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Montenegro: Preliminary Count Shows Independence Referendum Passing

Serbia and Montenegro President Svetozar Marovic votes during the May 21 referendum (epa) PRAGUE, May 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Montenegro’s election commission says a complete preliminary tally of ballots from the country's May 21 referendum shows voters opting by a narrow majority for independence.

The EU-appointed president of the election commission, Frantisek Lipka, said today that 55.5 percent of voters cast their ballots for independence. That is just above the 55 percent threshold set by the EU for recognizing Montenegro as an independent state.

Three Days To Wait

But the official result of the referendum could still be several days away because the commission has given Montenegro’s rival pro-union and pro-independence parties three days to submit complaints.

The pro-union camp has publicly demanded a recount. Lipka said today, however, that his commission has yet to receive any objections regarding the balloting.

Despite the wait for the official results, pro-independence supporters have declared victory.

"The citizens of Montenegro decided by their free will to reinstate Montenegro as an independent, sovereign country," said Montenegro's pro-independence leader, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, on May 22 in Podgorica. "I consider this to be a great victory for Montenegro, a great victory for democracy, a victory for the rule of law and European principles in Montenegro and the whole region we live in."

Heading Toward The EU, NATO

He said the ultimate goal of those supporting independence – to see Montenegro join the European Union – is now within reach.

"I am convinced Montenegro could be the next country from this region to join the European Union, after Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, which are further along the process," he told journalists.

The pro-independence forces have long argued that ending Montenegro’s union with Serbia would dramatically improve the tiny republic’s chances of joining the EU and NATO.

EU talks with Serbia are now frozen over Serbian leaders' inability to hand over indicted war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic.

So far, the EU has refrained from commenting on the referendum results.

International Community Waits, Watches

EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said on May 22 only that the bloc would "respect" the decision of the republic's voters.

"What we can say at this point in time from the European Union -- we will fully, no doubt, respect the results of the referendum," Solana said. "And we will like very much [for] that [to] be the case from both sides of the Montenegrins, that they would recognize the outcome [of] the referendum."

European Union spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said on May 22 that the union would begin drafting a proposal for a separate aid package for Montenegro.

European Union Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on May 23 that the EU is aiming to offer membership eventually to Montenegro, following the sucessful independence referendum there. Rehn said in Brussels today that the European Commission will recommend talks on closer ties with the new Balkan state, paving the way for it to join the Union.

NATO and the Unites States have refrained from commenting on the poll results. The U.S. State Department on May 22 congratulated Montenegrins only on holding an orderly vote.

The Serbian government, too, has yet to react officially to the referendum. Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on May 22 they would await the official results before commenting.

But several top Serbian officials have already said they recognize the referendum as a declaration of Montenegrin independence.

Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said the will of the majority in Montenegro must be respected.

"There are lot of benefits in Montenegrian citizens' decision [to leave its union with Serbia]," Dinkic said. "Serbia will finally get its own anthem and coat of arms. We will know who we are and what we are. It's a chance for a new beginning. The only thing that upsets me is that nobody asked Serbian citizens about anything."

Other Serbian politicians say the referendum shows Belgrade’s increasing isolation in the international community.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, who resigned earlier on May 3 over Belgrade's failure to arrest Mladic, urged Serbia to recognize the referendum.

“The Serbian government should be the first to recognize independent Montenegro," Labus said. "Serbia should immediately start negotiations with Montenegro on mutual relations. The Serbian goverment's policy toward Montenegro as well as toward the EU ended in total failure.”

There are no signs Belgrade would seek to intervene in Montenegro to reverse a split-up of the union.

That is despite the fact that about a third of Montenegro's 620,000 residents are Serbs. Many of them are believed to have wanted to remain in the union with Belgrade.

Pro-union parties argued that close linguistic, cultural, and even family ties between Montenegrins and Serbians made it natural for the two republics to remain together.

What Comes Next

Once the official results of the referendum are announced, Montenegro’s pro-independence government is expected to call for a meeting of the republic’s parliament to rewrite its constitution.

Any change to the constitution to make Montenegro an independent nation would require a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Changing the constitution would, in turn, clear the way for an independent Montenegro to seek membership of the UN and other international organizations.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

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