The bloody collapse of Yugoslavia shamed Europe. But those of us who live in the Balkans know particularly well that dismantling that artificial state involved a series of murderous ethnic and religious wars and cost at least 100,000 lives, while hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes. This is not to mention the physical devastation. Such appalling and widespread massacres and ethnic cleansing Europe had not seen since the defeat of Nazism.
There is, however, one positive story from those dreadful years. It involves my own small but fiercely proud multi-ethnic country, Montenegro, which was wiped off the map by the Allies after the first world war and forced to become part of the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia. Before that, Montenegro had taken pride in its 1,000-year history and its freedom-loving spirit, the only nation in the region not to have succumbed to Turkish rule during the Ottoman empire.
But today our inspiration for restoring statehood is not derived solely from national and historic sentiments. It is about the future. We want to take charge of our - European - destiny.
We Montenegrins, who hope to reclaim our national sovereignty and independence in a referendum this month and then accelerate accession talks with the European Union, have more recent reasons to be proud. We are the only one of the six former Yugoslav republics in which there was no war at the time of Yugoslavia's disintegration. Uniquely, we defied the evil that swept across Yugoslavia in the 1990s and stood up for all that is best in European culture. Our mixed population - Montenegrins, Serbs, Bosniaks, Muslims, Albanians and Croats - stood together throughout the horrors. We refused to join the madness and slaughter each other. We took in wave after wave of refugees from the killing fields across our borders, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. At times, refugees accounted for more than 20 per cent of our population.
You might have thought the EU would hold Montenegro up as an example to the region. Instead, it sometimes seems Montenegro is being punished by the rest of Europe for its generosity and self-restraint. When the wars ended, my country was the only one of the Yugoslav republics (Kosovo is a province of Serbia) not allowed by the international community to go its own way as an independent nation. Instead, under the Belgrade agreement of 2002, we consented - after overwhelming pressure from the EU - to stay in a kind of union with Serbia that is unknown in international practice. Consequently, we had to apply for membership of the EU as one nation.
So why was the EU so determined to force us to retain a link with Serbia that was disliked by most Montenegrins? Part of the problem, perhaps, was that Europe was preoccupied with the possibility of another bloody round of destabilising breakaways in the Balkans. Was the EU worried that an independent Montenegro would set a "bad example" to those in Kosovo who wanted independence from Serbia?
Whatever the reason, it is simply not fair to deny us our democratic and national rights in order to set an example to others. Luckily, the Belgrade agreement gave us a way out. It stipulated that after three years both Serbia and Montenegro could hold a referendum to decide whether these old Balkan and European states would head for Europe as independent nations just as the other Yugoslav republics did.
Montenegro decided to exercise this option and the vote will be held on May 21. Our decision did not please the EU, which last month imposed yet another condition on us. Our independence would not be recognised - and so talks on joining the EU would be impossible - unless at least 55 per cent of those voting endorsed independence. As prime minister, I protested that this was undemocratic. But I decided that we had no option but to accept it, convinced that a majority of Montenegrins is determined to enter the EU.
The alternative evidently preferred by the EU - for Montenegro and Serbia to attempt to join the EU as a single entity - has already been fraught with difficulties. To put it frankly, the choice is between Montenegro joining the EU as an independent, modern state with a clear sense of identity, or joining as the junior partner in an unbalanced, dysfunctional union with big brother Serbia, constantly fearful of losing our identity. The truth is that the imposed union between our two states does not work properly and its continued existence would delay the integration of both states into the EU.
Montenegro's economic record in the past three years is impressive. As an independent Balkan state within the EU, we can rapidly become one of the most developed nations in the region. So, within a few weeks, I believeMontenegro will become a sovereign state, ready, willing and able to take its rightful place in the EU.
If a substantial majority of my fellow countrymen and women vote for independence, do not take this as a sign that we are small-minded, inward-looking, Balkan nationalists. We have proved we are not. Instead, accept the result of the referendum as a welcome victory for democracy, tolerance and, above all, for European values.
The writer is prime minister ofMonteÃ -negro