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Montenegrins Split on Independence Issue

When Yugoslavia broke up in a series of wars in the 1990s, only two republics remained in the truncated country. Fearing further instability in the region, the European Union persuaded Serbia and Montenegro to form a loose union in 2003. The deal was meant to forestall for at least three years Montenegro's drive for full independence. The republic's foreign minister spoke in Washington this week about his ruling coalition's desire to dissolve its loose union with Serbia.

Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic says that, after two earlier postponements, Montenegro hopes to hold a referendum on independence in 2006.

"We have come to the point now, where Montenegro is dedicated, and we confirm it here, that we shall go to referendum in spring next year," he said.

But he says the international community, and, specifically, the European Union, have asked Montenegro to delay the referendum again, so it will not coincide with a possible resolution of the status of the U.N.-administered province of Kosovo. Mr. Vlahovic says Montenegro feels there is no justification for another delay.

"Whatever happens in Montenegro, it shall not, and cannot, affect the political dynamics in Kosovo," he added. "Whether Montenegro will become independent or will decide to do something else, the impact on Kosovo is really a non-existent one."

Despite the determination of the ruling coalition to see Montenegro become an independent state, there is an opposition movement that wants it to remain part of the union with Serbia. Andrija Mandic is the president of the Serbian People's Party in Montenegro, which is part of the opposition. He says the reality in Montenegro is different from the one Mr. Vlahovic portrays.

Mr. Mandic is opposed to a referendum, and says the best way to solve the issue of Montenegro's status is through elections.

The Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) in Montenegro found in a survey last month of more than 1,000 Montenegrins that 40 percent favor independence, and 36 percent are against it. A further 10 percent say they do not plan to vote, and 13 percent do not have an opinion on the issue.

Serbia, Montenegro's much larger partner, is opposed to Montenegro going its own way.

Martin Sletzinger, the director of East European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington, explains one reason Serbia may be against dissolution is its hope for entry into the European Union.

"You have eight to nine million people in Serbia, and you have 700,000 in Montenegro. It's like the tail wagging the dog. But the official position is, I think, to put it off and to adopt the EU position that they should go forth into the EU together," he explained.

The European Union has encouraged Serbia and Montenegro to stay together, saying that could speed their possible integration into Europe. Mr. Sletzinger says that position is partially based on fear of further instability in the region.

"The clear body language of the EU is to try to bring them in together," he added. "The EU is worried about further dissolution of territory in that part of the world."

Relations between Serbia and Montenegro were recently further strained when Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica submitted to EU officials a list of Montenegrins living in Serbia, he believes should be entitled to vote in Montenegro's independence referendum.

Montenegro's president sent a letter protesting the list to his Serbian counterpart. Mr. Vlahovic, the Montenegrin foreign minister, rejected the list as Serbian interference in Montenegro's referendum. He said such voting practices are not permitted under Article Seven of Serbia and Montenegro's constitutional charter.

"Citizens of two member states, within the state union, are equal in each and every aspect, with exception, and it explicitly says with exception, to the right to vote. So, residents of Serbia vote in Serbia, as well as the residents of Montenegro have the same right exclusively in Montenegro," Mr. Vlahovic said.

Mr. Mandic of the opposition says limiting voter eligibility is a political tactic to deny Montenegrins outside of Montenegro the right to vote.

Montenegro's foreign minister says his government is willing to cooperate with the international community and the Montenegrin opposition to create conditions for Montenegrins to decide their own future.