Hovering on the Brink

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If there is going to be another war in the Balkans, it may well start in the area around Kolasin, in the sun-bleached mountains of northern Montenegro. This rugged outpost of wooden houses and bizarre modernist architecture, 40 km from the Serbian border, is a stronghold of pro-Serb sentiment in a republic that is drifting edgily toward independence from Belgrade. Slobodan Milosevic's father is buried in the town; his brother was born here. The region, moreover, is teeming with armed men: soldiers from the Yugoslav army hold exercises on one hillside, while a growing contingent of police under orders from the capital, Podgorica, train on the next. "When a country is breaking apart it rarely goes peacefully," says Panto Pekovic, a senior official on the Kolasin council. He accuses Montenegrin police of arming civilians and spreading intimidation. A few blocks away, the subjects of Pekovic's anger are equally gruff. "If there is a war, we will have no choice but to defend the majority of Montenegrins," says one police officer, asking not to be named, "but that will only happen if they start it."

U.S. officials say "they" meaning Milosevic may be contemplating just that. For weeks, Belgrade has been increasing pressure on Montenegro and its pro-Western President, Milo Djukanovic, in what one local journalist calls a "creeping occupation." Army patrols in border areas have clashed with local police and arrested two Britons, two Canadians and four Dutch on suspicion of terrorism. (The Westerners, who claim to be tourists, are still being held.) Last week, the Yugoslav army set up new roadblocks along the republic's Bosnian border, and Time has learned that it has scheduled five weeks of military exercises to begin on the eve of presidential and parliamentary elections on Sept. 24.

Analysts say the Serbian President's aim is to ensure his hold on power should the polls fail to go entirely his way (see following story), or should Djukanovic use the occasion to make a sudden bid for independence. "Milosevic is preparing to be able to move with force," said a senior State Department official.

Pro-Serb authorities in Montenegro deny that anything is afoot. Predrag Bulatovic, vice president of the Belgrade-backed Socialist People's Party and the most prominent figure on the Serb side in Montenegro, spoke to Time at his family farm in Kolasin. The idea that a coup may be brewing, he said, is "hype" and "propaganda" invented by the government to spread fear. "The army is not politically motivated," he added. "It is a guarantor of stability."

The army's top commander, Colonel General Nebojsa Pavkovic, who recently commended Milosevic for his "wise and decisive policies that have preserved the dignity of our people," said his troops have been acting in Montenegro only to prevent "the infiltration of terrorists and foreign mercenaries into Yugoslav territory."

Djukanovic's officials believe otherwise. But they insist that they will not be provoked into a confrontation. "We are used to pressure," the President's top foreign affairs adviser, Milan Rocen, told Time at his office in Podgorica. "We will not do anything to increase tensions." The Djukanovic government is acutely aware that a clash between its police and the army or civilians would provide the pretext Milosevic wants to declare a state of emergency and send in troops.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have repeatedly warned the Serbian strongman to keep his hands off the Montenegro government, but it is not clear how far the West is willing to go to back that up. The U.S. is reportedly planning naval exercises in the Adriatic, but nato's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, U.S. General Joseph Ralston, has been conspicuously silent on the topic. nato countries are apparently disinclined to offer an explicit security guarantee to a republic that is legally still part of Yugoslavia and that has yet to suffer widespread human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, State Department officials say the Yugoslav army has increased its troop strength and tightened restrictions along the economically crucial border with Croatia. Djukanovic, for his part, has expanded his police force to an unprecedented 20,000 an overwhelming presence in a population of 680,000, and a constant irritant to his opponents.

Milosevic's canniest move in the battle of nerves between Belgrade and Podgorica came with the introduction in July of changes to the Yugoslav constitution that allowed him to stand for another eight years in office and downgraded Montenegro's status to a junior partner in the federation. Djukanovic's only response has been to boycott the Sept. 24 elections. That decision had to be made over the objections of his erstwhile allies in the Serb opposition, and those in Washington who wanted him to join the contest against Milosevic. Milka Tadic, editor of the Monitor magazine in Podgorica, blames Djukanovic for not being more pro-active: "Like the West, he has a short-term strategy against Milosevic but no long-term strategy for Montenegro."

Montenegro's dilemma is that while most residents are fed up with Milosevic, few agree on what to do about it. Up to 35% want secession now, but a larger proportion, including members of Djukanovic's ruling party, would prefer ongoing ties with Serbia though under a different regime. The only legal route to independence, a referendum, is looking less and less likely because of fears that it would spark a conflict.

Both sides in Montenegro have some interest in maintaining the status quo. Djukanovic might be able to survive indefinitely under the current stalemate, and from Serbia's point of view, Montenegro is at least still part of the Yugoslav federation. Ordinary Montenegrins, many of whom fought (on the Serb side) in earlier Balkan wars, have little appetite for a return to arms. Even in the heartland of Montenegrin nationalism, the ancient city of Cetinje, high in the mountains above the Adriatic Sea, residents are disillusioned, but not belligerent. Nenad Vicer, 30, is an unemployed factory worker who backs independence from Belgrade as the only way out of Montenegro's economic mess. But, he says, "the only people who want war are sick in the head."

Probably Milosevic also has reservations about a conflict exploding in this tiny republic. But if the alternative is the loss of power, recent history shows which way he will jump.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Cetinje and Massimo Calabresi/Washington