The Washington Post

Another Balkan War?

For the fifth time in a decade, war threatens to erupt in the former Yugoslavia. As with the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia once again stands at the center of the violence. This time the conflict involves tiny Montenegro, which, together with Serbia, is all that remains of Yugoslavia.

If past is prologue, Montenegro's effort to liberate itself from Serbia's crushing embrace will exact a brutal response—and it will find the United States and NATO intervening only after the conflict has turned violent. But if Washington and its allies move swiftly to make clear they are fully committed to defeating any aggression emanating from Belgrade, they may be able to halt the slow slide into war.

For years, as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s, the hard-line Montenegrin regime in Podgorica stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Milosevic. That changed a few years ago, when a younger generation came to power in elections in Montenegro that narrowly defeated the Belgrade-backed regime.

Since then, the energetic government headed by President Milo Djukanovic has sought to distance Montenegro from Serbia by moving closer to the United States and Europe. Montenegro refused to condemn NATO's actions in the Kosovo war and instead opened its borders to both the Albanian refugees streaming across the border and the Serb opposition escaping Milosevic's wrath.

For its stance, Montenegro was spared NATO bombing during the war and handed a de facto NATO security guarantee for the duration of the conflict.

After Milosevic's defeat at NATO's hands, relations between the two Yugoslav republics deteriorated rapidly. By August of last year, Djukanovic was demanding a fundamental change in their relationship, insisting that each republic have its own army, foreign policy and convertible currency. Failing that, Montenegro would hold a referendum on independence.

In the past year, Djukanovic has followed Western advice and held off on further moves toward a break with Belgrade. In return, Washington and the European Union have supported the Montenegrin government politically and with substantial financial aid.

But this careful balancing act is coming under increasing pressure from Belgrade, which sees Montenegro slowly slipping away from its grasp. In March Serbia imposed a total trade and economic blockade on Montenegro, barring passage of any goods across what until recently was an uncontrolled border. Milosevic has also beefed up the Yugoslav military presence and sent a battalion of paramilitary thugs into the area.

And in the most direct challenge to Montenegro, Belgrade last month changed the Yugoslav constitution, effectively stripping the small republic of any influence in the federation. With a divided opposition in Serbia—and Montenegro's decision not to participate in the Yugoslav elections now scheduled for Sept. 24—Milosevic's constitutional engineering will likely succeed in fortifying his position in power.

At that point, Belgrade can move against Djukanovic, using his failure to accept the new constitution as its pretext. Milosevic may also believe that a Washington distracted by the presidential campaign will not be willing or able to offer Montenegro military support.

The Clinton administration and its NATO partners have expressed concern about developments in Montenegro and warned Belgrade against using violence. But they have not provided Montenegro the security guarantee it wants, fearing that to do so could prompt a Montenegrin decision to declare independence. Instead, U.S. and NATO officials have warned of grave consequences while refusing to elaborate on what contingency planning may be underway.

But more must be done. The United States and it allies should publicly commit themselves to defend Montenegro and the Djukanovic government against any forceful attempt to undermine it from inside or out. Washington and its allies must make clear that this commitment includes the use of whatever force is necessary—and that they could continue to prosecute the war until Milosevic was removed from power.

Milosevic may try to make his last stand in Montenegro. He must not succeed. But only an immediate and unmistakable commitment to Montenegro's security can ensure that he won't.