Montenegro votes to break away from Serbia

The last remains of Yugoslavia were buried to the thunder of automatic gunfire and fireworks last night after monitors claimed that the pocket state of Montenegro had voted by a clear margin to break away from Serbia, 88 years after being forced into union with it.

CEMI, a respected monitoring organisation, said the pro-independence party appeared to have won 55.5 per cent of the vote, above the 55 per cent threshold demanded by the European Union. With more than half the results in, the Referendum Commission refused to issue a partial result. But minutes after the first projection was published, gunfire and fireworks exploded above the capital. Youths took to the streets blaring horns and waving red Montenegrin flags.

The leader of the Opposition, Predrag Bulatovic, vainly called on the government to order its supporters off the streets. "The results are not final until confirmed by the State Referendum Commission," he said. "Such a crucial decision must not be carried out by a trick." If confirmed, it will be a historic moment for the Balkans, signalling the final, long-deferred end of the Yugoslav experiment, and a personal triumph for Milo Djukanovic, the 6 feet 4 inch Montenegrin Prime Minister who has repeatedly re-invented himself since coming to power 16 years ago.

Montenegrins voted in unprecedented numbers, with more than 86 per cent turning out, easily clearing the minimum turnout of 50 per cent the EU had demanded. Now Montenegro looks forward to becoming the United Nations' 193rd member state and the first new state in Europe since Slovakia in 1993. Montenegrins number 650,000 people ­ but as they like to point out, eight European states are smaller, and two of them, Luxembourg and Malta, are already in the EU. And Montenegro has a proud memory of independence to drive it forward: for 40 years, from 1878 to 1918, it was an independent kingdom, until swept against its will into the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes after the First World War.

With independence, Montenegro hopes to become more prosperous than anywhere else in former Yugoslavia, except Slovenia, to race into the EU ahead of Serbia, and become once again one of Europe's most glitzy places for a seaside holiday.

If Montenegro were also to revive its picturesque royal capital, Cetinje, home to 14 crumbling pre-1918 embassies, and bring back the monarchy, it could become the first corner of the Balkans to restore the old Tintin image, a land of fancy dress and comical spies, formidable mountains and floppy moustaches.

The most dismal ghosts have already been laid to rest. In 1991 Montenegrin reservists accompanied the Yugoslav army as they descended on Dubrovnik, the walled city on the Croatian coast, and plundered at will. But in 2000 Mr Djukanovic met Stipe Mesic, the Croatian President, and apologised "for all the pain and damage inflicted by any member of the Montenegrin people".

Mr Djukanovic was once a close ally of Slobodan Milosevic but ditched him in 1997 and subsequently became the favoured interlocutor of British and American politicians trying to end the cycle of war. Thanks to his usefulness, charges of involvement with criminal gangs in cigarette smuggling ­ still under investigation in Italy ­ have done him little harm. Nor have claims that he covered up a scandal involving a Moldovan "sex slave". First a Communist, then a Democrat, Mr Djukanovic turned pro-independence only in 2000 after Milosevic was removed from power in Belgrade.

At a recent pro-independence rally, a girl in national dress presented him with flowers. "The iconography was exactly like in Tito's time," a local journalist observed. Some commentators in Podgorica ­ formerly Titograd ­ believe Djukanovic is already untouchable. If confirmed as master of his own state, he could become even more so.

Yugoslavia's end

* SLOVENIA: referendum on independence in December 1990, seceded in June 1991

* CROATIA: referendum in May 1991, war started in June 1991 and lasted four years, broke off all ties that October

* BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: referendum in March 1992, declared independence same month, war broke out in April that year and lasted until 1995

* MACEDONIA: referendum in September 1991, admitted to United Nations as Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in April 1993

* KOSOVO: under UN administration since June 1999

* MONTENEGRO: referendum on independence yesterday