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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Walking Fine Line of Coup Prevention

Montenegro: Civil unrest could be pretext for Yugoslav 2nd Army to act against local government.

April 04, 1999|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PODGORICA, Yugoslavia — With fears of a coup attempt at fever pitch here in the capital of Montenegro, the pro-Western government is trying desperately to mobilize support from its citizens and the international community.

Supporters of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic have planned a large outdoor anti-North Atlantic Treaty Organization concert for today, and while it is being billed as a nonviolent peace rally to protest the bombing of Yugoslavia, there are concerns that opponents of reform-minded Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic might use the situation to stage anti-government rioting.

Large-scale civil disturbances could provide a pretext for the Yugoslav 2nd Army, which is stationed in Montenegro, to take action against the democratically elected government. Montenegro is the smaller of Yugoslavia's two republics, after Serbia.

"I can't say how real is the danger of a coup d'etat," Radomir Sekulovic, a government spokesman, said Saturday. "Our primary task is to warn the international public of a possible coup d'etat, but we don't want to provoke the Yugoslav army.

"You have to understand the two-pronged strategy of the government," he added. "Inside, we have to make certain compromises to alleviate the pressure from Milosevic, certain groups and the Yugoslav army, especially after the official announcement from Belgrade [the Yugoslav and Serbian capital] that the chief of the 2nd Army has been replaced by a new man."

Last week, Milosevic named Gen. Milorad Obradovic, a hard-line ally of his, to replace Gen. Radosav Martinovic as army commander in Montenegro. Martinovic had maintained reasonably smooth relations with the civilian authorities of the Montenegrin government.

Since late March, the government has frantically encouraged foreign reporters to come to Podgorica. It has promised in faxes to U.S. newspapers to "provide all guarantees for safety and all necessary conditions for independent" reporting, and has requested that media outlets spread the word of Montenegro's welcome. Reporters can enter without visas and immediately receive accreditation.

The international media have responded to the coup fears and Montenegro's welcome mat by flooding into this city, filling hotels beyond capacity, with some reporters sleeping on hallway couches. Key hotels are located within a few hundred yards of presidential and parliamentary offices, and the government seems to believe that the heavy media presence might help protect it.

Government buildings have been guarded for at least the last week by Interior Ministry police wearing bulletproof vests and carrying semiautomatic rifles. Their numbers might be enough to frighten off demonstrators but would not be enough to hold back a Yugoslav army attack.

A press release Saturday from Djukanovic's office quoted Predrag Popovic, vice president of the Montenegrin parliament, as declaring that any attempt to forcibly change Montenegro's government would not receive support from political parties represented in parliament, from citizens, the Yugoslav 2nd Army or the Yugoslav navy, which is also based in Montenegro.

Any attempted coup could only be launched by "Slobodan Milosevic and the Military High Command" of Yugoslavia, Popovic said.

"As for the intentions of Slobodan Milosevic toward Montenegro, they are clear," Popovic added. "He wants to subject this country to his interests, and that's why he will not stop trying to overthrow the governing Coalition for a Better Life, even by instigating a coup, if he gets support from high military officials for such a scenario."

A Montenegrin official who spoke on condition of anonymity expressed fear about what kind of events might be triggered by today's concert and rally.

"It has been announced that this will be simply a rock concert as a form of protest against NATO airstrikes, the kind of strikes that happen in Belgrade now," he said. "We never know who is going to try to turn the direction toward civil disturbances, thus creating a pretext for interference by the army. Up to this moment, I am convinced the Montenegrin police are prepared for timely intervention."

The official also expressed hope that Obradovic, the new 2nd Army commander, might not be as hard-line as his reputation.

"We are puzzled what he might be prepared to do," he said, "for one simple reason: This would be a catastrophe for the defense of Yugoslavia and would be the beginning of a new civil war in Montenegro.

"I believe he knows that too. This is our unique hope," the official continued. "If he is rational, any rational officer would understand that civil war in Montenegro would not contribute to any legitimate end, except to keep the power of Mr. Milosevic going on. And how will you defend the country if civil war is going on here? I can't personally believe someone could be that crazy."

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