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International Herald Tribune:With referendum date set, Montenegro looks ahead

Published date: 03.03.2006 13:20 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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With referendum date set, Montenegro looks ahead

By Thomas Crampton International Herald Tribune


PARIS Does the world really need another microstate?

That question has dogged Milo Djukanovic, the prime minister of Montenegro, as he travels Europe advocating his country's independence from union with Serbia through a referendum that Montenegro's Parliament approved unanimously Thursday for May 21.

Serbia and Montenegro - total population, 7.5 million - are all that remain from the bloody breakup of the six republics of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s. Djukanovic argues that the arrangement hinders Montenegro's 620,000 residents and that when it comes to states, size should not matter.

"Yes, I can see that having yet another small state complicates decisions in large groups like the European Union," Djukanovic said in an interview. "But I am also certain that the people of Montenegro have a right to decide their future and we will be better off independent."

EU membership, which Djukanovic termed a high priority for Montenegro, will come faster with independence, he said. Discussions with leaders like Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, in the past week have further convinced him this is correct, he said.

"Havel said that Czechoslovakia would never have entered the European Union if it remained together, and that holds true for Serbia and Montenegro," Djukanovic said. "If you spend energy resolving internal differences, you cannot integrate into a larger body." Reaction to his pitch in Prague, Paris and Brussels this past week has been highly positive, Djukanovic said.

"It was great to see committed Europeans understanding our situation and the reasons behind our desire for independence," Djukanovic said.

Under rules advocated by the European Union and now endorsed by Montenegro's Parliament, more than 50 percent of Montenegro's 466,000 eligible voters must take part in the referendum and 55 percent must support independence for that choice to be valid.

"This means that if 54.5 percent of voters in Montenegro want independence, then we remain in union with Serbia and a minority wins over the majority," Djukanovic said. "This does not seem fair to me, but we fully accept the proposal of the European Union."

Djukanovic said he expected support for independence to meet the 55 percent level and perhaps surpass it.

Should the referendum fail, Djukanovic said he would resign immediately.

The problem for Montenegro in remaining in a union with Serbia, Djukanovic said, is that the two economies are not compatible.

The two regions already have separate currencies, tax regimes and trade rules. Serbia uses the dinar, while Montenegro - eager to attract Europeans to its Adriatic coastline - adopted use of the German mark in 1996 and now uses the euro.

"If you look at the natural dispositions of the economies, a union does not make sense," said Djukanovic, who originally came to power in Montenegro as an ally of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes at the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. "Their economy has an agricultural basis and ours relies a great deal on tourism."

He cited as an example of a conflict the case of wheat and bread. "Serbia produces wheat and so - understandably - they want to protect their farmers from imports of cheap wheat and bread," Djukanovic said. "But we have our own port and think that we should give our people the cheapest prices for bread, no matter where we import it from."

Should the independence referendum succeed, Djukanovic rattled off a series of ways in which Montenegro's economy is well placed to take off.

"If you look over the last three years, you can see Montenegro has a durable economy," Djukanovic said, citing domestic economic growth of 5 percent last year, inflation below 2 percent and a budget deficit of less than 2 percent.

Standard and Poor's upgraded the country's credit rating to BB+ from BB and foreign investors have shown strong interest, he said.