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The European Elections Monitor
Montenegro - Referendum on independence

After twenty four years of union with Serbia Montenegro is independent again

After twenty four years of union with Serbia Montenegro is independent again

22/05/2006 - Results

Fifteen years after the secession of Slovenia (25th June 1991), which heralded the beginning of the break up of former Yugoslavia, the separation process of the former Balkan republic is now coming to an end with the result of the historic referendum that took place on 21st May in Montenegro when the majority of Montenegrins voted in favour of the independence of their State. This election marked the end of the dream of "Grand Serbia" shared by many nationalists once led by Slobodan Milosevic and which had led to thousands of deaths over the last few years.

55.5% of the 484, 718 voters called to ballot in the 1,118 polling stations in 21 municipalities for this referendum voted for the independence of their State; 44.5% voted in favour of maintaining their country's union with Serbia. The result fulfils two conditions set by the European Union for the popular consultation to be valid, i.e. an independence approved by at least 55% of the electorate and a participation rate superior to 50% of those registered. The latter did indeed rise to 86.6% i.e. the highest level recorded in Montenegro since the country has been organising free, democratic elections. As soon as the first estimations were released independence supporters invaded the streets of the capital Podgorica and proclaimed their joy out loud. Many people waved the red Montenegrin flag that bears a royal eagle, the lion of Venice and the crown of Petrovic-Njegos the country's former ruling dynasty.

"This evening I am pleased to announce that Montenegro has become an independent State. Victory rises beyond the required 55% for Montenegro to become independent," confirmed Predrag Sekulic, spokesman for the Democratic Union of Socialists (DPS). "Thanks to the will of its citizens Montenegro has won its independence back. It is the most important day in Montenegro's recent history," declared Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (DPS). "By settling the referendum dilemma Montenegro will open up horizons for its dynamic integration of Europe," he stressed as he went to vote.

Milo Djukanovic, who had put his political future on the line with the referendum result, did therefore win his wager. The Prime Minister and former President of the Republic (1997-2002), leader of the Democratic Union of Socialists has become the man by whom Montenegro has recovered its independence. Forty-four year old Djukanovic has a long career to his name. Entering politics in the 1980's he became Prime Minister in 1991. After supporting Slobodan Milosevic he broke off relations with the dictator in 1997 and then in the years after that he also broke away from the Communist ideology.

On the announcement of the first results Predrag Bulatovic, the anti-independence leader and head of the Popular Socialist Party (SNP) called on the population to remain calm. "I demand for the government to call on people to leave the streets and go home. I am calling for peace, tolerance and restraint. I am asking for our supporters to wait patiently for the results," he declared. He launched several appeals for calm over the final days of the campaign asking everyone to think of the future of all the Montenegrins and the results of the referendum. "After the election we must make amends and think of Montenegro's future," he stressed as he put his slip in the ballot box. He promised to acknowledge the "yes" vote if there were no infringements during the election. "If this is the case we shall shake hands and I shall welcome their victory since only this type of behaviour will help to attenuate the divisions within Montenegro (...). I shall do everything in my power to safeguard a European democracy in Montenegro after the referendum since it would be catastrophic for the country if we were to plunge into instability," he concluded.

Montenegro, which has a surface area of 13, 812 km2 borders with three States: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Serbia. The population lies at 620,145 inhabitants, the country counts 43.16% Montenegrins, 32% Serbs, 7.77% Muslims, 5.05% Roms (figures from the 2003 census). Its capital Podgorica (formerly Titograd) has around 150,000 inhabitants. The language spoken is ijekavsk (Montenegrin) which is very similar to ekavski (Serb) and the main religion is Christian Orthodoxy.

An independent mountain principality in the 18th century governed by a Prince-Bishop of the Petrovic-Njegos line Montenegro's capital was then Cetinje and it was the only Balkan state to have successfully fought off the Ottoman invasions. The country's independence which became a monarchy at the start of the 19th century was internationally acknowledged by the Berlin Congress in 1878. From 1878 to 1819 Montenegro was governed by King Nicholas I, a poet and a soldier. In 1916 King Nicholas, whose country had taken sides with Serbia in the war was sent into exile in France by the Austro-Hungarian army which had invaded Montenegro; he died in France in 1921. In December 1918 at the end of the First World War Prince Alexander of Serbia united Serbia and Montenegro along with other regions of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yugoslavia was born; the union of the two countries was experienced as an annexation by many Montenegrins who rebelled against Serbia. At the end of the Second World War Montenegro became one of the six Republics that made up the new State of Yugoslavia which then fell under Communist rule.

