By Ellie Tzortzi
PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - Montenegrin voters turned out in strength on Sunday for a referendum on whether to dissolve their union with Serbia and become Europe's newest independent state.
The required 50 percent turnout was reached in the first few hours of voting. Under criteria agreed with the European Union, over 55 percent of voters must say "Yes" for independence to be uncontested. Voting was due to end at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. British time).
There was little doubt ahead of the poll that the pro-independence camp would emerge stronger but the question was whether the "No" vote could deprive them of the 55 percent majority.
"This is a big day for Montenegro," said pro-independence champion Milo Djukanovic, the country's prime minister and former president. "Its answer to the referendum question will open the doors to Euro-Atlantic integration."
Queues formed early at polling stations across the country. Elderly men dressed in their Sunday best filled in pink voting slips which asked simply: "Do you want Montenegro to be an independent state?" Answer yes or no.
There were no reports of trouble. Turnout was heaviest in the north, dominated by ethnic Serbs expected to reject a break with Serbia. In the south, minorities such as Albanians and Muslims were expected to vote overwhelmingly "Yes".
"Did you vote?" men sitting in a cafe shouted to friends passing by in the Albanian-majority resort town on Ulcinj.
Gezim Hajdinaga, an ethnic Albanian who is Montenegro's Minister for Ethnic Minorities, said the rights of minorities would be best achieved in a sovereign Montenegro.
"I think 57-58 percent of voters will show they want Montenegro's independence," Hajdinaga told Reuters.
BYE-BYE YUGOSLAVIA, AGAIN
The union of Serbia-Montenegro, the last vestige of the former Yugoslavia, was created in 2003, but its two republics have been in some form of joint state for almost a century.
"A sovereign republic is better for all of us," said Sadija Kurpejovic, a clerk in her mid-30s.
"Why should we have to live together with someone when all the former republics separated and were then better off. I look at Slovenia, I think we'll be like them in a few years."
Slovenia, Yugoslavia's most prosperous republic, was first to quit the federation in 1991 and first to join the EU in 2004.
The referendum commission said it would not declare the outcome before Monday morning at the earliest. Non-governmental organisations planned to project a result by midnight.
Even before voting began, supporters of independence were setting off fireworks and roaring around the capital on Saturday night, car horns blaring. The national flag, banner of their campaign, was draped from hundreds of balconies.
Serbia is the dominant partner in the union with 7.5 million people and an economy 10 times bigger. Its government has appealed to Montenegrins not to go.
Serbia-Montenegro was created with the mediation of the European Union, which was afraid of further fragmentation in the Balkans. Before that, the two neighbours were together under two monarchies, then in Tito's Yugoslavia and in the Yugoslav federation of late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Pro-unionists cherish the historical and cultural links with Serbia. Besides, they say, Montenegro needs the jobs, education and health care their neighbour can provide.
Yet a divorce will have little practical effect. The republics already have different laws, policies and currencies, sharing only defence and diplomacy. The joint parliament rarely meets.
(Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic and Benet Koleka)