Pro-independence movement leading in Montenegro vote

Posted in Europe | 22-May-06 | Author: Nicholas Wood| Source: International Herald Tribune

Crowds celebrating Sunday night in Podgorica, Montenegro, after early voting results suggested that an independence proposal had been approved.
PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro Voters in this small Balkan state decided in a referendum on Sunday to end their union with Serbia, according to results released by independent monitoring groups. If the official tallies later Monday confirm the results, the vote will break up all that remains of the Communist-era Yugoslavia.

The result was seen as a victory for supporters of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has led the drive for independence since 1997. But the announcement, which prompted celebrations throughout Podgorica, the capital, and surrounding areas, suggested that the margin was narrow.

The figures were released by two independent monitoring groups from the region, the Center for Monitoring and the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, based on results compiled in all 1,100 polling places. The groups stated that the measure had been carried, with 55.5 percent of the votes counted in favor of independence.

Under rules negotiated with the European Union, Montenegro's government agreed that it would have to win at least 55 percent of the vote for independence to be internationally recognized. The first official results were not expected until late Monday morning.

Despite the lack of official confirmation, thousands of independence supporters took to the streets, waving flags and signs. Fireworks and celebratory gunfire could be heard across the capital. Initial partial results gave the secessionist block a greater margin of victory, at 56.3 percent, but as the evening wore on that figure was gradually reduced and some of the celebrations became more muted.

In the euphoria, Mr. Djukanovic sought to unite Montenegrins after what had been a divisive campaign. "We have the right to celebrate in a dignified manner," he told a victory rally outside the main government building in Podgorica. But he said that nobody should be seen as winners after the vote. "This should be a comfortable home for everybody who lives in Montenegro," he said.

The leader of the pro-union opposition, Pedgrad Bulatovic, contested suggestions that the government had won, saying it was too early to draw a final conclusion about the vote.

Groups of young Serbian men gathered outside Mr. Bulatovic's headquarters in the city center, jeering as the referendum results were announced. "They are lying, lying, lying," they chanted, hurling abuse when pro-independence supporters drove by waving the Montenegrin flag. At least a third of Montenegro's 650,000 people are Serbs.

But the monitoring groups that provided the results said that they had counted 99.8 percent of the votes and that it was highly unlikely that the margin in favor of independence would be any lower in the final official results.

If the results are confirmed, Montenegro would be the last of the former Yugoslav republics to cut ties with Serbia, 15 years after the breakup began. Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia fought wars with Serbia in order to break away. Macedonia seceded in 1991 without any conflict.

Montenegro's secession would end what has become an increasingly fractious federation with Serbia, kept together by pressure from the European Union. Since 1997, Montenegro has sought to distance itself from the federal government in Belgrade, creating its own customs regime and paramilitary police. It has also dropped the Yugoslav currency, the dinar, and adopted the euro.

While diplomats and analysts here said the referendum would finally establish a clearer relationship between Serbia and Montenegro, the "yes" vote is also viewed as a personal blow to Serbia's nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, at a critical time.

"Psychologically it is important for Serbia to stop the process of everybody seceding from Serbia," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst and director of the VIP independent news agency, based in Belgrade. "This weakens Kostunica's position on Kosovo," he said, referring to the United Nations-run region that is still formally a province of Serbia, but that is thought likely by international officials to gain independence by the end of the year.

For supporters of Montenegrin independence, the results, however narrow, are the fruition of a decade-long struggle to enable Montenegro to reclaim its status from 1878 to 1918, when it was a republic and an internationally recognized state.

"This is a great day for the citizens of Montenegro to regain independence after 88 years," said Ljubomir Djurkovic, a theater director from Centinje, a picturesque, pro-independence town to the west of Podgorica. He said he planned mark the occasion by visiting the graves of his father and grandfather - men who spent their lives hoping for an independent state, he said, but who did not live to see it.