PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro, May 17, 2006 (AFP) -
The survival of the last vestige of old Yugoslavia will be put to the test this weekend when voters in the tiny republic of Montenegro vote on independence from its union with Serbia.
Out of former the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's six states, Montenegro is the only one that remains allied to Serbia some 15 years since the bloody breakup of the country in the wars of the 1990s.
In Sunday's referendum, its voters will respond with a "Yes" or a "No" to the question: "Do you want Montenegro to be an independent state with full international and legal legitimacy?".
Under conditions set by the European Union, the referendum must pass by a threshold of 55 percent with a turnout of at least half of the mountainous Balkan republic's 485,000 registered voters.
Two recent surveys by major Montenegrin research agencies put the pro-independence bloc led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic slightly above that threshold with more than 56 percent of voters favoring secession.
But the pro-union camp led by the main opposition Socialist People's Party closely linked to Belgrade, believe they will prevail.
The European Union, actively involved in the process through its special envoy Miroslav Lajcak, recently declared campaigning as free and fair, and that the result should be accepted by both sides.
At least 1,000 foreign and more than 1,000 local observers are expected to monitor the vote.
"If observers say the process was within the boundaries of a democratic vote, Montenegro will be internationally recognised by all 25 EU member states within a couple of months," a western diplomat told AFP.
Backed by the European Union, the loose state union of Serbia-Montenegro was formed in March 2003 with joint foreign, defence and human rights ministries but separate economic systems, including customs services and currencies.
However, the union was considered inefficient from the very start as the accord allowed either side to organise an independence vote after three years of probation.
Already strained relations between Belgrade and Podgorica have gradually worsened ever since, with Djukanovic's government pushing for the referendum as soon as the period expired earlier this year.
Podgorica argues that it does not want to be dominated by Serbia, which has a population of almost eight million compared with Montenegro's 650,000.
It adds that its main goal of EU membership would come faster without Serbia, which is burdened by war crimes fugitives like Ratko Mladic and the unresolved status of its ethnic Albanian majority province of Kosovo.
"Our wish to renew independence is not anti-Serbian, but rather is motivated by a need to take over responsibility for our European future," Djukanovic told AFP in a recent interview.
But the pro-union bloc argues the two republics can move towards Europe together, citing strong historic and cultural links, a shared language and religion.
Serbia has so far refused to talk with Podgorica about the day after.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has repeatedly said the preservation of the union would be "the best solution for both Serbia and Montenegro," and called Montenegro's citizens to support it.
"That way Serbia would have passage to the sea, while Montenegro would have access to the Danube," Kostunica told a recent pro-union meeting in Belgrade.
Also favoring the union are a majority of Serbian citizens and the Serbian Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch Pavle says the union was formed "over centuries with numerous sacrifices".
Montenegro's independence would consign to history Yugoslavia, following the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia in the early 1990s.