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Globeandmail.com:Will Montenegro be Europe's newest state?

Published date: 02.03.2006 13:29 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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PODGORICA SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO -- It is a mountainous, scenic stretch of Adriatic coastline only twice the size of Prince Edward Island, with a population slightly smaller than New Brunswick's. But all Canadians would recognize the conversations now taking place in Montenegro, the oft-neglected junior partner in the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro.

These days, if you visit the capital, Podgorica, a plain-looking city in a mountain valley beside a Russian-owned aluminum smelter that provides almost half the economy, you may be surprised to hear some familiar terms: "sovereignty-association," for example, and "distinct society."

Oh yes, and "Clarity Act." That came up the other day in an interview with Dragan Kujovic, the vice-president of the Montenegrin parliament. "I pay a lot of attention to Quebec," he laughs, "not just because my wife is a professor who teaches Quebec history, but because we're on the same road here."

In many ways, it is a familiar road: On May 21, the 615,000 people of Montenegro get a chance to vote in a referendum on whether to become a separate, independent nation, Europe's newest state in more than a decade.

And this week, the European Union provided its equivalent to Canada's Clarity Act: It passed a resolution saying it wouldn't recognize the vote unless it has a clear question, a majority of 55 per cent, and a turnout of at least 50 per cent.

More seriously, the referendum will be watched closely by countries such as Canada that have poured billions of dollars into the former Yugoslavia in an ambitious attempt at nation-building and peacekeeping. If Montenegro can secede without inflaming either Serbia or its own minorities (almost half its population), then it will be a sign that the explosive enmities of the region have been calmed. Along with talks toward an independent Kosovo, efforts to unite the two regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and end European Union oversight, it's among three efforts in the region this year that will test the international community's abilities at nation-building at a time when such efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan face increasing challenges.

Mr. Kujovic is one of the engineers of the referendum, and it is his job to sell it to the people of Montenegro and to the European Union, which is wary of adding another country, especially one with an economy of only $1.8-billion, most of it owned by one or two Russian businessmen.

The two places have been largely independent since 2003, when these last remaining fragments of the former Yugoslav republic changed their name from Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to Serbia and Montenegro. They share only a military, embassies and some laws.

"We are a small country, but one with a real basis for fast economic growth -- but we're held down by Serbia," he argues. "The international community will always look at Serbia's economy and Serbia's interests first because it's such a larger market."

Within Serbia, though, the prospect of losing another huge chunk of territory -- and of becoming a fully landlocked nation -- is being greeted with relative calm. The likely independence of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, currently the subject of talks in Vienna, has enraged Serbs, and overshadowed the looming separation.

"What would change if Montenegro seceded? Not much," said Marko Blagojevic, a pollster with the Center for free Elections and Democracy in Belgrade. "We have a border between us, we have two different monetary systems, we've got everything else separate. . . . Most Serbs already consider it lost."

Mr. Kujovic and his colleagues see Montenegro becoming a mountain tax haven like Liechtenstein or Luxembourg, with a wide-open economy. But, they say, they are endlessly thwarted by their big, ugly neighbour with its protectionist laws. Other investors, he says, are turned off by Serbia's reputation from the war crimes of the 1990s.

"As an independent country, without Serbia's reputation holding us back," he says, "we will be able to go a lot faster toward integration with the European union, membership in NATO and relations with the West."

This brings nothing but scorn from Bozidar Milovic, a leader of the opposition Socialist People's Party of Montenegro, which, as its name suggests, is in favour of returning to the old, comparatively prosperous unity of the old communist Yugoslav Federation.

"They want to make a small, private country, which would be completely owned by just a few families. And it goes against the trend in Europe now. We're in the midst of a process of European integration, so why at this moment would we want another independent state?"

Mr. Milovic, however, appears to be in the minority. The most recent poll, in December, showed only 32.3 per cent clearly voting No, with 41.4 per cent in favour, 14.9 per cent undecided and 11.4 per cent saying they wouldn't vote.

Analysts say the results are likely to be close, but that a victory is likely. Indeed, one surprising effect of the referendum is that it has awoken many Montenegrins to the disreputable state of the government that is launching it, possibly spawning eastern Europe's latest democracy movement.

"It's a criminal elite fighting for their own freedom, not the freedom of the people," said Nebojsa Medojevic, a Podgorica pollster who has recently launched a political party, Group for Change. "Montenegro is a millennium old, but it has never been a democratic country -- the only independence it has was a gift from Slobodan Milosevic in 1992. The people launching this referendum want to portray themselves as fathers of the nation, but . . . they're simple criminals."

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Split decision

Montenegrins go to the polls on May 21 to decide whether to become independent for the first time since 1918.

-Unlike most of its neighbours, Montenegro maintained de facto independence from Ottoman rule and was governed by a succession of prince-bishops until the 19th century.

-Having fought the Turks alongside Serbia, Bosnia and Russia, it gained territory and formal independence through the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.

-It was proclaimed a kingdom in 1910, but in 1918 the legislature declared the dynasty deposed and voted for union with Serbia, whose army suppressed rebellions by Montenegrins loyal to the king.

-Communist partisans led by Josip Broz (Marshal) Tito drove out Italian occupiers during the Second World War and Montenegro became a republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the war.

-Upon the breakup of the Yugoslav federation in the early 1990s, Montenegro joined Serbia in a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

-In the late 1990s, Montenegro began to distance itself from Serbia, forming its own economic policy and changing its currency after Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic drew international ire by leading a brutal charge to unite Serbs from the surrounding regions and purge ethnic minorities.

-In 2003, the republic was formally reconstituted as a looser union named Serbia and Montenegro.