Serbia questions Montenegro's independence vote

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The Independent Online

The tiny Balkan state of Montenegro woke up yesterday aware that it had chosen to make its way in the world alone - even though 45 per cent of its 650,000 population reject the idea.

Yesterday the state's referendum commission confirmed earlier projections and announced that the pro-independence vote in Sunday's referendum had just exceeded the 55 per cent minimum sprung on Montenegro by the European Union earlier this year, as a condition for having its independence recognised.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, 44, who has ruled Montenegro for 16 years, told cheering crowds early yesterday morning: "By a majority decision of the citizens of Montenegro, the independence of the country has been renewed. We've got our state!"

Serbia, which three years ago had agreed to Montenegro holding a referendum on independence when it entered the new EU-brokered partnership with its neighbour, did not immediately respond to the news, though the Belgrade daily Politika, which reflects government opinion, cast aspersions on the result. "Milo's majority questionable," it commented. "The sovereigntists won, but no-one can tell by how many votes."

The tall, debonair Montenegrin leader is so firmly entrenched that some commentators claimed it was inconceivable he would lose the referendum, having called it himself. But the voting was scrutinised by some 3,000 monitors, and there were no reports of foul play.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief who brought Serbia and Montenegro together in the new union in the hope of preventing further fragmentation in the Balkans, hailed the result as "successful". "It seems that the process was orderly," he said. "And we have to congratulate everybody for that."

Mr Djukanovic hopes that having detached his country from Serbia, whose accession talks with the EU were cancelled last month after they failed to hand General Ratko Mladic to the authorities in the Hague to be tried for war crimes, Montenegro will now jump the queue for integration in the EU. "I am convinced and optimistic that Montenegro will be, after Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, the first country in the region to join the EU," he told a press conference. But the EU, which is anxious to discourage more mini-states from applying to join, has made no promises.

At the conference, Mr Djukanovic said that Montenegro had "fulfilled all its duties" towards the Hague tribunal. Radovan Karadzic, the other man most wanted in the Hague, is a Montenegrin.

Tough negotiations with Serbia may lie ahead. Although only foreign and defence policies were decided jointly during the past three years, there are lingering benefits to Montenegrins from the union which has endured since Montenegro was forced to join the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes at the end of the First World War. Montenegrins can take advantage of Serbia's better hospitals and colleges.

Despite the new state's tiny size, the Montenegrin government is bullish about the future. The country boasts splendid scenery, and predicts 600,000 annual visitors within a few years.

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