Saturday, May 20, 2006

Floating a balloon

May 19th 2006 | PODGORICA

Europe will get two new countries if Montenegrins vote for

independence on Sunday May 21st. But if only a slender

majority opt for it, the Balkans could see a new period

of instability

BY THE standards of tiny Montenegro, the rally was impressive. Perhaps as many as 50,000 people packed the main square of the capital, Podgorica, on Thursday night and transformed it into a sea of red-and-gold banners. Girls draped themselves in flags and perched precariously on car roofs. Their boyfriends, chanting and hooting horns, drove them on victory laps around the town centre. The organisers even brought out a hot air balloon made of material in the national colours.

On Sunday Montenegrins will finally get a chance to say whether their tiny republic should stay in a loose federation with Serbia, or gain its independence. The rally on Thursday was the last, big, pro-independence push by the government and its supporters. All across town billboards sport bold, giant, "Yes" slogans. Far fewer, featuring tired and moustachioed men, exhort voters to reject independence.

Montenegro has only 672,000 people but what they decide on Sunday could have a big impact in this part of Europe and beyond. Separatist Basques and Catalans in Spain are keeping a close eye on this potentially peaceful secession. If Montenegro secedes there will be two new countries in Europe, Serbia and Montenegro. Neighbouring Kosovo hopes soon to gain independence too, through UN-sponsored talks that began in February. Indeed, that seems almost inevitable there, so by the end of the year Europe could have three new countries.

But, for Montenegro, this remains a big “if”. It is far from clear whether voters will opt for independence and many fear that the poll will instead provoke a new Balkan crisis. A referendum on independence in Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly inhabited by ethnic Albanians, would see over 90% in favour. In contrast Montenegrins are deeply divided. Most of them share a language, a religion and a history with Serbs. Some 30% of the population identifies itself as Serb.

Some 3,330 foreign and local observers will fan out across the country on Sunday. Many voters say they are enduring severe pressure. Thousands of party activists from both sides have been double- and triple- checking on people to see how they are going to vote. Many believe, rightly or wrongly, that their jobs are on the line because so many jobs depend on party allegiance. Stories of vote-buying abound, though these are impossible to prove.

The European Union has been heavily involved here. Trying to ensure that those opposed to self-rule would take part, the EU has insisted that it would only recognise a call for international recognition if the victors got over 55% of ballots cast. Government sources say that a recent, but unpublished, poll shows they will get 59%. Many are sceptical. The worst result would be the “grey zone”, that is 50 - 55% in favour of independence. If that happens, and if rival supporters take to the streets to celebrate “victory”, violent clashes may occur. “I have tried to persuade my elderly mother to leave town,” says one resident of the capital.

According to an EU-brokered deal, if the vote is less than 55% then the Montenegrin government must commit itself to making the union with Serbia work. This will not happen. The Montenegrin authorities will instead push the already feeble union to collapse, meaning that the region will enter a period of renewed instability.

A deflating omen

Montenegro lost its independence in 1918 when it became part of the new Yugoslavia. During the Bosnian and Croatian wars in the 1990s the country, led by then president and now prime minister Milo Djukanovic, stuck close to Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic. Only in 1997 did Mr Djukanovic adopt a hitherto marginal pro-independence platform. A remarkable survivor he has now been in power for 17 years though he is still only 44 years old.

If the vote is less than 50% he will resign, but if not he is likely to remain there for some time yet. But the prospects for Montenegro are less certain. Anyone seeking an omen might note the fate of the independence-supporters’ hot air balloon. As the crowd left, instead of seeing it soar they saw it rapidly deflate.

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