With days to go before a referendum that will determine the future of the tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic declared Monday that separation from Serbia was "unstoppable."
For almost nine years, Djukanovic, the Balkans' longest-serving leader, has promised to withdraw Montenegro from its federal union with Serbia, leaving Belgrade without a partner in what remains of the former Yugoslavia.
On Sunday, Montenegro's 440,000 voters will be given the first opportunity to express their views and polls have suggested a small majority favor separation. Under terms negotiated by the European Union, Djukanovic and his supporters need to obtain at least 55 percent of the vote to secede, so a bare majority will not be enough.
Djukanovic said in an interview Monday that Montengro's ties with Serbia were doomed even if he and his supporters failed to get 55 percent of the vote. If the vote to secede gets any kind of majority, he said he would have little choice but to distance Montenegro further from Serbia. "Our position would be that a democratic majority has delegitimized the existing union."
How Montenegro deals with its relationship with Serbia is seen as crucial to the stability of the region, which has yet to overcome the conflicts of the 1990s that killed 200,000 people. Diplomats worry that any attempt by Montenegro to declare independence unilaterally could provoke the region's Serbian minority, about 30 percent of Montenegro's population of 650,000.
The European Union's chief envoy to the region, Miroslav Lajcak, has made it clear that both Serbia and Montenegro would be expected to retain their ties and to negotiate for membership in the EU together were the yes vote to fall short of the required 55 percent.
Speaking last week to an economic forum in Belgrade, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia said the federation would remain intact as long the 55 percent threshold was not reached. "The European Union clearly said there is no gray area and that any result below 55 percent absolutely means that the joint state is preserved, by the will of the people," he said, Reuters reported.
Djukanovic said his government would not take any action unilaterally if it failed to meet the EU's requirements, but he also said the Constitution uniting Serbia and Montenegro would have to be changed if a majority favored independence. "It is clear we would have to embark on new negotiations with Serbia," he said.
But he added: "It is clear that any agreement we might make would be just an interim agreement toward final independence. I think this process is unstoppable. I compared this a few days ago to a river that is so strong that it cannot dry up."
The federation between Serbia and Montenegro is limited. They share control of an army and a diplomatic service. But both have separate customs and border police services, as well as separate republican governments.
For several years the European Union has resisted Montenegro's moves to break away from Serbia, worrying that such a move could destabilize the rest of the Balkans - most notably Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians also are demanding independence from Serbia.
In 2003, the European Union's foreign policy envoy, Javier Solana, negotiated a new Constitution between the two states and said a referendum should be permitted after three years.
Now that negotiations on the future of Kosovo are under way that could lead to its separation from Serbia, some diplomats say it is much harder to argue that Montenegro should not be granted independence.