Monday, May 22, 2006

Aspiring Montenegro Votes for Nation Status

PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro (AFP) - The little Balkan state of Montenegro staked its claim to nation status after voting narrowly in favour of independence, consigning the last vestige of Yugoslavia to history.

In a historic and closely-fought referendum, 55.4 percent voted to secede from the union with Serbia and become a fully independent nation, according to preliminary results announced by referendum officials.

The European Union, which laid the groundwork for the plebiscite, promised to abide by the outcome. Crucially, so too did Montenegro's neighbours.

"We will fully respect the result of the referendum," foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in Brussels, saying the vote was "a sign of maturity."

The results announced by the referendum commission's head Frantisek Lipka Monday, with 44.6 percent voting against independence, was only narrowly over the 55 percent threshold for the result to be valid.

Nevertheless, once the result has been confirmed and ratified -- a process expected to take weeks -- it would seal independence for this aspiring nation of just 650,000 people.

"It is such a nice feeling when you have your own state," said Borko Savic in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica. "Even more important is that everything passed peacefully."

Not everyone was so happy, however, reflecting the bitter divide.

"I can't believe this is happening. This is like separating meat from the bone," cried a woman aged in her 40s working at a newsstand, shaking her head in disbelief.

Lipka, a Slovak diplomat, said the vote count was yet to be finalised from some 45 of the 1,120 polling stations used in Sunday's vote, and the results were therefore preliminary. Turnout was around 86.3 percent.

But he indicated the incoming results would not affect the final outcome.

The European security body OSCE said the referendum had met international democratic standards.

The bloody wars of the 1990s had already led to Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia leaving the Yugoslav federation.

"We were witnesses yesterday of the end of the Yugoslavia project, started in 1918 with sincere intentions," Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski of Macedonia said.

Serbia must also accept the result, said Rasim Ljajic, who is in charge of its relations with the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and is the federation's human rights minister.

"Most important is that the transition period is not painful and that the two states continue their path toward the European Union and that there are no anti-Montenegrin feelings in Serbia, nor anti-Serb in Montenegro," he added.

Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic also said the will of the majority had to be respected.

Revellers had set off fireworks, fired guns and sounded their car horns in celebration after the first unofficial results emerged late Sunday.

A jubilant Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic proclaimed victory overnight for the independence camp, declaring it "the most important day in the history of Montenegro."

The referendum was possible under the 2003 constitution which bound Serbia and Montenegro in a loose federation and contained an escape clause allowing either side to vote on independence after three years together.

Pro-Serbian parties in Montenegro had earlier refused to admit defeat, but there was no immediate comment after the preliminary results were announced.

Wedged between the mountains and the Adriatic Sea and bordered by Albania, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, Montenegro is one of the poorest parts of former Yugoslavia.

However, it already uses the euro as its currency, its economy grew by 4.1 percent in the most recent financial year and its inflation and budget deficit figures are around or below the European Union average.

Djukanovic, the architect of the independence drive, hopes that by striking out on its own without Serbia, the republic will also be able to speed up its bid to join the European Union.

Belgrade's failure to hand over fugitive former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic to the UN war crimes court led the bloc earlier this month to suspend membership talks with the federation of Serbia-Montenegro.