The referendum is an emotional moment for the people of Montenegro, who already have their own currency and parliament separate from Serbia, but also share many linguistic and cultural ties with their larger neighbor.Historical Arguments Pro And Con
The government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is urging separation from Serbia. Djukanovic puts his appeal in historic terms: a return to the sovereignty Montenegro enjoyed before entering its union with Serbia in 1918.
"History has given us the right to stop the government and the people around it who are entranced by tobacco smuggling and robbery of the national [wealth] and who are pushing us on this uncertain path to a private state." -- opposition leader
"Montenegro will not disappear," Djukanovic said recently. "Montenegro will return with its old capitol Cetinje as an independent and internationally recognized [state of] Montenegro, as a happy and rich community of all its citizens. European Montenegro, the eternal friend of Serbia and a good neighbor to everybody."
But opposition leaders are arguing just as forcefully in historical terms that Montenegro should stay in its union with Serbia.
Socialist People's Party (SNP) head Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of the bloc that supports the union with Serbia, said those pushing for independence are doing so for personal gain -- at the expense of the traditional brotherhood of the Montenegrin and Serbian peoples.
"A 'no' answer means preserving the state unity of Serbia and Montenegro, something that has always been the dream of all the great people of Montenegro and Serbia," he said. "Separatists, without any shame and fear of God or of the people, claim history gives them the right to create the [independent] state of Montenegro. No, history has given us the right to stop the government and the people around it who are entranced by tobacco smuggling and robbery of the national [wealth] and who are pushing us on this uncertain path to a private state."Society Evenly Split
In the run-up to the referendum, both sides are claiming imminent victory. But most observers say the race is too close to call in advance.
"The society is definitely split. But what is obvious is that the sovereignists have on their side most of the intellectuals, cultural workers, actors, singers, famous football players, while the unionists have only common people," RFE/RL South Slavic Service correspondent Petar Komnenic reported from Podgorica. "You see that in the everyday propaganda [from the two camps]."
The social split is a measure of the highly complex relationship between Montenegro and Serbia, which involves not only political and economic issues, but also sentimental and family ties.
Structurally, the two republics are already virtually separate states, with their own parliaments, currencies, and customs services. Serbia uses the dinar, while coastal Montenegro, eager to attract tourists, moved to the German mark in 1996 and more recently to the euro.
But the two republics have close religious and linguistic ties and share military forces and a diplomatic service. Montenegro showed its loyalty by supporting Belgrade throughout the Balkan wars of 1991-95.Ethnic Minorities For Independence
Surveys of Montenegro's population of some 620,000 people show a mix of ethnic allegiances. Reuters reported that some 43 percent of people polled say they are Montenegrins, 32 percent say they are Serbs, and the rest represent themselves as Bosnians, Albanians, Muslims, or other.
The smaller ethnic groups, such as the Albanians, are expected to vote for independence.
"We know very well that Albanians in Montenegro are 7 percent," Mehmet Bardhi, the head of the Democratic League of Albanians in Montenegro, recently told Reuters. "But in a union with Serbia, with 8 million people, we would be insignificant and also we know how Serbia treated Kosova, which has a population 90 percent Albanian, or the present situation in [the] Presevo Valley. We have no illusions that with Serbia it will [ever] be better."
Komnenic said the sovereignists argue that independence would dramatically increase Montenegrins' chances of joining the EU at a time when Serbia remains at odds with the bloc.
The EU has demanded that Serbia turn over indicted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. Belgrade has yet to comply.
Brussels says it will recognize Montenegro as a sovereign state if 50 percent of voters turn out on May 21 and 55 percent of those vote for self-rule.Serbian Reaction
Montenegro has the right to leave its union with Serbia under the union's constitution. But Serbian leaders have repeatedly called on Montenegrins not to do so.
Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica urged Montenegrins on May 17 to vote to remain united with Serbia, calling the ties between the two republics "unbreakable."
It is not clear whether Belgrade, would seek to retaliate against Podgorica in the event of a separation. But the possibilities for retaliation could be limited by the fact that Montenegro is Serbia's only outlet to the sea, making cooperation a practical necessity.