By Nicholas Wood The New York Times
TUESDAY, APRIL 18, 2006
HERCEG NOVI, Montenegro Over the next few weeks this seaside town will fill up with vacationers from across Europe, primarily Serbs from Montenegro's neighboring republic.
But in a month's time residents here and across Montenegro will face a tough choice, one that some say could upset their town's livelihood. In a referendum on May 21, Montenegrins will decide whether to retain their ties with Serbia or go their own way and declare independence. The two now make up the federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
The question has hung over Montenegro since Yugoslavia broke up in the early 1990s. Montenegro's connections with Serbia - they share the same religion and language - gave it little reason to break away, and the government here supported Serbia throughout the wars of 1991 to 1995. But a small independence movement took root, and was ultimately adopted by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in 1998 as he distanced his republic from the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic.
Since then the government has emphasized other aspects of Montenegro's history, which includes a separate church and royal dynasty. Between 1878 and 1918, Montenegro was in fact independent, and it became part of Yugoslavia only after the First World War. In that light, Djukanovic describes the referendum as a chance to restore independence. His critics say it is an attempt initiated by the region's longest serving leader in order to entrench his control over the republic.
This city, which offers reasonably priced holidays on an increasingly expensive Adriatic coast, appears split down the middle, like much of Montenegro. Pollsters say they have stopped asking questions on doorsteps.
"We give them the questions to fill out by hand," said Rasenko Cadenovic of the Damar polling agency, based in the capital, Podgorica. "It's the only way to avoid a family row."
Cadenovic says the elderly are more inclined to support the union with Serbia and the younger to favor independence. There are geographic divisions too, with areas in the northeast, near Serbia, generally in favor of the federation, and areas on the coast wanting to break away. The pro-independence bloc is thought to have a majority, but perhaps not the 55 percent needed to effect a split-up.
"We all have friends or relatives on one side or the other," said Miroslav Milosev, a 32-year-old waiter who came to Herceg Novi five years ago to find a job. He favors independence, but his wife, Ksenja, wants to keep ties with Serbia, whose economy and population, around 10 million, far exceed those of Montenegro, which has just over 600,000 people.
"I think its silly to make new borders now," said Ksenja Milosev, whose parents are Montenegrin but live in Serbia. Not only does the town benefit from Serbian tourists, she said, but residents travel to Serbia to go to university and get medical care.
"Education and health care are much better there," she said.
Opponents of Djukanovic suggest that Montenegrins stand to lose if Serbia cuts their access to such benefits in retaliation for a vote for independence. Warning darkly of the Serbs, Pedrag Bulatovic, the leader of the pro-union bloc, said, "How Montenegro will look after May 21 and whether there will be a barbed wire fence between Serbia and Montenegro will be decided by others, not the prime minister."
In reality, Serbia and Montenegro are quite separate already. Both have their own customs services, currencies and separate governments. Beyond the military forces and a foreign service, there is little they share.
"We are struggling together, and it's inevitable that we will go our own way eventually," Miroslav Milosev said.
"Everyone else has gone their own way," he said, referring to four other former Yugoslav states, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia, which all declared independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. "Why stop some else from having their own state?"
For Serbia, a separation would come at a hard time. Negotiations are ongoing on the future of Kosovo, the Albanian- dominated province being administered by the United Nations, and it, too, could become independent.
But Montenegro has a constitutional right to declare independence, and diplomats say that retaliation, economic or otherwise, could harm Serbia as much as Montenegro. (The tiny republic is Serbia's only route to the sea.)
The difficulty facing Djukanovic is to get the special majority, 55 percent of the vote, as agreed by the government and the European Union, which Montenegro wants to join.
"With a 100 percent turnout, we estimate he has a six to eight percent lead," Cadenovic said. A lower turnout could whittle that lead, leaving a bare majority but not one big enough to create a new state with international recognition.
While the government has argued that independence is needed to complete political and economic reforms, it needs the support of some of its fiercest critics to win. Many voters are highly critical of Djukanovic, whose administration has been tainted by repeated accusations of corruption and links to organized crime. The prime minister is also wanted by a court in Bari, Italy, which investigated him for possible links to cigarette trafficking.
Nebojsa Medojevic, a leading critic of the government, predicted that nothing would deeply change for Montenegrins after a vote to break away, considering that Djukavovic has been in office now for 17 years.
"Why would he start to reform things? Any serious reform would endanger him and his friends," said Medojevic, who is the director of a group called the Center for Transition, which lobbies for Djukavovic's removal from office. "I am for independence, but I am absolutely against this regime."
There is little doubt that the referendum will prompt high emotions, but few expect it to spill over into the kinds of conflict that followed the declarations of independence in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, which led to wars.
"It won't be like that here," Ksenja Milosev said. "Everyone's roots here are so mixed."