Flashpoint Montenegro?


By Michael Karadjis

On January 15, the paramilitary killer Zeljko Raznatovic, also known as Arkan, was shot and killed in Belgrade, adding another to the 500 unsolved murders of high-ranking individuals in Serbia in the last few years. This was followed within a couple of weeks by the slaying of Pavle Bulatovic, Yugoslavia's defence minister.

Arkan had been wanted by Interpol for bank robberies throughout Europe. He became a convert to Serbian nationalism in 1990. He understood the new ideology would allow untold opportunities for the plunder of non-Serbs, through which he could amass capital and build a business empire using his links with the state and organised crime.

In the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosova, criminals were organised in Arkan's "Tiger" militia and directed by the Serbian internal ministry. He was soon one of Serbia's biggest capitalists, a private owner of banks, Yugoslavia's biggest soccer club, a casino, currency exchange bureaus, a security company, a fleet of oil tankers and a huge import-export company — and that was only what was legal. At his death, he was worth tens of millions of marks.

The killing of such a well-connected and well-protected individual raises questions. Did the regime which nurtured him for so many years decide to get rid of him? And if so, why?

It seems that Arkan knew too much. Revealing its political nature, the International War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague at first did not indict Arkan for his crimes during Serbia's war against Bosnia, in contrast to its indictment of Bosnian Serb ultra-right leader Radovan Karadzic. The different treatment was based the two men's relationship with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Always more motivated by wealth than ideology, Arkan never criticised his boss Milosevic, who had emerged as a "partner"of the West in the implementation of the US-inspired 1995 Dayton Accords to partition Bosnia.

Karadzic, however, was so ideologically right-wing that he opposed compromises like Dayton — he reckoned that gaining half of Bosnia was not enough.

However, as Milosevic fell out of favour with the West over Kosova, the war crime tribunal "discovered" Arkan's monstrous record, releasing its indictment of him in March, 1999.

With considerable business interests outside Serbia, Arkan was likely to be captured and, to save his skin, may have revealed that Milosevic was his boss all along.

Turf wars

The murders of both Arkan and Bulatovic may also have been linked to the turf wars within Serbia's mafia-connected crony capitalism, in which allies turn into enemies overnight and only those at the top are safe.

Both murders may be linked to the issue of Montenegro. Bulatovic was a leading member of Montenegro's Socialist National Party (SNP), which is in opposition to the ruling Party of Democratic Socialists of Milo Djukanovic.

Djukanovic's party had been the party of the Milosevic movement which overthrew Montenegro's Communist government in 1989. However, in recent years, his homegrown crony regime has come to see the futility of a number of Belgrade's actions, particularly the way it dealt with Kosova. It is also prepared to hand over those the West considers war criminals in the interests of doing business — as long as the major gains of capitalist restoration and nationalist homogenisation, carried through by Milosevic and Croatia's late Franco Tudjman are entrenched.

Djukanovic is a pragmatic bourgeois nationalist who can see that times have changed. Hence, he is being dressed up by Western powers as "moderate" in comparison to Belgrade.

Despite being a hireling of Milosevic, and representing the ugliest face of Serbian chauvinism, Arkan had come out in favour of Djukanovic in the inter-Montenegro conflict.

Despite its "moderation", the Montenegrin regime is built on the same kind of crony capitalism as the regimes of Milosevic and Tudjman. Its ports are access points through which the Italian mafia and various local gangs operate. Djukanovic's regime appears to be linked to the giant cigarette smuggling business in particular. So much so that Italy, which is losing millions in tax revenue, recently launched criminal proceedings against Montenegrin foreign minister Branko Perovic, leading to his resignation.

As a major businessperson of the underworld, Arkan had a good relationship with the regime. Smuggling and distributing fuel, cigarettes and other products were major generators of his wealth. His Montenegrin state connections were as crucial as his Serbian state connections.

Therefore, Djukanovic's more cooperative attitude in relation to handing over war criminals did not appear to extend to Arkan, who continually visited Montenegro. His last visit was in December, when his soccer team played a Podgorica team, and he stayed at the top hotel frequented by the Montenegrin elite.

