Stratfor - Nato's latest problem: Montenegro

9 December 1999


In the most significant incident since Montenegro began to assert its independence, a Yugoslav military unit on Dec. 8 seized the airport at Podgorica, the capital. The army controlled the airport for 12 hours and then left, allowing normal operations to resume. But the tit-for-tat exchanges between Montenegro and Belgrade threaten to draw NATO into the confrontation, unless the alliance launches a diplomatic effort to avoid another Balkan war.


In response to increasing provocations by the government of Montenegro, a Yugoslav military unit on Dec. 8 briefly took control of the airport at Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital. Before the incident, the Montenegrin government had been planning to install its own officials to run the airport. The Yugoslav unit eventually withdrew.

But the airport is quickly becoming a focal point for Montenegro’s attempts to assert independence from Belgrade. This is the first time that the Yugoslav government has employed the military in what is clearly an escalating confrontation. Until now, exchanges have been either political or diplomatic.

Montenegro’s provocations now present a major challenge to NATO. Unless the alliance can rein in the government in Podgorica, conflict can break out on the southwestern flank of NATO forces in Kosovo. Rightly or wrongly, the government of President Milo Djukanovic feels emboldened by the West and interprets the recent war over Kosovo as a guarantee of NATO backing as it prods for independence from the Milosevic regime.

Elements of the Yugoslav Army took control of the airport in Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica, from 5:00 p.m. local time until the early morning hours. The army parked trucks on the runways and took command of the control tower, canceling all flights. In the morning, after negotiations between Yugoslav military commanders and Montenegrin interior officials, flights began again, according to Agence France Presse. No details have been released as to possible concessions made by either side in order to end the standoff.

Until this incident, Belgrade had not challenged Montenegro’s assertion that on Dec. 9 it would appoint new management and assume control of the airport. Half of the Podgorica airport is a base for the Yugoslav military while the other half handles commercial flights and is run by the Yugoslav state airline. The deputy premier of Serbia, Vojislav Seselj, has been the only official in the camp of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic thus far to comment on the incident, reportedly saying the Podgorica airport is of strategic importance to the defense of Yugoslavia.

The dispute between the governments in Belgrade and Montenegro, the last remaining republic in the Yugoslav Federation other than Serbia, is approaching dangerous levels. The West has entangled itself by supporting both Montenegro and its democratic leadership – but not backing the republic’s bid for independence.

NATO’s Secretary General George Robertson reportedly said on Dec. 9 that "President Milosevic should not be fomenting war…We will not tolerate this, and we are watching with great concern the events in Montenegro." U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States is concerned about Yugoslavia’s treatment of Montenegro.

If it is to prevent the confrontation from becoming a conflict, NATO will have to quickly change tactics: Instead of merely pressuring Belgrade, the alliance will have to induce Djukanovic to temper his drive for independence. Disinclined to take a jab sitting down, Yugoslavia is rising up to keep control of the last republic joined with Serbia. Belgrade will not simply let Montenegro go. /p>

War in Montenegro would present NATO with an ugly situation. The Yugoslav 2nd Army is stationed in Montenegro and reportedly elements of the 3rd Army are in the republic, too. Belgrade’s forces have generally outnumbered Montenegro’s police force of 12,000 by a ratio of about two to one. The 2nd Army is believed to be composed of soldiers with mixed loyalties: some are native Montenegrins. A war in Montenegro would also threaten to spill into Kosovo, where NATO maintains 50,000 troops.

If NATO loses control of Montenegro, yet another war in the Balkans will erupt. And, with tensions still strong in the wake of the Kosovo conflict, the next war would result in instant devastation. The Milosevic government has been beating the nationalist drum as of late. And the Djukanovic government is clearly gambling that NATO will support its bid for independence if it is tested on the battlefield. Unless it quickly defuses the situation in Montenegro, the alliance will be drawn into another ground war in the Balkans.

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