Montenegrins set to escape Serb embrace

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The Independent Online

Tucked between centuries-old cypress trees, behind a neat green garden, the sounds of soft piano and violin music waft from a small building.

The musicians - students of the Musical Academy of Montenegro - all know the grand purpose that the building used to serve some 90 years ago, when Cetinje was the capital of the independent kingdom of Montenegro. It was the British embassy. "We hope it will be the embassy again, once our country becomes independent," said Adrijana Mitrovic, a young pianist.

Like all her family and friends, she plans to vote "yes" in tomorrow's long-awaited referendum, when 485,000 voters have the chance to decide whether they want Montenegro to remain in a loose "state union" with Serbia or become independent once more. Together with Serbia, this tiny, spectacularly beautiful mountainous republic, whose population is only 650,000, is the last remnant of the Yugoslav federation that fell apart amid much bloodshed in the 1990s. After Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia declared independence, only Montenegro was left locked in Serbia's embrace.

But it may not be for much longer. Since the mid-1990s, the clamour to go it alone has increased, only to be checked in 2003, when the EU pressured Montenegro to join in a state union with Serbia.

The government agreed, with the proviso that Montenegrins would have a free say in three years' time. Judgement day has dawned.

Montenegro's vastly bigger partner, Serbia, remains bitter about the whole affair. But Belgrade's objections are more emotional than serious and few expect any of the violence of the 1990s to be repeated, whatever the result of the vote.

The most recent public opinion polls by the analyst Srdjan Darmanovic suggest the vote will be narrow, with about 56 per cent of voters expected to ballot in favour of independence.

"We don't expect any problems in the course of voting or after the results are announced on Sunday evening," Mr Darmanovic said in Podgorica, which is now the capital.

Under EU auspices, the pro-independence Montenegrin government and the pro-Serbian opposition have agreed Montenegro will not proclaim itself an independent state unless at least 55 per cent of voters say "yes" and unless turnout is at least 50 per cent.

Few worry about a small turnout. Most say it will be as high as 85 per cent. And the government camp is confident of beating the 55 per cent threshold, too.

"Montenegro will be the first new state in Europe in the 21st century," a prominent economist, Veselin Vukotic, predicted.

What it will do then is a moot point. With its 100km-long Adriatic coast, tourism and services are the future, Mr Vukotic said. Millions of euros are already being invested into new roads and a better water supply and sewage system.

"Podgorica aims to be a busy, bustling Euro-Mediterranean town," the mayor, Miomir Mugosa, said. "With 183,000 people, roughly one-third of Montenegro, this town has great potential."

Montenegro lost its independence in 1918 when it became part of Kingdom of Yugoslavia and its last king Nikola I was forced into exile. His great-grandson, Prince Nikola II, is now often to be seen back in Montenegro. A French architect with no pretensions to a royal restoration, he urged his countrymen to vote "yes" at Thursday's final rally of pro-independence supporters.

But while ethnic Montenegrins seem likely to heed that call, their close cousins the Serbs - who make up some 30 per cent of the population, sharing the same Orthodox religion and language - are unenthusiastic.