- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 20, 2006

PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro — Voters will decide today whether this tiny republic will become Europe’s newest state or remain a part of the Serbia-Montenegro union, the last remnant of the former Yugoslavia.

The debate, predictably, is about which path is best for Montenegro’s future, with both sides arguing that their respective plans will maintain Montenegro’s identity and lead to NATO and European Union membership.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, backed by his governing coalition, leads the pro-separatist movement.

Serbia’s 8 million population dwarfs that of tiny Montenegro, which, with a population of 665,000, has fewer people than Austin, Texas.

Given that population disparity, separatists argue that independence is the only way for Montenegrins to take control of their own future.

“It’s important to gain independence because it’s important for international recognition,” Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic told The Washington Times lastweek. “Without international recognition, our autonomy will be reduced and, in the long term, it will be lost, which would definitely lead to the integration of a much smaller Montenegro into a much larger Serbia.”

Such talk is nonsense to opponents of independence, such as Dragan Koprivica, a member of the Montenegrin parliament and the chief spokesman for the opposition.

“Serbia and Montenegro are two republics in which live one people,” he said. “Serbs and Montenegrins are the same people that had, and has, the same history, religion, language …”

Separatists added a compelling new argument this month — membership in the European Union. The Belgrade government’s failure to arrest Gen. Ratko Mladic, the wartime fugitive, appeared to disqualify the nation formally known as Serbia and Montenegro from EU membership. The EU has broken off pre-accession talks, and the country has made little progress in its move toward NATO membership.

“The consequence is that our army is not a member of the Partnership for Peace,” Mr. Vujanovic said, speaking of the NATO program for aspiring members. “If Montenegro were independent, it would be a member of the PFP and at the EU’s door.”

An estimated 30,000 opponents of independence held a rally in the capital’s Republic Square last week. A separate rally by pro-separatists appeared larger, with an estimated 50,000 people.

Before the vote today, Podgorica turned into a cacophony of blaring car horns accompanied by the flag of choice — the tricolor of the current federation or the red flag with an embossed eagle for the separatists. In the capital itself, sentiment is overwhelmingly for independence.

Yugoslavia, a compilation of six republics, disintegrated into civil wars in the 1990s. The republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia have become independent states. Only Montenegro remained in a union with Serbia, and that union could well dissolve with the vote today.

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