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New Series no.17/18 July - September 2000

Give Support to Montenegro Before It's Too Late
by Anthony Lewis

The most dangerous place in Europe today is Montenegro, the small republic tied to Serbia in the Yugoslav Federation. Slobodan Milosevic could intervene at any time, overthrowing the freedom-minded Montenegrin government and once again challenging the West. What should America and its allies do to prevent a Milosevic demarche on Montenegro? I put the question to President Milan Kucan of Slovenia, the most successful of the former Yugoslav republics. Mr Kucan has known Mr Milosevic for 40 years, and he has offered wise advice to the West since Mr Milosevic set out a dozen years ago on his course of demagogy and bloodshed ý advice that was too often ignored. `Have a greater presence of the Sixth Fleet in the Adriatic', Mr Kucan replied. `Be willing to provide military instructors if [President Milo] Djukanovic asks for them. Support Djukanovic.'

The Yugoslav army has at least 10,000 men in Montenegro, and Mr Milosevic could use them in a coup. There is a Montenegrin police force of about 15,000, but it is ill trained for warfare. Some believe that it could be effective if NATO grounded the Yugoslav air force by imposing a no-flight zone on the region. Mr Kucan said the United States and its allies should stop urging Mr Djukanovic not to boycott the Yugoslav presidential election that Mr Milosevic has called for 24 September, having amended the constitution so that he can run again. The world has the `illusion' that Montenegro can combine with Serbian opposition parties and defeat Mr Milosevic, he said. But those parties are weak and divided, and Montenegro cannot remake Serbian politics. Mr Djukanovic has moved gingerly toward declaring Montenegro independent, but has not taken a decisive step. Montenegro `must not remain a hostage in Yugoslavia', Mr Kucan said. `It has the right to live democratically and become a European state.' Mr Djukanovic `cannot legitimize Milosevic's election ý he'd be compromising himself in front of his own people.'

A Milosevic move on Montenegro, if it comes, could be intensely troublesome for President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. It would be difficult to find a legal basis for military intervention, given the fact that Montenegro is still formally a part of Yugoslavia. Mr Kucan said Mr Milosevic was `looking for an excuse to intervene'. He said there was a fundamental element that had to be understood. `Milosevic has to be re-elected president of Yugoslavia. It guarantees not just his political but his physical existence. He knows very well what happened to [Nicolae] Ceausescu', the Romanian dictator who was killed when his people revolted. Russia could be `a very important factor in his existence', Mr Kucan said. President Vladimir Putin could `guarantee Milosevic refuge, in Russia or somewhere else'. `Putin is a pragmatist', Mr Kucan said. `To raise Russian standards of living he needs the help of the West. He knows that, and he knows help has a price. He cannot pay the price if it's Chechnya, but he can if it's Milosevic.'

Mr Kucan spent years in Belgrade in the old Yugoslavia. When he became leader of the Slovene Communist Party in 1986, he moved the republic toward democracy. He was elected president of independent Slovenia in 1992 and overwhelmingly re-elected in 1997. The Kucan approach has made Slovenia, a country the size of Israel to the east of Venice, a model of post-Communist democracy and respect for civil liberties. It is prosperous and exceptionally uncorrupt. The finance minister said its 2 million people were `compulsive taxpayers'.

In 1992 Mr Kucan urged the American secretary of state James Baker to help the Yugoslav republics become independent peacefully. But President George Bush wanted to discourage the breakup of the Soviet Union, so Mr Baker told Mr Milosevic that the United States favored preserving Yugoslavia. Mr Milosevic took that as a green light for his savage assaults on Croatia and Bosnia. `From the very beginning of the Yugoslav crisis in 1988', Mr Kucan said, `the West has always acted five minutes after midnight. Now it's time to act five minutes before midnight.'

This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 15 August 2000
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