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Montenegro Prepares for May Referendum on Independence

The mountainous, sparsely populated coastal territory of Montenegro on May 21st will hold a referendum on declaring independence from its state union with Serbia. The two countries are all that remain of the old Yugoslavia. VOA's Barry Wood, recently in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, reports.

The Republic of Montenegro would be Europe's newest country. According to guidelines prepared by the European Union, if 50 percent of Montenegro's voters participate, and if 55 percent of them vote yes, independence will be internationally recognized.

Miodrag Vlahovic, Montenegro's foreign minister, expects the referendum will succeed and independence declared shortly thereafter. "Personally I would prefer July 13th (for independence), which is a very important date for us -- as July 4th is for America. That was when the Berlin Congress in 1878 officially proclaimed Montenegro as an independent state."

Montenegro remained independent until it and five other south Slavic states created Yugoslavia in 1918. Following that country's collapse amid the wars of the 1990s, the looser federation of Serbia and Montenegro succeeded the rump Yugoslavia in 2002. Montenegro, no bigger than the small U.S. state of Connecticut, has only 600,000 people. It's already virtually independent, using its own money and refusing to take orders from Serbia.

Foreign minister Vlahovic says no matter what happens in the referendum, the link with Serbia is finished. "The state union actually does not function, as we speak. It is a dead corpse."

Opinion surveys suggest the vote will be close. Currently, about 43 percent favor independence, 31 percent oppose it, and 24 percent are undecided.

Vladimir Gligorov is the Balkans expert at Vienna's Institute for International Economics. He believes the vote could go either way. "You should never underestimate the feeling that people may have that this is an historical chance for them to have their own country."

Gligorov says the referendum has important implications for Montenegro, Serbia and the entire Balkans. A "yes" vote, he believes, would produce a more stable result. "Because a negative outcome really doesn't actually solve anything. The next day you have to start thinking what are our relations with Serbia."

Montenegro's pro-union with Serbia opposition says it will abide by the result of the referendum. But its leader, Predrag Bulatovic, is convinced independence will be voted down. "I believe that after the 21st of May, the state union will continue to exist, because this is the will of the people."

Serbia says it too will accept the vote of the Montenegrin people. Serbs and Montenegrins speak the same language and share the same religion. Preoccupied by what it regards as the far more significant problem of Kosovo's future, Serbia thus far has chosen not to be directly involved in Montenegro's independence referendum.