Montenegro residents to vote on independence

Referendum on separation from Serbia is expected to be close

May 21, 2006|By TOM HUNDLEY | TOM HUNDLEY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CETINJE, Serbia-Montenegro -- Residents of Montenegro vote today on whether they will part ways with Serbia.

Independence would be a giant step for this tiny former kingdom on the shores of the Adriatic, but as the ranks of once-proud embassies that cluster on Cetinje's main square and along its linden-lined streets attest, it has been there before.

The Kingdom of Montenegro was an independent state from 1878 until 1918. Its first and only king was Nikola I. He spoke several languages, wrote poetry and died in exile when the modern state of Yugoslavia was created at the end of World War I.

These days the paint is peeling from the old British Embassy. The dilapidated pink Italianate mansion that once housed the Russian Embassy is an art academy, and the former Bulgarian Embassy is a restaurant.

Cetinje is barely more than an overgrown village. The new Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, is about 20 miles away, and leaders of the pro-independence movement hope that the diplomatic missions will soon be arriving there.

Today's vote is expected to be close. Most analysts expect a majority in favor of independence, but it might not reach the 55 percent that the European Union has set as the threshold for separation.

"Everyone has the right to his own state. Why shouldn't I have mine?" asked Rajko Mirkovic, 58, who plans to vote in favor of separation.

"We bought into the idea of a bigger state when Yugoslavia was created, and then it fell apart. Slovenia and Croatia and all the others have left. It's time for us to go our own way," said Mirkovic, a customs officer from the coastal town of Bar.

With a population of 620,000, Montenegro is clearly the junior partner in the relationship with Serbia, which has more than 10 million citizens and a much larger economy.

Opponents of separation question whether Montenegro, with few resources and a weak economy, can make it on its own.

"In this country, all the roads lead to Belgrade," said Predrag Popovic, president of the anti-separation People's Party. "Our economy is completely linked to theirs, so a sudden split would bring the complete destruction of the Montenegrin economy."

The run-up to today's referendum has touched off a lively debate on who, exactly, is a Montenegrin.

According to one survey, 43 percent of the population identify themselves as Montenegrin; 31 percent identify themselves as Serbian; 15 percent identify as Bosnian-Muslims; 5 percent as Albanian; the rest as "other."

Most Serbs tend to view Montenegrins as Serbs who happen to be from Montenegro. Serbs and Montenegrins speak the same language; they share a common history and church.

"I say I am Montenegrin because I was born here. But my roots are in Serbia because that is where my great-grandfather's village is," said Marko Dedic, an 18-year-old architecture student from Podgorica who said he will vote to keep the union.

"We are one people with two countries," he said. Those who insist on separation, he said, are "confusing a people with a nationality."

But others believe that Montenegro possesses a separate and unique culture and that its identity is its own.

Montenegro has always lived by its wits. It also sees itself as a bit of a charming rogue.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia, when the international community imposed economic sanctions, Montenegrins profited by smuggling goods as varied as weapons, gasoline and cigarettes.

One of the main beneficiaries of this activity was Milo Djukanovic, the present prime minister, who acknowledges that during the war he partook in what was then seen as a patriotic duty and a national specialty.

Djukanovic, who has staked his political career on gaining independence, earned respectability in the West when he parted ways with Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1990s, but a whiff of corruption has always hung over his government. It has been in power for nearly a decade.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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