Workers' Liberty #64


Balkan fires still burn

Low-level conflict continues in the former Yugoslavia, with a catalogue of human rights abuses - on all sides. Elections in the Yugoslav Federation have been set for 24 September; tension rises in Montenegro; there is no sign of an end to almost 10 years of civil wars.

By Cath Fletcher.

There have been atrocities against Serbs and Roma - and against Albanians suspected of 'collaborating' with the Milosevic regime - by Albanians in Kosova. In Republika Srpska (the Serb sector of what was Bosnia-Herzegovina) there have been attacks on Bosniak refugees as they try to return to their homes. NATO troops in Kosova (KFOR) have been strongly criticised by Amnesty International on a number of counts, in particular for detaining people without charge, and for ill-treating detainees.

Despite massive state intimidation and harassment of opposition supporters, opinion polls suggest that the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, led by Vojislav Kostunica, will win a majority in Yugoslav federal elections on 24 September. That said, there is still considerable potential for ballot-rigging - and it is unlikely that Milosevic, who controls the army, will be prepared to surrender power peacefully. The government of Montenegro had announced that it would not participate in the polls, although it has now said it will not obstruct voting.

Kostunica does not offer much hope for socialists. His platform promises 'democracy', the rebuilding of links with the West and economic reform. He appears to believe that the principal problem with the Kosova conflict was Milosevic's heavy-handed tactics, and has promised to help Serb refugees return to Kosova and to build links with the Bosnian Serb Republic - suggesting that the idea of a 'Greater Serbia' still flourishes. The big student opposition movement, Otpor, is calling for an anti-Milosevic vote: effectively backing Kostunica. Otpor styles itself as a direct-action 'resistance' movement and its activists have been on the receiving end of the worst of Milosevic's state repression. But its demands are limited: free and fair elections, free universities, independent media... and that's it.

Milosevic and his party have changed the Yugoslav constitution to help their cause. Milosevic can now serve two more four-year terms as President. And the system of elections to the Yugoslav Parliament has been changed: instead of the Serbian and Montenegrin assemblies each appointing deputies, elections will now be by popular vote. It is this change - widely seen to help Milosevic consolidate his power - that is the formal reason for the Montenegrin government's refusal to participate.

If Milosevic does win the elections - or loses but holds on to power anyway - that would present him with an opportunity to crack down further on the pro-Western government of Montenegro, risking war between Serbia and its one remaining partner in the rump Yugoslavia. Preparations for armed conflict between Serbia and Montenegro are already under way. The Montenegrin special police force, the Spezijalni, have apparently received assistance from Western military advisors stationed in Kosova. The Yugoslav army has both troops and paramilitary supporters based in Montenegro and has recently arrested a number of Western officials there.

In a radio interview, a Yugoslav army officer explained, 'If Milo Djukanovic [President of Montenegro] decides to call for a referendum or to move in any other violent way towards independence, the 7th Battalion will follow the orders of the [Yugoslav] Presidency. If the situation escalates into a conflict where the gun will decide the future of Yugoslavia, then we are ready, as we have been training for that.'

His Montenegrin counterparts appear equally uncompromising.

President Djukanovic has announced that if Milosevic wins the elections, then there will be a referendum - whether on independence or autonomy is unclear - to determine Montenegro's future. A poll conducted for Time magazine in mid-1999 suggested that only 60% of Montenegrins would vote for independence, given the chance - although Milosevic's clampdown on Montenegrin government attempts to act autonomously may well bolster the position of Montenegrin nationalists.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Montenegro has a much bigger Serb population than, for example, Kosova. Both nations are ethnically Slavs. Like Serbia, Montenegro has an Orthodox Church - although there are now moves to separate a Montenegrin Orthodox Church organisation from the Serbian Church. But for all that, the lines are hardening. Bobo Bogdanovic, leader of a Montenegrin militia which opposed Serbia during the Kosova war, talks of 'our holy duty to defend Montenegro when the time comes'. A Serb-supporting paramilitary leader, Nikola Minic, dismisses the idea that there is a Montenegrin nation: 'Montenegro is just a postal address'.

Even if the situation does not result in all-out civil war along the lines of Bosnia or Kosova, long-term 'troubles' - like those we are already seeing in many other areas of the former Yugoslavia - seem very likely.

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