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Montenegro Rejects Oppression

July 7, 2000

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Stopping short of moves toward more independence from Yugoslavia, Montenegro’s government Friday rejected oppressive new measures imposed by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

The government met in an urgent session to plot its future after Yugoslavia’s parliament changed the federation’s constitution, tightening Milosevic’s grip on power and degrading Montenegro’s status.

``The latest changes represent a classic constitutional destruction,″ Montenegro’s government said in a resolution. ``They are illegal, illegitimate ... and unacceptable.″

Even as it rejected the vote, though, Montenegro’s officials declined to proclaim outright independence, which would risk military intervention by Milosevic, the Yugoslav president.

Instead, the resolution appealed for ``the citizens of Montenegro, Serbia’s democratic public and the international community to contribute to peace, and the members of the Yugoslav army not to be misused against the citizens and the institutions of Montenegro.″

The resolution was expected to be approved later Friday by the parliament in Montenegro, Serbia’s much smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation.

The move is unlikely to change the relations within the federation. Montenegro has been ignoring the Milosevic regime since 1997, when it started on its path toward independence.

``The status quo will remain,″ Deputy Premier Dragisa Burzan said after the government session.

Montenegro’s pro-Western leadership has slowly been concentrating power in the republic, in what is known as ``creeping independence.″ The only remaining federal institution in the republic is the Yugoslav army.

Still, the reformist leadership has refrained from full independence. The idea lacks support from the United States and other nations, which fear a new Balkan war, and Montenegrins themselves are deeply divided into pro-Serb and pro-independence camps.

Under the constitutional amendments, both the Yugoslav president and parliament’s upper house will be chosen in a popular vote.

Montenegro has only 600,000 people, compared to Serbia’s 10 million. A direct election of the president and the legislators cuts its influence in the federation, concentrating power in Milosevic’s hands.

The upper house currently includes 20 deputies from Serbia and 20 from Montenegro, all chosen by both republics’ parliaments. Assembly members elected the Yugoslav president.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic warned on Thursday that by adopting the amendments, Milosevic’s regime had destroyed the ``federal constitutional system.″

Djukanovic did not call for outright independence, but other senior Montenegrin officials indicated the amendments enacted in Belgrade could quicken the pace.

Milosevic’s allies argued that direct election would confer ``the greatest possible democratic legitimacy″ to the institution of the president. They challenged the opposition to compete with Milosevic in an election.

Although the Serb leader’s popularity is believed to have plummeted since last year’s NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, he is still in full control of the media and state institutions _ limiting the opposition’s chances for a fair election race.

Serbia’s opposition has historically been weak and divided, another factor making it unlikely a viable rival candidate could be found.

Milosevic has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal for atrocities committed during his crackdown in Serbia’s Kosovo province, which triggered last year’s 78-day NATO bombing campaign. Staying in power would be Milosevic’s best guarantee against prosecution.

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