Montenegro Votes to Secede From Serbia

The Associated Press
Monday, May 22, 2006; 12:54 PM

PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro -- Montenegro voted by a slim margin to secede from Serbia and form a separate nation, erasing the last vestiges of the former Yugoslavia, according to the results Monday of its referendum.

With nearly all ballots counted, 55.4 percent of voters chose to dissolve Montenegro's 88-year union with its much larger and sometimes overbearing Balkan neighbor. That is just over the 55 percent threshold needed to validate Sunday's referendum under rules set by the European Union.

The pro-Serb camp in Montenegro demanded a recount. "The preliminary results of the referendum process should be double-checked and ballots from all the polling stations should be recounted," said a statement signed by four main leaders of the unionist bloc.

Hours before the official results were announced, independence supporters flooded streets of the capital Podgorica and other towns, even though their victory did not appear at all certain at that point.

"I congratulate you on your state," said the pro-independence prime minister, Milo Djukanovic. "Today, the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their statehood."

In Podgorica, people fired celebratory shots in the air and drove up and down the main street, honking and waving the eagle-emblazoned flag used when Montenegro last enjoyed independence, from 1878-1918.

In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, officials urged calm. Ethnic Serbs make up 30 percent of the population and many strongly oppose separation from Serbia. Serbia did not want separation, but has said it will respect the decision.

The Serbia-Montenegro union is the last shred of the federation of Yugoslavia that began its blood-drenched breakup in the early 1990s.

Montenegrins and Serbs share the same language, Orthodox Christianity and culture. They have so much in common as two tribes of the same nation that the one of the anti-independence camp's key arguments against separating was that there is no difference at all.

However, over the centuries, a separate identity developed among Montenegrins. Because they live in an isolated, mountainous region, Montenegrins were able to preserve their customs better than easier-to-conquer Serbia, which was occupied by the Turks.

In the former Yugoslavia's recent history, referendum results have sometimes led to major clashes and outbursts of nationalism. The Bosnian war started on the day that former republic voted for independence in early 1992, when its minority Serbs rebelled against the pro-independence government.

The State Electoral Commission said 88 percent of Montenegro's 485,000 voters cast ballots in the referendum _ the highest turnout since the first democratic elections in the 1990s.

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