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Ahead of Montenegro's independence referendum in May
The European Union endorses hurdles for an independence vote
LAKE SKADAR, straddling the border between Albania and Montenegro, is one of the most beautiful spots in the Balkans. Tiny, mysterious islands rise from its blue-green waters. Drive from Albania along the lake and you see something else: a country returning from the mists of time. At the frontier the flag of Montenegro flaps lazily in the wind. Travellers are checked by Montenegrin police and customs officers. Nothing odd here—except that their country does not exist. If the Montenegrin government gets its way, it soon will.
Technically Montenegro is part of a loose federal “state union” with Serbia, whose 8m people dwarf Montenegro's 673,000. Throughout the Balkan wars of the 1990s Montenegro stood by Serbia. But since 1997 various governments led by Milo Djukanovic have been hoping to restore the independence that the country lost to the old Yugoslavia in 1918.
Unlike public opinion in neighbouring Kosovo, however, support for independence is far from wholehearted, suggest the polls. If pro-union parties boycott the referendum on independence, now set for May 21st, a crisis could ensue. Hence a plan proposed by Miroslav Lajcak, the Slovak special envoy for the European Union. He has suggested that any referendum must be endorsed by 55% of those voting; and that, to be valid, at least 50% of the electorate must take part. The EU's foreign ministers have backed Mr Lajcak's proposal.
Polls suggest that independence is supported by around 41% of Montenegrins and opposed by 32%. Since Mr Lajcak's plan first became public, Montenegrins have become keen mathematicians. The referendum may produce a slim majority for independence, but much will depend on turnout. Yet if the vote in favour is just 54.9%, says Dragan Koprivica, spokesman for the pro-union Socialist People's Party, the government “would not have the right to promote an independent country.”
Pro-independence politicians are seething about the Lajcak plan. They say it is undemocratic, since it means that a pro-union vote is worth more than a pro-independence one. Montenegrin officials also complain that they were blackmailed by the EU, which insisted that, unless they accepted the Lajcak plan, it would not allow monitoring of the referendum by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, undermining the vote.
Miodrag Vlahovic, Montenengro's foreign minister, declares that, if there is even a one-vote majority in favour of independence, “it is absolutely clear, the state union will not exist any more.” The implication is that Montenegrins who participate in joint institutions with Serbia, such as the army and the foreign ministry, would be recalled. Mr Koprivica says that his party activists report that Mr Djukanovic's people are offering euro150 ($180) bribes to secure votes. But the pro-union party has an uphill struggle of its own: its members are mostly old and its leaders are linked to the ugly face of Serbian nationalism.
Pro-independence supporters joke that officials from Brussels act as though they work “for the Soviet Union not the European Union”. Mr Vlahovic insists that “who will win in Montenegro will be decided in Montenegro, and not in Brussels.” He seems confident of victory. Mr Djukanovic's supporters believe they can win a 57% majority for independence; some sources add that the party is keeping this quiet because, with a tight battle ahead, it does not want to foster complacency.