- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

Even a small majority vote for Montenegrin independence in a referendum this spring should spell the end of the republic’s union with Serbia, Montenegro’s foreign minister said.

Montenegro last month accepted a proposal by EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak that a 55 percent “yes” vote in the May 21 plebiscite should be set as the standard for breaking up the loose union with Serbia.

But Miodrag Vlahovic said during a visit to Washington on Friday that even a slim majority vote in favor of independence should be respected.

“We are not going to unilaterally proclaim independence if we don’t reach 55 percent,” Mr. Vlahovic said in an interview at the Montenegrin mission.

“But democracy requires a full respect of the majority-minority relationship. And [if more than 50 percent vote for independence], the state of the union will be illegitimate. The dysfunctional union should not exist anymore.”

Mr. Vlahovic said the government’s priority in that case would be to maintain stability and to prevent any unrest from escalating into a crisis. The Montenegrin government is fully capable of handling such turmoil, he said, signaling that Serbian interference would not be welcomed.

Polls conducted in December showed the potential for a close vote, with 41.1 percent favoring independence and 32.3 percent supporting the union.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has quoted the pro-union Socialist People’s Party saying the government had offered bribes to boost the pro-independence vote. Mr. Vlahovic called the charge groundless.

Once an independent country, Montenegro was absorbed into Yugoslavia in 1918. In the early 1990s, it was the only republic to stay with Serbia after the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia.

The European Union brokered a loose union agreement between Montenegro and Serbia in 2003, which stipulated that either state could break the union after a three-year period.

Since then, Montenegro has established de facto independence: It has adopted the euro as its official currency and set up customs offices along the border with Serbia.

Mr. Vlahovic said Montenegro’s departure from the union with Serbia would not challenge the region’s stability.

“There are still some unresolved issues in the Balkans, but Montenegro’s independence might be the least dramatic or sensational one,” he said.

A state one-eighth the size of Serbia with a population of 650,000, Montenegro as an independent country would pursue membership in the European Union, Mr. Vlahovic said.

He said the republic might find the path easier as an independent country. An application by the current union has been stalled by Serbia’s failure to arrest wanted war criminal Gen. Ratko Mladic.

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