Why Milosevic May Be Ready to Rumble Again

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Slobodan Milosevic may be a thug, but he's a sly and nimble thug. He's chosen the U.S. election season as the moment to bring his confrontation with Montenegro to a head, mindful of the fact that the last thing Washington needs right now is to be dragged into yet another messy Balkan civil war. Milosevic on Thursday stunned his opponents by pushing constitutional changes through parliament that not only allow him to seek a fourth term of office but also diminish the already limited powers of Montenegro's government in the Yugoslav federation.

Montenegro's pro-Western leadership now faces an acute dilemma that could have global consequences: It either backs away from its path of confrontation with Belgrade, or presses forward for full independence. Milosevic has called the bluff of Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic, who has been moving steadily in the direction of seceding. Belgrade has now signaled clearly that it's willing to risk violent confrontation to keep its last non-Serb republic. The situation is fraught: Montenegro provides Yugoslavia's only access to the sea; in addition, some 30 percent of Montenegro's population remain loyal to Milosevic, and the Serb leader would happily send in his army to back them up in a showdown with Djukanovic. That would force NATO to either intervene or stand back and watch Belgrade's tanks roll over a freedom-minded republic.

On Friday Montenegro's parliament passed a resolution rejecting Milosevic's constitutional changes. But that sets the scene for a showdown in the fall, when federal elections are due. Participating in the election means Montenegro's acceptance of the principle of rule from Belgrade, and even the idea doing the rounds in NATO circles of Djukanovic himself challenging Milosevic for the Yugoslav presidency is likely to be a non-starter — Belgrade's mooted anti-terrorism law would make the Montenegrin leader liable for arrest if he tried to campaign in Serbia. But rejecting the constitutional changes and pressing on toward independence, as many of his supporters want Djukanovic to do, would demand that the Montenegrin government prevent Yugoslavia's presidential elections from taking place on its soil. And that would give Milosevic a pretext to send in his army — right on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, when nobody's going to be in a hurry to make new military commitments abroad. The combination of draconian political laws and a hopelessly divided Serbian opposition has left Milosevic sufficiently confident to seek a fourth term in the fall. He's not exactly feeling the heat, but he could be turning it up come September.