Montenegro votes to secede

55.4% back independence from Serbia

final result expected today


PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro -- Though not yet official, it appears that the family of European nations has a new member.

With 95 percent of the vote counted, Montenegro's election commission confirmed yesterday that 55.4 percent of the electorate voted to secede from Serbia and become an independent nation. Under rules set by the European Union, a 55 percent majority was needed for independence.

About 25,000 votes remain uncounted; most are apparently from polling stations in Podgorica where there were reports of irregularities. Commission Chairman Frantisek Lipka said he expects to announce the final result this morning.

If the lead holds, it would mean that 14 years after the former Yugoslavia began its violent break-up and 88 years after the former Kingdom of Montenegro last enjoyed a short-lived period of independence, Montenegro would again be a sovereign state.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who campaigned vigorously for independence, is confident that the victory is secure.

"I congratulate you on your state," Djukanovic told supporters. "Today, the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their statehood."

EU spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said the European Commission is awaiting final confirmation of the results from international observers but is satisfied that the referendum "was carried out in a calm manner and with high turnout, which is important for the legitimacy of the vote."

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic offered congratulations, but leaders of several Montenegrin groups that favor maintaining ties with Serbia are demanding a recount.

Wedged between Albania, Bosnia and Croatia on the Adriatic coast, Montenegro is about the size of Connecticut. Serbs and Montenegrins share a common language and culture, and for many on both sides of the border, the divorce has been painful.

"We are the same people. To separate us just doesn't make sense," said Ana Vukcevic, 23, a student from Podgorica who voted against independence.

But most residents believe 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 accused war criminals wanted by The Hague.

"Independence is definitely to our advantage. We're a small country that poses no threat to anyone," said Nusrat Kalac, the mayor of Rozaje, a town with a 90 percent Muslim majority that voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence.

He said that even though the vote had divided the country, "the vast majority of Montenegrins realize that we have to live together peacefully."

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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