ULCINJ, Serbia and Montenegro, May 16 (Reuters) - The town of Ulcinj on Montenegro's southern coast has long been known as the Albanian Riviera, its horse-shoe of beach a favourite summer playground for Albanians from across the former Yugoslavia.
Signs in Albanian abound, next to the Cyrillic script of the Montenegrins and splashes of T-shirt English.
In Montenegro's May 21 referendum on dissolving the union with Serbia, the town will be one of many minority areas that are expected to tilt the balance in favour of independence.
Mensur Kalziqi, 21, coming in from the sea in a blue-green diving suit, said it was high time Montenegro went its own way.
"We've paid enough for Serbia's problems, it's time to go it alone. We've lagged behind because of them," Kalziqi said.
Polls show ethnic Montenegrins, 43 percent of the Adriatic state's population, will mostly choose independence, while the 32 percent ethnic Serbs will back the union with Serbia.
With 55 percent of the turnout needed for a Yes vote to pass, the Albanian and Muslim minorities are seen as kingmakers. Polls show their votes will reflect their distrust of Serbia due to its aggression towards their ethnic brethren in Bosnia and Kosovo in the wars of the 1990s.
The head of the Albanian party in Montenegro's pro-independence government said Albanians trusted Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic because he split with late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic and reached out to minorities.
"A 'yes' to independence means 'yes' to a better future for Albanians in Montenegro," Ferhat Dinosha said.
Albanian opposition politician Mehmet Bardhi said his party was also backing independence, but wanted the government to make clear promises about more rights ahead of the referendum.
"We back independence," Bardhi said. "We've no illusions about Serbia. We think Montenegro has a right to be independent, and Albanians have a right to know if they will be real partners with full rights in a new democratic Montenegro."
Rafet Husovic, leader of one of the Bosnian Muslim parties, said Montenegro was a state for Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins alike, so they should seize the opportunity.
"Let's use the pen to take part in the creation of a European Montenegro, instead of the gun like in the past," Husovic said.
"ESCAPING SERBIA'S BAD NAME"
On Ulcjin's windswept beachfront promenade, people said independence would allow Montenegro the join the European Union faster, boost its economy and improve their rights.
Investors would come once Montenegro stopped paying for "Serbia's bad name in the world" and its failure to hand over war crimes fugitives, and they would be followed by tourists eager to explore Montenegro's fascinating coast.
Hysen Axhemi, a 54-year-old parking-lot attendant, said Serbia no longer meant anything to him. He liked Djukanovic because he resembled the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.
"Both treated Albanians well," he said, showing off a large medallion on a chain around his neck, bearing the familiar image of Tito as a World War Two partisan.
An ethnic Albanian fisherman unloading his dawn catch of shrimp and sea-bass said independence would bring a better life.
"We would like to travel but we can't get visas," Mensur Bushati said. "We want to enjoy the rights of Europeans."
Although most Montenegrin Albanians were confident of a "yes" vote, some thought the 55 percent threshold for victory might be hard to cross.
Businessman Munib Abazi said minorities staunchly support independence but some Montenegrins had not made up their minds.
"They are leaving it to the Albanians," he joked.