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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Last Balkan War?

Slobodan Milosevic's current score is four wars in seven years. He has lost every one of them and impoverished his country in the bargain, but each one prolonged the Serbian leader's rule by another year or two. So it's probably time for another.

"I'm afraid Milosevic will make a conflict in Montenegro," warns Miodrag Vukovic, chief political aide to Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic. "If that happens, you can forget Bosnia, Kosovo, everything. It would be like brother fighting brother." Montenegro, the sole remaining part of the Yugoslav federation apart from Serbia itself, has only 650,000 people. Montenegrins and Serbs are identical in language and religion, and the two people's histories were closely intertwined even when Montenegro was an independent kingdom before 1918. But now most Montenegrins want out.

Early this month, Djukanovic's government sent a list of radical demands to Belgrade, together with an ultimatum that Milosevic accept them or face a Montenegrin referendum on full independence later this year. But Milosevic is most unlikely to accept them, because they amount to independence under another name. Even the name "Yugoslavia" would disappear under the Djukanovic proposal, to be replaced by the "Commonwealth of Montenegro and Serbia."

The two countries would have separate defense and foreign policies, separate monetary policies (including, probably, separate currencies) - and, most crucially, separate armies, each of which would operate only on its own territory. So there would be no further possibility of Belgrade overthrowing the elected Montenegrin government, as it threatened to do when Djukanovic refused to back Serbia in the recent war in Kosovo.

Djukanovic was happy enough to back Milosevic in the early '90s, when it looked as if Serbian control of the old federal army would let it conquer and ethnically cleanse large areas of the neighboring republics. (Indeed, Montenegrin troops played a leading role in the shameful bombardment of the historic Croatian city of Dubrovnik in 1991.) But as it became clear that the whole enterprise was really just designed to keep Milosevic in power, Montenegrin enthusiasm for the "Greater Serbia" project drained away. Besides, there is a key difference between Serbs and Montenegrins that outweighs all the similarities. Serbs wallow in their sense of historical victimhood, and believe it gives them the right to do almost anything to their real and imaginary enemies. Even now, they seem incapable of blaming themselves or their leader for the disasters that have befallen the region.

Montenegrins, by contrast, are a classic mountain people who have never been conquered by anybody. Their history is full of savage clan vendettas, but systematic ethnic cleansing is not their style: During the recent war they accepted up to 60,000 Albanian refugees from the Serbian massacres in Kosovo - a tenth of their entire population. Nor do they have much patience for failed leaders, and they have no intention of being dragged down with Milosevic's Serbia.

There is majority support in Montenegro for President Djukanovic's ultimatum to Belgrade - but there is also ample dry kindling for a first-class civil war. Around 10 percent of Montenegro's residents are Serbs, and a substantial minority of Montenegrins also don't want a complete break with Serbia. Everybody has guns, the tradition of violence runs deep - and a war in Montenegro could be just what Milosevic needs right now.

"Milosevic has built all his power on the production of one conflict after another in this region, and on producing conflict with the international community," Milo Djukanovic observed recently, and there is no reason to believe that Milosevic is going to change strategy now.

Already the signs are mounting that he will seize on the issue of Montenegro to divert the restive Serbs from their grievances over the latest lost war in Kosovo.

"Under the Yugoslav constitution neither of the two federal units is entitled to secede," Milosevic's ultra-nationalist ally Vojislav Seselj (who led one of the worst groups of Serbian paramilitary killers during the war in Bosnia) said early this month. "If someone tries to secede by force, they should know what's coming to them."

Counting from the beginning of August, Serbia has six weeks to accept or reject Montenegro's plan for a drastic loosening of the ties and a formal burial of the old Yugoslavia. "This is our last offer - this is our minimum," Montenegro's Foreign Minister Branko Perovic said last month. "We won't accept any answer but 'yes.' No 'yes, but....'"

The plan will almost certainly be rejected by Milosevic. Then in mid-September begins the short count-down to Montenegro's referendum on independence. Expect large-scale killing by October, unless the international community for once acts early enough to pre-empt the violence.

It could do so easily enough: There are 30,000 KFOR troops in Kosovo, on one side of Montenegro, and 30,000 SFOR troops in Bosnia on the other side. But it probably won't, in which case we are heading into our last Balkan war. It's unlikely to spread beyond Montenegro's borders, but a civil war in a country of such violent traditions would be a truly terrible thing. As Bishop Mihailo, patriarch of the newly independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church, said recently, "I'm afraid, God forbid, that the living would envy the dead."

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.