Citizens of the tiny Yugoslav republic of Montenegro voted in large numbers Sunday in crucial elections that pitted pro-Western reformists against hard-liners loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The parliamentary vote will determine the fate of Montenegro's young and brash president, Milo Djukanovic, who has mounted a fierce challenge to Milosevic and his authoritarian regime. Milosevic has countered by blockading Montenegro's borders, sending air force jets to buzz the Montenegrin capital and cutting off federal money.
"We are not deciding what parties will be in power but whether there will be a Montenegro at all," Djukanovic, 36, said in a final campaign speech last week. "Our trouble began when Montenegro woke up and decided to remove the shameful burden of [Milosevic's] terror." Results are not expected until tonight at the earliest.
Washington and its European allies have lavished support, and promises of financial aid, on Djukanovic as reward for his policies of economic and political reform. He favors free-market privatization, multi-party politics and cooperation with the West over Milosevic's bankrupt, isolationist socialism.
A mountainous region with a scenic Adriatic coastline and a once-thriving but now moribund tourist industry, Montenegro is Serbia's last remaining partner in today's rump Yugoslavia, which fragmented violently through half a decade of war and secession.
Djukanovic--a former member of Yugoslavia's Communist elite and reputed cigarette smuggler--split with his erstwhile mentor, Milosevic, last year and is demanding equal rights for the republic. As Montenegro under Djukanovic has distanced itself from Serbia, many Montenegrins have begun to demand independence as well.
His opponents, led by former Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic, accuse Djukanovic of promoting the final breakup of Yugoslavia.
Analysts see Sunday's election as a referendum on Montenegro's struggle to extract itself from Milosevic's reckless policies, which have stoked war, converted Yugoslavia into a pariah state and invited crippling economic sanctions.
"These elections are a choice between change and adjustment to new times, or status quo and the further rotting of a failed system," said Vesna Pesic, a leader of the Serbian opposition to Milosevic. "The elections will determine the destiny of [today's] Yugoslavia."
Late Sunday, as voting booths closed, police loyal to Djukanovic mounted roadblocks near the main army barracks and around Bulatovic's party headquarters in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, to prevent violent demonstrations. Tensions ran high in the polarized republic, where most residents are armed, but as of midnight no incidents were reported. Earlier, election observers reported turnout could reach 70% of Montenegro's approximately 420,000 eligible voters.
If Djukanovic supporters lose Sunday's vote for a 78-seat parliament, Djukanovic is likely to be ousted as president and Montenegro to revert to its role as the obedient satellite of Milosevic's Serbia.
If Djukanovic's "For a Better Life" coalition prevails, however, his hand will be strengthened in his battle to undercut Milosevic.
Djukanovic would be able to use his position to prevent Milosevic from changing the Yugoslav Constitution in an effort to increase his power as president, until now a ceremonial post.
Milosevic supporters have hinted that they will not accept election results they don't like. Bulatovic was defeated by Djukanovic in January presidential elections; protesting Bulatovic supporters refused to recognize his loss and rioted for hours, injuring at least 45 police officers.
"If Djukanovic falls, the domino effect will destroy everything," cautioned Belgrade columnist Aleksandar Tijanic. "The result will be a tragedy, a war of first cousins."
Milosevic last month engineered a coup that installed Bulatovic as Yugoslav prime minister, a move that makes attacking Djukanovic easier.
Bulatovic, in his new role, immediately announced plans to create a Yugoslavia-wide television network and secret service, effectively depriving Djukanovic of his most important tools--Montenegro's state television and its security forces.