Sunday, April 23, 2006

Montenegro Is Split on Cutting Ties to Serbia

Published: April 23, 2006
HERCEG-NOVI, Montenegro — In May, Montenegrins will vote in a referendum to decide a question that has hung over them since four other former Yugoslav states — Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia — declared independence in the early 1990's: whether to retain ties with Serbia or go their own way.
Filip Horvat for The New York Times

In Podgorica, Montenegro, a billboard promotes the independence option in the May 21 referendum on dissolving the loose federation with Serbia.

The New York Times

In Herceg-Novi, cutting ties to larger Serbia is a delicate issue.

Like much of Montenegro, this seaside resort on the Adriatic, a favorite of vacationers from Serbia, appears split down the middle.

"We all have friends or relatives on one side or the other," said Miroslav Milosev, 32, a waiter who came here five years ago to find a job.

He favors independence. "We are struggling together, and it's inevitable that we will go our own way eventually," he said. "Everyone else has."

But his wife, Ksenja, wants to keep ties with Serbia, where the economy and population of 9.7 million dwarf tiny Montenegro, which has slightly more than 600,000 people.

"I think it's silly to make new borders now," said Mrs. Milosev, whose parents are from Montenegro but live in Serbia. Not only does the town benefit from Serbian tourism, she said, but residents go to Serbia to attend a university or for medical care. "Education and health care is much better there," she said.

In reality, Serbia and Montenegro are quite separate already. Each has its own customs service, currency and government. They share little beyond the military forces and a foreign service.

But the debate over official independence is tense. And in this town, pollsters say, they have had to stop asking their questions on doorsteps.

"We give them the questions to fill out by hand," said Rasenko Cadenovic, of the Damar polling agency, based in Podgorica, the capital. "It's the only way to avoid a family row."

Montenegro, which shares a religion and a language with Serbia, supported the Serbian republic in the wars of 1991 to 1995. The two republics are all that remain of the former Yugoslavia. In 2003 they adopted the name Serbia and Montenegro, formally putting an end to the federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

But a small independence movement took root, and in 1998, when Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic embraced it when he was distancing his republic from Slobodan Milosevic.

Since then, the government has repeatedly noted that Montenegro was independent from 1878 to 1918, and became part of Yugoslavia only after World War I. Mr. Djukanovic describes the referendum as a chance to restore that independence.

But while his government argues that independence is needed to complete political and economic changes, Mr. Djukanovic's critics say it is a move initiated by him, the region's longest-serving leader, to entrench his control over Montenegro. And some, who want independence, resent his use of the issue.

Nebojsa Medojevic, a leading critic, predicted that nothing would change much for Montenegrins after a vote to break away, considering that Mr. Djukanovic has been in office for 17 years.

"Why would he start to reform things?" said Mr. Medojevic, who is the director of a group called the Center for Democratic Transition, which lobbies for Mr. Djukanovic's removal from office. "Any serious reform would endanger him and his friends. I am for independence, but I am absolutely against this regime."

Mr. Djukanovic's administration has been tainted by repeated accusations of corruption and links to organized crime. The prime minister is also wanted by a court in Bari, Italy, which investigated him on suspicion of links to cigarette trafficking.

For separation to occur 50 percent of those eligible must actually vote, and 55 percent must vote in favor. The terms were agreed on by the government and the European Union, which Montenegro hopes to eventually join.

Mr. Cadenovic says the elderly are more inclined to support the union with Serbia and younger people are more likely to favor independence.

There are geographic divisions too, with areas in the northeast, near Serbia, generally in favor of the federation, and areas on the coast wanting to break away. The pro-independence bloc is thought to have a majority, but perhaps not the 55 percent Mr. Djukanovic needs.

"With a 100 percent turnout, we estimate he has a 6 to 8 percent lead," Mr. Cadenovic said.

Should separation be approved, there is little Serbia could do. Montenegro has a constitutional right to independence, and diplomats say that Serbian retaliation could harm Serbia as much as Montenegro, which is Serbia's only route to the sea.

The prospect is tricky for Serbia. Negotiations are under way on Kosovo, the war-torn, Albanian-dominated province where Yugoslav forces withdrew only after NATO bombing in 1999. It has been run by the United Nations since, and it too could become independent.

There is little doubt the referendum will prompt high emotions, but few expect the kinds of conflict that followed declarations of independence in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

"It won't be like that here," Mrs. Milosev said. "Everyone's roots here are so mixed."

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