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Town Split Before Yugo Elections

September 23, 2000

PLEVLJA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Shiny white Montenegrin police Land Rovers zoom through the winding streets of this mining town ruled by President Slobodan Milosevic’s loyalists. A patrol of Yugoslav soldiers in full military gear parade in front of local cafes, flexing their muscles.

Staying out of each other’s way, the two armed contingents keep a wary eye on what the other side is doing. The police _ 1,000 strong in the region _ are loyal to Montenegro’s pro-independence government, while the army, with 2,000 troops in the area, swears allegiance to the Serb strongman.

With Yugoslav elections only two days away, tensions are high in Plevlja, a Montenegro town nestled high in northern mountains, its 40,000 inhabitants bitterly split between those loyal to Milosevic and supporters of the junior republic’s independence-minded leadership.

In an incident Friday in Montenegro’s capital Podgorica, an army officer shot dead a Montenegro policemen after a bar brawl. Although the army was quick to say it had ``no connection whatsoever with regular military or police duties,″ the incident reflected the dangers of the rift between the two sides.

Officially, Plevlja, 65 miles north of Podgorica, is a pro-Milosevic stronghold after his allies won the May 1998 local elections with 2,000 votes more than parties backing Montenegro’s maverick president, Milo Djukanovic.

The border with Serbia is only minutes away and locals have nurtured strong ties with Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.

Plevlja’s mayor gushes with rhetoric which echoes Milosevic’s own campaign speeches.

``This is a decisive ballot and we will not falter in our determination to defend our joint country, Yugoslavia,″ Radoman Gogic says. ``The forces of darkness and evil will not prevail over our dignity.″

Besides such rhetoric, which echoes the imagery spouted in Belgrade by the Milosevic camp equating those critical of Milosevic with evil, Gogic evokes ancestral ties.

Throughout the region’s turbulent history, Montenegrin northern tribesmen have fought alongside the Serbs against superior forces from the Ottoman empire to Nazi troops in World War II.

``It is inconceivable for us to split away from Serbia, we can never think of it as another country _ Yugoslavia’s federation is impressed in our hearts forever,″ Gogic says. ``Come Sept. 24, I am sure every last voter in Plevlja will march to the polls to re-elect Slobodan Milosevic.″

Despite the rhetoric, the local pro-Milosevic government has brought little prosperity in its two years in power. The impoverished town, where winding cobblestone streets are lined with bleak Communist-style structures, is often without water for 15 hours a day, despite the proximity of three rivers and mountain streams.

Wide holes gape in central Marka Miljanova street, where the municipality still lacks funds to lay sewage pipes. The average monthly wage here amounts to the equivalent of $80.

The town’s economy has relied solely on a mammoth state-owned, Communist-era coal mine that employs 2,000 and a power plant linked to it.

Predictably, the pro-Djukanovic camp sees things differently _ Montenegro’s government has called a boycott of the presidential and parliamentary elections, arguing that _ with Milosevic unwilling to step down, win or lose _ they only serve to cement his power.

``These elections are a farce and I hope the townspeople will have enough sense to turn their backs on Milosevic and his failed policies,″ says Zoran Gospic, a Plevlja official from Montenegro’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists.

Voting here, however, is allowed and will be organized by Milosevic backers.

Since Plevlja is run by Milosevic supporters, polls will also be set up in municipality buildings, the army hall and schools. In the areas under Djukanovic’s control, the vote will be held in private homes and shops, which would allow for major rigging, critics say.

The town’s scenery also reflects different religions that have prevailed here _ on one end stands Husein Pasha’s mosque with its 137-foot minaret, the highest in the Balkans, while the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Trinity graces the forested slopes on the other.

The town remains a mix of Muslims and Orthodox Christians, a true feat in a region nearly bled dry by ethnic conflicts in the past decade from Bosnia to Kosovo. But Plevlja’s Muslims have dwindled from one-third of the population to only 15 percent.

With passions running high, local pubs, cafes, discos and sports fans have split along political lines.

Some 45 percent of the townspeople back Milosevic while about 35 support the Djukanovic government. These elections are expected to flush out remaining, undecided inhabitants and test the actual strength of either side.

The two camps are easily distinguished, even by newspapers they read in local cafes _ a Milosevic supporter would never be caught looking at Montenegrin dailies, preferring those printed in Serbia.

Even sports, the great unifier elsewhere, tends to divide here.

The town’s handball crazy residents are split on loyalties. The local government sponsors Rudar, or Miner, while the other team, Plevlja, is backed by local businesses from Djukanovic’s camp.

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