Milosevic Tests the Waters for More Mischief

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Slobodan Milosevic may have a nasty little surprise waiting for NATO in the New Year — all nicely timed to coincide with the lead-up to the American presidential election. Wednesday's seizure of Montenegro's main airport by Milosevic's troops looks like a dry run to test Western resolve to defend the territory's pro-Western government. Although Yugoslavian forces backed down early Thursday, reopening the airport amid threats from NATO, the move may be a foretaste of a crisis to come. "Milosevic was clearly trying to test the West's commitment to defend Montenegro," says TIME Central Europe bureau reporter Dejan Anastasijevic. "His quick withdrawal suggests that he was surprised by NATO's prompt reaction. But while it may be delayed, confrontation in Montenegro looks inevitable."

Although NATO strongly backs the government of President Milo Djukanovic, its official position is that Montenegro should remain an autonomous part of the Yugoslav federation. But remaining in the federation looks increasingly unviable for Djukanovic's government as long as Milosevic remains in power. And with Belgrade having just been granted $300 million in reconstruction aid by China, Milosevic doesn't look like he's about to leave the scene. "So the question isn't whether there'll be a confrontation, but when it will happen," says Anastasijevic. "But rather than simply send in his army, Milosevic may choose instead to arm and organize the mostly pro-Serbian Montenegrins in the north of the country to fight the independence-minded government in the south. That will leave NATO facing the uncomfortable prospect of getting involved in a tribal war." And, of course, a U.S. election year may be just the opportunity Milosevic has been waiting for to launch a fresh round of murderous mischief in the Balkans.