BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- The communist-controlled assembly of the Montenegrin Republic broke unexpectedly Friday with allied Serbia and endorsed a European Community peace plan for Yugoslavia, opening a serious rift in the Serbian political alliance pursuing the war against Croatia.
Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic, speaking to the televised pre- dawn assembly session in the republic's capital of Titograd, urged approval of the EC plan, which was vehemently rejected by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic when it was proposed on Oct. 18.
The EC proposal would transform multi-ethnic Yugoslavia into a loose association of independent states, ending Serbia's position as the most dominant of the six republics.
In even bolder moves, Bulatovic also told the assembly session during its nine-hour debate that the tiny republic should stage a referendum on its sovereignty, and he urged Montenegrin soldiers fighting in the Serb- dominated Yugoslav army in secessionist Croatia to return home if they wanted to.
When referring to 'the sovereignty of the republic,' Bulatovic said 'citizens have the right to decide on their own fate.'
Bulatovic's comments and the assembly vote in favor of the EC plan appeared to indicate strongly that Montenegro's communist leaders are seeking political independence from Milosevic, whose puppets they have been widely regarded as being.
'If the criterion for good government in Montenegro is obedience and absolute identity with what comes from (the Serbian capital of) Belgrade, then these people do not need a government. These people do not need elections, nor political parties,' Bulatovic said.
'Everybody can have their own opinion,' he added.
Western diplomats said they were surprised by the move, suggesting that it may have been forced by a re-emergence of a decades-old dispute within Montenegro's 600,000-strong population over whether they are Serbs or a distinctly different ethnic group.
The debate triggered a bloody civil war in the republic after the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918 that ended without a definitive resolution, although most Montenegrins have considered themselves Serbs ever since.
'Does Bulatovic have his finger on a new pulse in Montenegro that no one else saw, or as a comparatively young guy, is he looking toward the next 10 or 15 years of his political future,' said one Western diplomat.
'It still is not clear how far' Bulatovic's dissidence 'will go,' he said, adding that it was a 'serious development.'
But, Yugoslav Vice President Branko Kostic, the Montenegrin representative who led a takeover of the eight-man federal state collective head of state by pro-Serbia members on Oct. 3, denied there was a 'radical change in the political stand' of the Montenegrin leadership.
'This is not for the first time that President Bulatovic and myself have different stands,' Kostic told the assembly session. 'In this case, obviously there is a difference in methods and forms how to reach a solution.'
In addition to endorsing the EC plan, the Montenegrin Assembly approved Bulatovic's referendum suggestion, directing his government to compose a question seeking voters' views on the kind of association in which they should live with other Yugoslav peoples.
Bulatovic complained that under the orders of the Serb-controlled Yugoslav army, Montenegro had provided more troops for the fight in Croatia than Serbia.
'Something must be changed in our relations with the army,' Bulatovic said.
He said his regime had failed to reach an agreement with the Yugoslav army on withdrawing Montenegrin reservists from Croatia, and he advised Montenegrins to leave their units and return home if they so chose.