May 22nd 2006
With a few votes still to count, Montenegro favoured independence in a referendum on Sunday May 21st, ending the loose federation with Serbia
Soon Europe will have two new states. With 95% of the votes counted from Sunday’s referendum in Montenegro, on independence from Serbia, 55.4% of voters were in favour of the break. It is possible, but unlikely, that the few votes still to be counted will change this. The much more likely prospect is that Serbia and Montenegro will negotiate their divorce in the weeks and months ahead.
Sunday's referendum was one of the final acts of the 15-year drama of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. But it was not the last. Within a year, the two new states are likely to be joined by a third—the southern province of Kosovo.
Into the early hours of Monday morning jubilant supporters of independence celebrated in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, and in other towns across the tiny Adriatic republic. "Tonight, with the majority decision by the citizens of Montenegro, the independence of the country has been renewed," said the prime minister, Milo Djukanovic.
Montenegro lost its independence when it became part of Yugoslavia in 1918. When other Yugoslav republics seceded in the early 1990s, Montenegro remained in a joint state with Serbia.
Under the terms of the deal negotiated by an envoy from the European Union, a 55% majority was required on Sunday for Montenegro’s independence to gain EU recognition. The nightmare scenario was that a majority might have voted in favour, but falling short of 55%. In that case the region could have been tipped into months of political turmoil. That seems to have been avoided.
For many, the result, if confirmed, will come simply as a relief. Politics in Montenegro has been dominated by the question of sovereignty for so long now, that most ordinary people are exhausted by it. The country has only 672,000 people, 18% unemployment and average salaries hover in the region of €200. Families have been split down the middle by the independence issue. They want the government to concentrate on improving conditions for employment and on raising living standards.
Montenegro will now seek international recognition. Serbia, with 7.5m people, does not need to do so, because it will be the successor-state to the old "state-union". In a now-ghostly apparition, Serbia and Montenegro will still compete as one country in the football world cup. The local football authorities had prepared for this eventuality. But not, it seems, the Serbian government.
Mr Djukanovic will travel to Brussels in one week to ask for formal recognition from EU countries. By contrast, the government of Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, seems at a loss. "This is a blow, both politically and psychologically for Kostunica," says Braca Grubacic, a Serbian political analyst. Mr Kostunica had opposed the independence of Montenegro, appearing to believe that it would not happen, and had not prepared for it.
Mr Kostunica's government also opposes the independence of Kosovo, which has a big majority of ethnic Albanians. But that seems inevitable too, either later this year or early in 2007. "Things are crumbling" says Mr Grubacic.
Officials from the EU are relieved by the result in Montenegro. Their insistence on a 55% threshold was something of a gamble, aimed at securing a result which would be hard to contest. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, may not be drinking champagne today, says one source, but he does have one less problem to deal with.