Friday, May 19, 2006

Montenegrins' time to set course arrives

By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, MAY 19, 2006

PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro The fate of the two states that make up all that is left of Yugoslavia will be decided this weekend when Montenegrins head to the polls to decide whether or not their republic should opt for independence.

Sixteen years after the federation created by Josep Broz Tito began to collapse, supporters of separation seem confident that Montenegro, like four other former Yugoslav republics, will be able to go its own way, this time by the force of the ballot box alone.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who has led the pro-independence block for almost nine years, held a jubilant final rally here Thursday in the capital to mark the close of a smooth and carefully managed campaign.

Thousands of supporters packed the center of Podgorica, standing atop cars, dancing to rock music and waving the Montenegrin flag, a royal crest on a red background, a symbol that harks back to the days before World War I when for 40 years the republic was an internationally recognized state in its own right.

"The time has come," Djukanovic told the cheering crowd. "After 88 years, Montenegro is once again knocking at the historic door, ready to regain its statehood."

Despite the display of euphoria, the drive for independence in what was Yugoslavia's smallest republic has been a highly divisive issue. Opinion polls indicate that if the government wins the referendum it will be by the narrowest of margins. Under the rules laid down by the European Union, separation must gain at least 55 percent of the vote, with at least half of the 440,000 electorate taking part.

The federation of Serbia and Montenegro has been substantially watered down since the collapse of Yugoslavia. The republics have separate currencies, customs and border services as well as their own state-level governments. Djukanovic said that if the pro- independence block gained a majority but was short of the 55 percent required for European Union recognition, his government would seek a still-looser union with Serbia, but this, he added, would only be a temporary measure.

Berane, a town of about 15,000 people and former industrial hub in the northwest of Montenegro, is widely regarded as a bastion of pro-unionist support, Serb leaders say further separation from the government in Belgrade would provoke an exodus. Mayor Relja Jovancevic, a Serb, talks forebodingly about the region being plunged into a civil conflict, just as Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were from 1992 to 1995 at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

"There'll be civil war. I'll sell my house and my property and leave," Jovancevic said in an interview. But moment's later the mayor's comments seemed difficult to judge when a friend and self-proclaimed independence supporter passed by and the two men fired off a rapid succession of good humored jibes at each other.

In Petnjica, a Muslim village 19 kilometers, or 12 miles, east of Berane on a high mountain plateau, there is overwhelming support for independence. Most Muslims in Montenegro, mindful of the Serbs' repression of the Muslims in Bosnia, are expected to vote for an end to their ties with Serbia, but villagers here are worried how their Serb neighbors will react to separation.

Zeno Rastorder, owner of the village bakery, said he had put plans to buy a dairy herd on hold until after the referendum. "You have to be careful," he said. Zehra Novalic, 28, said she had kept her children away from the rallies during the campaign. "We are afraid of physical violence."

Still, most political commentators discount the prospect of serious civil unrest.

For more than a decade the issue of independence has dominated politics in Montenegro, said Mihailo Jovovic, political editor of the Podgorica newspaper VijestiJovovic. "People are fed up. They just want to get on and live their lives."

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