Montenegro may go alone

Unofficial vote results favoring independence from Serbia

May 22, 2006|By TOM HUNDLEY | TOM HUNDLEY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro -- The pro-independence movement in Montenegro appeared to hold a slim lead in yesterday's referendum on whether to sever ties with Serbia, according to unofficial results announced by CEMI, an election monitoring agency.

The vote was initially put at 56.3 percent in favor of independence. That figure was later revised to 55.5 percent, just crossing the 55 percent mark established by the European Union as the threshold for independence. Turnout was 86.1 percent.

When the first results were announced on state television about 50 minutes after the polls closed, the skies above Podgorica erupted in fireworks and celebratory small-arms fire. Residents of the capital poured into the streets, waving flags and shouting, "Montenegro! Montenegro!" The party lasted long into the night.

"It is my pleasure to announce that Montenegro tonight has become an independent state," declared Predrag Sekulic, an official with the pro-independence movement.

But those in favor of maintaining the union with Serbia were not ready to concede. Predrag Bulatovic, a pro-Serbia leader, dismissed the CEMI projection as "an arbitrary estimate.

"The results are not final until they are confirmed by the state referendum commission," he said. That could come this morning.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who staked his political career on a vote for independence, made no comment yesterday evening.

If the slim margin holds up, it will mean that 14 years after the former Yugoslavia began to collapse and 88 years after the old kingdom of Montenegro last enjoyed a short-lived period of independence, Montenegrins may again be on their own.

There was a sense of grand occasion throughout the day as people across the country lined up at polling stations. Many of them were wearing their Sunday best.

"We are our own people and we should have our own country," said Sefika Useinovic, 50, who has lived in Germany for 30 years but who flew to Podgorica to cast her ballot in favor of independence.

She said that Montenegro, despite its small size, would be better off on its own, unencumbered by Serbia's contentious relations with Europe and the United States over the unresolved status of Kosovo and its failure to arrest war criminals wanted by The Hague.

But for Drago Garic, a 70-year-old pensioner who voted to keep the union with Serbia, the announced result was a disappointment.

"We are the same people. We speak the same language. We have the same religion and customs. To me it's better to be in a bigger state," he said.

Although there has been no talk of restoring the monarchy, Prince Nikola Petrovic, a Paris architect and the grandson of the first and only king of modern Montenegro, cast his vote for independence in Cetinje, the former royal capital.

Wedged between Albania, Bosnia and Croatia on the Adriatic coast, Montenegro is about the size of Connecticut. Its population is 620,000.

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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