Yugoslavia is again at a crossroads. The elections on September 24 may determine whether a peaceful solution of the crisis will get a chance or whether the tensions will continue to build while the West braces itself for yet another conflict in that region.

After a decade of violent destruction, there is no end of the disintegration process in sight. Even if the opposition wins the elections and the current regime in Serbia is toppled, the contentious nature of the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro - the two remaining republics forming the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - has yet to be resolved. The future of Kosovo similarly looms on the horizon with uncertainty. The reasons for the elusiveness of these political settlements are outlined below.

Yugoslavia on the Brink of Elections

Elections for federal presidential and parliamentary positions, as well as local elections, were scheduled in July 2000 when it seemed that the opposition would not have enough time to recover from the crackdown last May to mount a meaningful campaign. Powerful regime propaganda and an opposition in disarray combined to produce a relatively passive and apathetic electorate. Simultaneously, the Yugoslav Constitution was amended to provide for direct election of the federal president and for two more terms for Mr. Milosevic. Against this background and with the belief of a sure victory for the ruling regime, elections were announced. The initial reactions of the opposition demonstrated that the regime's strategy was indeed working. However, once the various opposition parties settled their differences and appointed Vojislav Kostunica as their joint candidate the playing field changed.

Kostunica, an independent candidate representing no single political party, is untainted by any dealings with either the West or the ruling regime. Furthermore, he has been an outspoken critic of NATO and the U.S., strongly condemning the bombing during the Kosovo war. Consequently, he is respected by a majority of the population. Most importantly, Kostunica is a Serb nationalist who can beat Milosevic on his own ground. The early polls demonstrated his wide-ranging appeal and energized the apathetic electorate.

With its monopoly of the media, the ruling coalition of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the United Yugoslav Left (JUL), and the Serbian Radical Party is conducting an overwhelming and aggressive campaign based on the regime's "successes" - peace, reconstruction, and continuity. The coalition also claims victory over "NATO aggressors" and boasts of its success in securing the independence and integrity of the nation. Claiming to provide continuity with the "glorious past" of the nation, the ruling coalition promises stability and the continued defense of national interests. Every attempt is being made to turn the elections into a referendum on patriotism by portraying the opposition as an "extended hand" of NATO and a tool of continued Western aggression against Yugoslavia. Kostunica himself is portrayed as the front-man, a mere puppet of the opposition with Djindjic pulling the strings in the background.

Despite escalated repression and lack of access to major media, the opposition coalition, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, is maintaining its unity, compensating for its shortcoming with an increased number of rallies, distribution of leaflets and a door-to-door campaign. The role of "Otpor" (the independent student movement) has been most important in diminishing the fear widespread among the population and in energizing the electorate. The opposition's strategy is simple: to get as many people to vote as possible, thereby lowering the number of undecided voters and increasing the total number of voters.

Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), one of the largest opposition parties, is not part of the united opposition coalition and is fronting its own candidate for presidency. The party itself is in disarray, deeply split by Draskovic's decision not to back Kostunica. The explanation for this strategy might lie in the belief that Draskovic was allegedly offered the position in the Serbian government currently occupied by the Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj.

Within the ruling coalition, the Serbian Radical Party has distanced itself from the regime, though remaining in the government. Sesejl's strategy is to keep all options open and maintain a decisive role in the government in the event of a change of power. The Radicals have even approached Draskovic's SPO with the offer to form a coalition in the Serbian parliament where the two parties command a majority, thereby solidifying their grip on power.

Most analysts in Serbia predict the victory of the opposition, but none expect Milosevic to concede power. There is a prevailing conviction that change is unlikely and that the results of the elections will not determine the outcome.

More important will be how the situation is handled by the regime and the opposition. They both realize the significance of an early declaration of victory and the need to prepare for this. The regime plans to use major media to garner support and legitimacy while the opposition will call for rallies and ask their supporters to remain in the streets in the event of a victory until it is recognized. It is not the intention of the opposition to take power by force, but rather, in the event of a victory, to publicize that Milosevic has been politically defeated. Destroying what is left of the regime's credibility may help the opposition maintain pressure for change and influence the behavior of the leadership in government institutions, the army, and even the police force.

Post-Election Scenarios: The Fate of the Yugoslav Federation

Among the many scenarios of the post-election struggle for power, some involve Montenegro and the eventual break-up of the Yugoslav federation.

The differences between Montenegrins and Serbs do not stem from ethnic origin or religious affiliation. Both peoples belong to the Orthodox Church and many Montenegrins claim to be part of the Serbian nation. Montenegro however, also has its own long history of independence beginning in 1077 with the crowning of Duke Michael as King after a successful defense against Byzantine attacks. In the following centuries, Montenegro played an important role in the struggle for dominance between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, and since the eighteenth century, it was an important factor in the balance of power between Austria and Russia.

