Montenegro Cutting Ties to Serbia

Special to The Times

This spectacular wisp of mountains and coastland along the Adriatic became the world’s newest country Monday when its electoral commission declared that Montenegrins had narrowly approved severing all formal ties to Serbia, ending a relationship with its Balkan neighbor that had lasted nearly 90 years.

In a referendum held Sunday, voters who supported independence from Belgrade mustered slightly more than the 55% of votes needed for independence, according to rules agreed on with the European Union.

However, the voting was so close that the margin of victory remained in doubt late Monday and there were numerous allegations of voting irregularities.

Nonetheless, regional leaders viewed Montenegro’s new status as a done deal and congratulated Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who led the independence drive. The EU said it would wait for final numbers from the electoral commission.


“By a majority decision of the citizens of Montenegro, the independence of the country has been renewed,” Djukanovic told cheering crowds, referring to the independence the country last enjoyed in 1918.

“We’ve got our state,” said the prime minister, who is considered one of the most adept politicians in the Balkans. In little more than a decade, he has morphed from an ally of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic into an anti-communist crusader and, most recently, into a pro-EU democrat.

“The public of Serbia [needs] to familiarize itself with its status based on the referendum in Montenegro,” he said in a clear dig at the country with which he used to be aligned.

Montenegro’s separation from Serbia will reverberate throughout the region and have at least as much effect on Belgrade politics as those in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital.

According to the 2003 census, Montenegro’s ethnic breakdown -- which closely correlates with views on independence -- is 40% Montenegrin, of which the vast majority supports independence, and 30% Serb, who prefer to remain in a union with Serbia. The rest of the country of 650,000 is largely Bosnian Muslim and ethnic Albanian, groups who are split on independence, though largely preferring to sever ties with Serbia.

The mood in Montenegro was one of optimism and excitement -- many people were cheering in Italian after polls closed Sunday, underscoring the country’s feeling it is more tied to the Europe of the EU than to the Balkans.

But in Serbia the view was gloomy. The vote was another defeat in a long string. Montenegro is the last of the five republics that, with Serbia, formed the Yugoslav federation. The others split in the early 1990s, with Croatia and Bosnia’s departure causing extensive and prolonged warfare.

Kosovo, a province of Serbia now under United Nations control, is expected to separate formally this year.

“These are two very different countries -- the Serbian government is increasingly isolated,” said James Lyon, director of the International Crisis Group’s Belgrade office.

“Belgrade is still stuck in a 1990s mind-set of us against them. Montenegro has different relations with the outside world, it has excellent relations with every country in the region,” he said, noting that Montenegro’s government is voluntarily multiethnic, made up of Orthodox Christian Montenegrins and Serbs, as well as Muslims, including the ethnic Albanians.

Sonja Biserko, who heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said the separation marked the end of Serbia’s “imperial ambitions.”

“They always treated Montenegro as a province of Serbia and not as an equal partner,” she said. “Independence is good for the whole region, it’s a normalization.”

In Belgrade, nationalists were especially distressed at Montenegro’s departure. Deepening their anxiety is the fact that Kosovo, which is symbolically important to Serbs because it is the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is on the road to independence. The loss of both could make it more difficult politically for Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to transfer accused war criminal Ratko Mladic to the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Mladic is a hero of Serb nationalists, who are among Kostunica’s supporters.

But Serbs above all feel their country has lost its identity as the Balkans’ center of gravity, and they blame their leaders.

“Ordinary people in Serbia believe that the No. 1 man is the boss, he’s responsible for everything, even for those things over which he has no control,” said Cedomir Antic, a senior advisor to G17 Plus, one of the parties in the ruling coalition. “Here, like in Russia, ordinary people believe that it is better that the state is big than small.”

Antic, along with a growing number of moderate members of the elite, has urged Serbia to focus on its own troubles. The lead editorial Monday in Politika, one of Serbia’s most influential newspapers, took a similar tack.

“Serbia is not ready for any political future,” the editorial said. “Its elite doesn’t believe it will be able to deal with that type of loneliness. Whoever has lived with us has wanted to leave, like a bride with a flaw that is more afraid of being an unmarried woman than at looking at how to confront her own big troubles.”

By contrast, Montenegrins expressed a strong, quiet optimism. The country will rename its language Montenegrin and will probably include some Italian words with the SerboCroatian. It already has its own flag and uses the euro currency, in contrast to Serbia, which uses the Serbian dinar.

In coming days, Montenegro will have to negotiate its formal separation from Serbia. It will eventually have to set up its own embassies in foreign countries and make its own loan and treaty arrangements. However, Montenegrins feel ready.

“It is as if you are telling a patient the results of a medical test and he realizes that he doesn’t have a cancer that he thought he had,” said Veselin Pavicevic, a political science professor in Podgorica. “There is a new energy, and Montenegro now has an opportunity to mend the divisions in its own politics. This will help us to get closer to the EU -- as long as the political elite find a way to focus their energy in that direction.”

Times staff writer Rubin reported from Vienna and special correspondent Cirjakovic from Budva.