ports such as Split, in Montenegro’s neighbor Croatia.

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