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Montenegrin Leader Propels Country Toward Independence

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
MILOCER, Yugoslavia

Even when vacationing here on the Adriatic coast, Milo Djukanovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, is accompanied by bodyguards. Armed and wearing swimming trunks, the guards trudge through the beach sand after their leader or sit nearby in palm-shaded cafes.

And no wonder: Djukanovic is waging a political battle against the most powerful and ruthless man in Yugoslavia, and for now, Djukanovic appears to be winning.

The result is a growing movement demanding equal rights for Montenegro, the tiny republic that is Serbia's partner in today's rump Yugoslavia. Some Montenegrins want more - independence.

Djukanovic and his supporters have been labeled secessionists by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, which has reverted to the same kind of rhetoric used against Slovenia and Croatia in 1990 before those one-time republics bolted from the Yugoslav federation and war engulfed the region.

Djukanovic says that splitting what remains of Yugoslavia is not his intention. His aim, he says, is to gain more freedom for Montenegro and to prevent Milosevic from swallowing up the republic as he expands his own power.

"I'm fighting to provide for Montenegro a dignified, equal position within the Yugoslav federation that will provide a higher degree of freedom for its citizens," Djukanovic said in an interview, taking a break from his vacation on Montenegro's scenic coast. "I think it's worth developing a more democratic political and economic system within the federation, but whether that is possible or not, time will show."

Montenegro, with just under 650,000 people, is one-sixteenth the size of Serbia. For years, it was a compliant ally in Serbia's war with Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The mountainous republic produced some of the conflict's most virulent nationalists, including Radovan Karadzic.

But, finally, Montenegrins tired of suffering the same pariah-state status as Serbia. International economic sanctions that crippled Serbia's economy also hurt Montenegro and fed a booming sanctions-busting smuggling business over Montenegro's borders.

The breaking point came this year when Milosevic, barred by the constitution from running for re-election as president of Serbia, decided to become president of all of Yugoslavia. He suddenly needed Montenegrin cooperation, especially as he tried to change the Yugoslav Constitution to transfer powers to the federal presidency, which until now had been a largely ceremonial post.

The issue is not just political. Analysts say Montenegro's economic interests, particularly the thriving black-market cigarette trade that Djukanovic is reputed to be godfather to, are also at stake.