Pavle Bulatovic was in the other camp. His SNP, led by Momir Bulatovic (unrelated), split with Montenegro's ruling party several years ago. The personal wealth of the families around the two leaders gives enough clues to how crony capitalist rivalries could have split the party.

The Milosevic regime took advantage of this split by manoeuvring the opposition SNP into the Yugoslav federal government, rather than the Montenegrin ruling party, as required by Yugoslavia's federal constitution.

As this constitutional deadlock led Djukanovic to make statements calling for a loosening of the Yugoslav federation or even an independence referendum, the SNP has become Belgrade's weapon against its own republic. Pavle Bulatovic in particular was active in organising pro-Serbia gatherings in various parts of Montenegro that made "oaths of allegiance" to Yugoslavia. The Bulatovics have also reportedly organised a paramilitary battalion inside the Yugoslav army in Montenegro.

The crisis caused by the exclusion of Montenegro's legal government from the Yugoslav federal government would seem insane from the point of view of the Serbian-Yugoslav ruling elite. This destruction of the very basis of the Yugoslav "federation" — the federation of Serbia and Montenegro — leaves the Montenegro with few options but to quit the federation. But if this happened, Serbia would lose its only access to the sea.

On the other hand, the creation of this "federation" when the new "Yugoslavia" was formed in 1992 was a compromise by the Serbian nationalist elite, which had long advocated a unitary Serbian state. From their point of view, an equal federation between Serbia's 8 million people and Montenegro's 650,000 was a continuation of the historic division of the Serb nation. In the Serbian elites' eyes, Montenegrins are Serbs and hence Montenegro should simply be swallowed.

The formation of paramilitary units and the various anti-government mass meetings are warnings to the Montenegrin government. It must accept a more unitary "Yugoslavia" or the federal army will arm these "loyalist" forces to grab the areas of Montenegro of most importance to Serbia — above all the harbour in northern Montenegro where the Yugoslav navy is based.

Polls indicate the Montenegrin population is split down the middle on independence, with a fierce traditional Montenegrin loyalty confronting an equally deep belief that Montenegro is a heartland of "Serbdom". Many of the Serbian nationalist militias of the 1990s recruited heavily in Montenegro. Many leading nationalists, including Milosevic and Arkan, hail from Montenegro.

On January 13, the SNP organised a several-thousand-strong rally in the capital, Podgorica, supposedly to celebrate Orthodox new year. The mob raised Chetnik flags, sang songs against the "enemies of Serbdom" and fired guns into the air. This danger of civil war keeps the situation deadlocked.

The reality is that Djukanovic is only using the threat of independence to push a better constitutional deal — his regime does not really believe there is any advantage in independence for such a small population, 70% of whose trade is with Serbia. It would be even less interested in independence for half of Montenegro, truncated by partition that a civil war might produce.

Furthermore, as its links to Arkan reveal, the regime has much in common with that of Milosevic. The extensive legal and illegal trade and smuggling links give both regimes many common interests.

Also preventing any real push for independence is opposition by Djukanovic's Western backers. While toasting the "moderate" regime, the West insists the solution must be within the farce of the "Yugoslav" federation. Even the intermittent economic aid arriving in Montenegro in recent months is conditional on Montenegro remaining part of Yugoslavia.

For the NATO states, which last year waged their destructive air war on Serbia, the reason is simple: the "reformed" crony nationalists around Djukanovic are the ideal group around which the fractured Serbian bourgeois nationalist opposition — mostly chips off the Milosevic movement — can gather to oust Milosevic. Reintegrating Serbia, ruled by a "cleaner" version of the present ruling class, would be the big gain for imperialism.

The Serbian bourgeoisie as a whole, including the opposition, is determined to hang onto Montenegro. Far from trying to further Balkanise "Yugoslavia", as is often asserted by some on the left, the West has little interest in a poverty-stricken, tiny Montenegro.

But Djukanovic is finding this deadlock increasingly frustrating. During a recent London visit, he lashed out at Western policy: "If this is the exclusive demand of the international community [that the Yugoslav federation remain intact] then the way to achieve this is very simple. Milosevic should be permitted to clamp down on the democratic movement in Montenegro and then we will have an undivided Federated Republic of Yugoslavia."