In 1876, Montenegro formed a formal alliance with Serbia. Their close relationship has been interrupted only for brief periods. Common interests prevailed and the two nations were allied during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and again in 1914 at the start of World War I. After the war, the Great Assembly of Montenegro voted to dethrone its King Nicholas I and integrate the nation with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes founded in 1918.

With the establishment of the second Yugoslavia in 1945, Montenegro became one of the six republics in the federation and was recognized as a separate nation. The ensuing federal organization of the state emphasized national over ethnic rights. When Yugoslavia became a virtual confederation in the 1970s, Montenegro enjoyed the same position as other federal units. This arrangement lasted until Slobodan Milosevic took power in Serbia in the late 1980s. After taking control over Kosovo and Vojvodina, Milosevic attempted to topple the Montenegrin leadership in October 1988. Montenegro demonstrated the danger of "Greater Serbian nationalism" and that an attempt was being made by the Serbs to centralize power in Yugoslavia. The ensuing rise of nationalism in Croatia and Slovenia in 1989 provided a taste of the inevitable disintegration of Yugoslavia to come in the early 1990s.

Unlike the other splinter republics however, the young Montenegrin leaders had a different perspective of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, leaning instead towards negotiated solutions through peaceful cooperation with the international community. In general, Montenegro adopted a pro-European attitude and a position in conformity with the realities created by the end of the Cold War. In October 1991, these fundamental differences exploded into the open at the Hague Conference when the president of Montenegro accepted the European Commission plan for the resolution of the crisis. This plan provided a framework for a loose association of sovereign republics and protection of human rights with no unilateral changes of borders. Milosevic was the only one of the Yugoslav republics' six leaders to reject the document. He equated Montenegro's action with "high treason" and forced the republic to change its position and maintain loyalty to the Serbian position.

The situation remained unchanged until the Serbian opposition won the 1996 local elections and pushed for the recognition of this victory through 100 days of street demonstrations. At this point, Milo Djukanovic publicly called for Milosevic's resignation, took control of Montenegro's Democratic Party of Socialists and, in 1998, won the office of President of Montenegro through public election. The power struggle was taken to the streets, this time at Milosevic's behest to prevent Djukanovic's inauguration as the republic's president. Unlike prior efforts however, Milosevic did not succeed in preventing the change of power in Montenegro.

The resulting changes of power in the presidency and parliament of Montenegro were not recognized by Milosevic at the federal level. The new delegates elected to represent Montenegro in the Federal Chamber of Republics - all Djukanovic allies - were rejected. To further exclude the republic's legal representatives from the federal political process, Milosevic appointed Momir Bulatovic, leader of the pro-Milosevic party which lost the elections in Montenegro, as Prime Minister of Yugoslavia. Milosevic also discontinued sessions of the Supreme Council of Defense thereby, monopolizing the command over the army. As a result, the core institutions of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were stripped of their federal character and the constitutional basis of Yugoslavia collapsed. The amendments to the Yugoslav Constitution adopted by Milosevic in July 2000 were just another step in same direction, further eroding the constitutional legitimacy of the republic.

The most radical step in Montenegro's pursuit of an independent policy was its declaration of neutrality during Milosevic's conflict with NATO over Kosovo. The consequences were equally important for the tiny republic. The West firmly supported the position of a neutral Montenegro and issued strong warnings to Milosevic against any attempts to attack or overthrow the Djukanovic government by force. Political relations were established with Montenegro and economic and financial assistance was provided, circumventing the sanctions in place against Yugoslavia.

The forthcoming elections, which will be boycotted by the government of Montenegro, are not expected to resolve the complex web of problematic relations between Serbia and Montenegro. However, the important process of negotiations for a mutually acceptable solution can begin if Milosevic is removed from power. At the core and responsible for Montenegro's drive toward independence is not nationalism but an attempt to keep its identity and acquire respect for its interests. Most citizens in Montenegro view the regime in Belgrade as an obstacle to their general prosperity, an impediment standing between them and Europe.

Once democratization begins in Serbia, a solution acceptable to both republics will be easier to find. Equality and sufficient room for independent activities in relations between two entities of such disproportionate sizes (the population of Montenegro is about 7% the size of Serbia) can be worked out only in a truly democratic society. Both Montenegro and Serbia belong to Europe and the European Union could provide an excellent framework for the resolution of the federation's problems. The result of the September 24 elections could put them both on the right track.

Mr. Matic spoke at an EES noon discussion titled "Yugoslavia: Crisis Without End?" on September 20, 2000