WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration is worried that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be preparing to stir up new problems in the Balkans with a move against Montenegro.
Only 14 months ago, NATO airstrikes drove Serb forces out of Kosovo to end the Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province.
Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, is seen as a potential target because it has a pro-Western government whose leaders have made no secret of a desire for independence.
The United States is warning Milosevic to let the republic live in peace.
As early as January, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering was asked in the Albanian capital Tirana about possible Milosevic moves in Montenegro. "Any further conflict in the region should be avoided," Pickering said. He added: "We are prepared to stand firm against any military actions of Milosevic's in the region."
Senior administration officials speak now of obvious actions by Milosevic to increase pressure on Montenegro, apparently intending to provoke a crisis in the republic.
U.S. officials say the Yugoslav military is being put on higher states of alert more frequently, and the United States has seen increased activity in Montenegrin communities considered loyal to Yugoslavia.
Also, the Yugoslav army is starting to monitor the flow of traffic in and out of Montenegro, the officials say. For the first time, ships arriving in Montenegro are being searched by Yugoslav military personnel, they say.
Army troops in Montenegro, which are controlled by Milosevic's government, have established checkpoints on main roads into the republic from Bosnia and Croatia.
"All of that is new in the last few weeks," said one U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In terms of numbers, there is rough parity between Yugoslav military personnel and the number of Montenegrin police, who are considered loyal to the republic's president, Milo Djukanovic. But the paramilitary police would be no match for the better-trained and better-equipped Yugoslav military, the official said.
Politically, the most opportune time for Milosevic to move against Montenegro would be after national elections Sept. 24, assuming things go Milosevic's way as expected.
Montenegro has 600,000 people, Serbia 6 million.
The ruling coalition in Montenegro is boycotting the election, possibly opening the way for a strong showing by candidates loyal to Milosevic against an opposition slate in elections for the federation presidency and the federal parliament.
In an interview published Saturday, Montenegro's prime minister, Filip Vujanovic, said no matter who wins, the republic's citizens will decide their future. "The future of Montenegro depends only on its citizens," Vujanovic told the weekly magazine Onogost. "If we cannot make an agreement with Serbia, the Montenegrin citizens are to decide on the future of their republic."
The charged atmosphere has U.S. officials worried that a victory by pro-Milosevic forces could lead him to say: "The legitimate representatives of Montenegro have asked me to intervene."
Milosevic is a candidate for re-election. He changed the constitution in a way that could enable him to remain in power for another eight years.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright believes the Yugoslav opposition should unite against Milosevic even though she has little faith in the election process.
"We know that Milosevic will cheat," she said.
On Thursday, the State Department said Milosevic is well aware of the West's capability to respond should he threaten Montenegro.
"He's already on notice," said spokesman Richard Boucher. He said senior officials have reiterated many times over the last year "our strong interest in the security of the region, including Montenegro."
That warning was echoed this past week by Stjepan Mesic, the prime minister of Yugoslavia's pro-Western neighbor, Croatia.
"The international community should now send a message to Milosevic to force him to desist from causing any crisis in Montenegro," Mesic said.
The administration has been far less vocal about the situation in Montenegro than it was at the time the Kosovo crisis was building in early 1998 and culminated with the 78-day U.S.-led air war.
That war ended with the departure of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo and the return of Kosovo Albanian refugees to the province.
The U.S. official acknowledged little has been done toward planning a military response to any assault by Milosevic on Montenegro. But he said once a political decision is made to use force, NATO forces could be able to gear up quickly.
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