ZAGREB, May 22, 2006 (AFP) -
Former Yugoslav republics, whose proclamation of independence in the early 1990s sparked a series of bloody conflicts, on Monday welcomed the decision by Montenegrins to break off from Serbia.
The vote marked the end of old Yugoslavia, a state born as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, then transformed as a communist federation in World War II, only to break up in the 1990s wars.
Up until Sunday's historic referendum, tiny Montenegro with a population of 650,000 was the only former Yugoslav republic linked with Serbia.
"Yesterday, we were witnesses of the end of the Yugoslavia project, which started in 1918 with sincere intentions," Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said in Skopje after meeting his Croatian counterpart Ivo Sanader.
Croatian President Stipe Mesic was the first international head of state to praise Montenegro on the vote.
"I congratulate all Montenegrin citizens on the democratic maturity which they have shown and I wish them all the best, progress and success, as well as life in peace and security in their own state," Mesic said in a letter to his Montenegrin counterpart Filip Vujanovic.
Mesic described Sunday's referendum as a "crucial event in Montenegro's recent history."
Poll officials said 55.4 of Montenegrins -- just slightly above the 55 percent threshold needed for the poll to be valid -- voted in favour of breaking away from the union with Serbia.
The referendum was possible under the 2003 constitution which bound Serbia and Montenegro in a loose union, with an escape clause allowing both to vote on independence after three years.
Mesic's view was echoed by his Bosnian and Macedonian counterparts Sulejman Tihic and Branko Crvenkovski.
"This is a contribution to the stability of the entire region... especially since only the issue of Kosovo remains open after free and democratic expression of will of the Montenegrin people," Tihic said in reference to the UN-administered Serbian province.
However several Bosnian Serb groups called for a similar vote to be organised in their entity.
Since the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, the state has consisted of two semi-independent entities -- the Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation.
The two are linked by weak central institutions and most of the steps aimed at strengthening them have met with fierce opposition from Bosnian Serbs.
Crvenkovski stressed that Montenegro's independence could contribute to "regional stability, prosperity and the European future of the Balkans."
However, the Serbian government remained silent on Monday, although two ministers called on Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a staunch supporter of preserving Serbia-Montenegro, to respect the outcome of the vote.
Slovenia, the only former Yugoslav republic to have joined the European Union two years ago, welcomed Montenegro's referendum outcome and called on the two sides to avoid "additional tensions".
Slovenian President Janez Drnovsek, who visited Podgorica on Monday and met Vujanovic, said he respected "the freely expressed will of the Montenegrin people and their right to decide their destiny as the other former Yugoslav peoples did."
"Slovenia wishes that Montenegro will continue successfully its way towards European integration and will reach peaceful cohabitation with other former Yugoslav peoples within a united Europe."
In the disputed Serbian province of Kosovo, analysts said Montenegro's independence is likely to contribute to stability in the historically volatile Balkans.
The outcome could finally encourage Belgrade to focus on its own problems, after its involvement in the brutal wars of the early 1990s that tore apart former communist Yugoslavia, they add.
"Serbia will get the most direct message to give up its imperial ambitions ... and have a huge state in the Balkans," said Kosovo analyst Milazim Krasniqi.