In 1992, Montenegro chose again to remain united with Serbia. Ten years later on 14th March 2002 a new structure, the State of Serbia-Montenegro replaced the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This State which was presided over by Montenegrin Svetozar Marovic along with a President and a government comprising five ministers as well as a mono-cameral parliament of 126 representatives, 91 of whom were for Serbia and 35 for Montenegro, was created under the pressure of the European Union in order to calm the situation in the Balkans; indeed Kosovo, which has an Albanian majority, wanted to separate unilaterally from Serbia. The Belgrade agreements signed by Serbia and Montenegro allowed the Serb and Montenegrin entities to decide, after a three year trial period whether they wanted to continue their union or to separate. In all Serbs and Montenegrins will have been part of the same State for 88 years.

The argument for independence with the greatest effect was the one which suggested that by remaining linked to Serbia Montenegro was being held responsible for problems that were nothing to do with it and hence its rapprochement with the European Union was threatened. Brussel's recent decision to suspend negotiations with the State of Serbia-Montenegro after the 30th April deadline expired, a deadline set as an ultimatum on Serbia to surrender the Serb General Ratko Mladic accused of war crimes (the murder of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica) and genocide (which had led to the death of more than 10,000 people in Sarajevo), certainly helped to strengthen this argument.

Montenegro also believes that it is being held hostage by Serbia on an economic level. Over the last few years Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has launched a series of economic and social reforms in his country which contrast greatly with the lack of progress on the part of neighbouring Serbia, which seems to be entrenched in a never ending economic crisis. The growth of the Montenegrin GDP has reached 4% and inflation lies at 1.9% with a budgetary deficit of 2.1%. Finally the income per capita is around 780 euro and the average salary lies at 236 euro monthly. Unemployment however remains high affecting around 30% of the working population. Nevertheless it is uncertain that economic arguments were those which led Montenegrins to choose independence. They simply found it difficult to believe that one day they would be equal with the Serbs who are thirteen times greater in number than they are within the same country.

For the last four years and in spite of a number of historical, cultural and religious links between Serbia and Montenegro the union of the two countries within the State of Serbia and Montenegro remained incomplete. This state which was supposed to represent one State internationally was in fact two each with its own currency (the dinar in Serbia and the euro in Montenegro), its own administrative and political organisation, fiscal and customs system, laws, airlines, stamps etc .... "We already have between 90 and 95% the elements necessary for sovereignty," declared the Prime Minister before the referendum.

The Montenegrin authorities defended independence as the quickest means to drawing closer to the European Union. "I am convinced that on 22nd May Montenegro will be an independent state and thanks to this democratic referendum we have every chance of integrating the European Union. Tomorrow we shall be masters of our own future," declared Milo Djukanovic just a few days before the election.

The referendum will not leave the people of the Balkans indifferent, notably the inhabitants of Kosovo, a Serb region whose population is largely Albanian. According to the UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's agenda the status of Kosovo should finally be decided before the end of the year but it is still hard to imagine the return of sovereignty to this region on the part of the Belgrade authorities. "If Serbia and Montenegro separate it will be extremely difficult to explain to the Kosovars that the 650,000 Montenegrins, who are much closer to the Slav Serbs, with whom they share the same language, practice the same religion, and who to a certain degree are their "cousins" have the right to choose independence whilst the Albanians, who are not Slavs, and do not speak the same language and who are greater in number than the Montenegrins are to remain part of the common state of Serbia," writes Jacques Rupnik, research director at the Centre for International Study and Research (CERI). "Kosovo's independence is not dependent on Montenegrin independence," maintained however the present Prime Minister of Kosovo, Agim Ceku. After this referendum the Serbs of the Republic of Bosnia Herzegovina might feel that they can request the organisation of a popular consultation to assert their independence (or annexation to Serbia) just like the Albanians in Macedonia and even the inhabitants of the Serb region of Voïvodine. Undoubtedly the referendum provides new legitimacy to the claims made by other populations in the Balkans.

After the official publication of the results the Montenegrin and Serb authorities (the latter did not react on Sunday evening on the announcement of the referendum result) will now enter negotiations. "If the partisans of independence win the referendum they will have to understand that the country's future also lies in the reconstruction of good traditional relations with Serbia," warned the Prince of Montenegro, Nicolas Petrovic Njegos, some weeks before the election. The Montenegrin parliament is to declare Montenegro sovereign and independent; the Constitutional Charter and the State of Serbia and Montenegro will be officially abolished. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic or the President of the Republic Filip Vujanovic, are due to address a letter to each of the EU member States informing them of the referendum results and of the intention of the Montenegrin authorities to establish bilateral relations with all 25 EU States. Since Serbia alone inherits the international commitments made by the State of Serbia-Montenegro the new State will then have to open diplomatic representations abroad, an operation that is due to take between three to six months. The Montenegrin authorities have already prepared new passports which are to be delivered at the end of this year (the passports of the State of Serbia-Montenegro are to remain valid for the next three years). Finally independent Montenegro will request accession to the United Nations, probably in September, during the international organisation's General Assembly.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, has already planned to travel to Brussels on 29th May next.

Results of the Referendum on 21st May 2006 on the independence of Montenegro

Participation rate: 86.6%

Source Agence France-Presse
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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