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Montenegro: Independence Referendum Turns Into Cliffhanger

Pro-independence demonstrator waves Montenegrin flag at a rally on May 18 (epa) PRAGUE, May 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Montenegro's Election Commission has said preliminary results from the May 21 referendum show 55.4 percent of voters casting "yes" ballots for independence.

"For independence of Montenegro, 55.4 percent of citizens have voted. 44.6 percent of citizens have voted for the union state," Frantisek Lipka, a Slovak diplomat heading the referendum commission, announced at a news conference in Podgorica today.

Lipka is presiding over the referendum commission as part of EU involvement in the vote. The EU has said it will recognize Montenegro as a sovereign state if more than 55 percent of the voters who went to the polls on May 21 voted for independence.

Montenegrin authorities have agreed that if the "yes" vote falls below the 55 percent mark, Montenegro will remain in its union with Serbia.

Narrowest Of Margins

Official results have yet to be announced and there is no immediate indication when they will be available. The slimness of the margin above the EU-set 55 percent threshold for independence has turned the referendum into a cliffhanger.

Prime Minister Djukanovic addressing the press on May 21

Montenegro's pro-independence leader, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, is already claiming victory. But speaking late on May 21 to supporters in Podgorica, he also asked them to be patient in awaiting the final count.

"I would like to thank all of you for patience in waiting for us to count the results and, as serious people, we waited until we counted 99 percent of the votes," Djukanovic said. "There are still a few municipalities in Podgorica that need to be counted but that in no way can alter the result."

The head of Montenegro's "no" campaign, Predrag Bulatovic, has refused to concede defeat. He, too, called on his supporters for patience.

"[The results so far are] 55.3 percent -- with the possibility of an error of 0.4 percent," he said. "So, every vote counts and every ballot box is important. But, as far as we are concerned, the most important thing is for the referendum results to be verified and for all participants in this process to preserve tolerance and peace."

Montenegrins' 'Maturity And Responsibility'

European Union High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana today congratulated Montenegrins for holding an orderly referendum.

"We're awaiting still the report of ODIHR [the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights] but [it] seems that the process was orderly and we have to congratulate everybody for that," he said in Brussels. "It ran smoothly and without any incident. This is a sign, no doubt, of maturity and responsibility of the Montenegrin people."

A spokesman for the European Commission, Amadeu Altafaj Tardio, also congratulated Montenegrins for holding an orderly referendum. "[The European] Commission is pleased to note the preliminary reports that the referendum in Montenegro was carried out in a calm manner and with high turnout, which is important for the legitimacy of the vote," he said in Brussels today.

Historic Day For Montenegro

As the suspense continues, the only certainty is that Montenegrins on all sides see this as a momentous moment in their history.

Supporter of union with Serbia wears t-shirt with pictures of war crime fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic during a pro-union rally on May 14

Evidence for that comes from the turnout alone for May 21 vote. Lipka said today that 86.3 percent of the republic's 485,000 eligible voters came to the polls.

Those voting for independence hope it will dramatically increase Montenegrins' chances of joining the EU at a time when Serbia remains at odds with the bloc.

The EU demands Serbia turn over indicted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. Belgrade has yet to comply.

"When the results of the independence [referendum] are confirmed, [the European Commission] will make proposals to the [European] Council [of EU heads of governments]: first of all a proposal for a new Association and Stabilization Agreement, or a mandate to negotiate such an agreement with Montenegro, and secondly, at the same time, a proposal for a mandate to modify the Association and Stabilization Agreement with Serbia," commission spokesman Tardio said.

Strong Ties To Serbia

But those favoring remaining in the union say Montenegrins' strong linguistic, religious, and often even family ties with Serbians naturally link the two republics together.

Montenegro was last independent some 90 years ago, before it became part of Yugoslavia after World War I.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the Balkan wars, Serbia and Montenegro established a loose union in 2003. The union gave both republics the option to leave it after three years.

Montenegro already has its own parliament, customs service, and currency distinct from Serbia. However, the two republics share an armed force and diplomatic service.

If Montenegro becomes independent, with its population of about 620,000, it would be among the smallest states in Europe, along with Luxembourg and Malta.

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