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Montenegro's Balancing Act

Montenegro is the tightrope walker of the Balkans. Its independent-minded president, Milo Djukanovic, has distanced his country from the destructive policies of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, even though this small republic is joined with Serbia in what's left of the Yugoslav federation.

Montenegro was an irritant to Mr. Milosevic before the NATO air war began. Now Mr. Djukanovic's balancing act has become many times more difficult.

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The Montenegrin public is split between those whose sympathies are with Serbia and Milosevic, and those who favor their president's independent path. While anti-NATO protests have been staged in the capital, Podgorica, nationalist appeals don't have the same force as in Serbia. Belgrade's drive to enlist more men for the Yugoslav Army is resisted by Montenegro. The country has also taken in thousands of Kosovar refugees.

NATO targeting of Yugoslav military installations in Montenegro has, unfortunately, boosted pro-Serbia sentiments. Since the tiny republic (population 600,000) serves as Serbia's door to the Adriatic Sea, fresh tensions could arise as NATO enforces its embargo of oil shipments to Yugoslavia.

With plenty of war fronts already, Milosevic seems intent on politically undermining, rather than forcibly overthrowing, Montenegro's government. He is reported to have more than 20,000 Yugoslav Army troops in the republic. Montenegro has a 10,000-man, more lightly armed police force loyal to Djukanovic.

Preserving a government inclined toward democratic reform benefits the region and NATO. The alliance should do what it can - constrain the bombing, treat Montenegro as a "front-line" state worthy of its protection, maintain diplomatic contacts with Podgorica - to keep this courageous little country from tumbling into Milosevic's camp.

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