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Yugoslavia: Montenegrin Independence Vote Depends On Election Results

Voters in Montenegro go to the polls Sunday to choose a new parliament. But as RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz reports, the campaign is turning on Montenegro's possible secession from federal Yugoslavia, and therefore the results could have a major impact on the entire Balkan region.

Prague, 19 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The fiery campaign rhetoric ahead of Sunday's general elections in Montenegro has focused on one key issue -- whether or not the republic should declare independence from Yugoslavia.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic and his allies are hoping to win enough seats in the parliament to call a referendum on independence during the summer. To do so, the initiative needs the backing of a parliamentary majority.

That support appears likely after Sunday's vote. Opinion polls conducted during the final week of campaigning suggest the elections will leave Djukanovic's current governing coalition a few seats short of an absolute parliamentary majority.

But Djukanovic also expects to get support for the referendum from the Liberal Alliance, another political group that is calling for independence from Belgrade. The Liberal Alliance is expected to win about eight parliamentary seats on Sunday -- enough to tip the scales in favor of a referendum.

In fact, the Liberal Alliance is so adamant about moves toward independence that it has been criticizing Djukanovic for not doing enough on the issue. It also has accused the president of holding secret talks with officials in Belgrade aimed at declaring a three-year moratorium on independence.

Djukanovic has repeatedly denied those allegations. But his denials in the final days of the election campaign have left open the possibility of post-election cooperation with the Liberal Alliance. Speaking at a rally this week Djukanovic said:

"I won't debate with the Liberal Alliance of Montenegro on this [allegation] because I'm strongly aware that we will need every vote [in parliament] after the elections to call a referendum on independence -- to unite our strength so that we can make Montenegro independent and bring it international recognition."

Meanwhile, Djukanovic has been critical of politicians in a coalition called "Together For Yugoslavia" that opposes independence. That coalition includes Montenegro's Socialist Party and other former allies of ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"That is a coalition of destroyers of Montenegro and they are hiding themselves behind declarations that they are supporters of Yugoslavia."

The Together For Yugoslavia coalition also has been staging mass rallies in the final days of the campaign in a bid to keep the referendum from being pushed through parliament. An estimated 10,000 people attended anti-independence rallies in Podgorica on Tuesday and yesterday. Many waved Yugoslav flags and shouted slogans insulting Djukanovic.

Predrag Bulatovic, the head of the republic's Socialist Party, told Tuesday's rally that his coalition needs the support of every pro-Yugoslavia voter in order to block the referendum.

"Don't let the [Djukanovic] coalition get more than 20 seats in parliament."

Bulatovic says he is confident of victory on Sunday, in which all 77 parliamentary seats will be contested. He has vowed that his Together For Yugoslavia coalition would resume dialogue with democratic authorities in Serbia on the future of a common Yugoslav state.

Before the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Yugoslavia was comprised of six republics -- Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, along with Serbia's two autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

But a series of secessionist wars in 1990s disrupted Yugoslavia's fragile ethnic balance and shrank the federation to just Serbia and the much smaller Montenegro.

Analysts say Montenegro's departure from Yugoslavia would create a fresh political crisis in Belgrade because the Yugoslav government would become redundant. The split also would aggravate economic problems in Serbia because it would lose its access to the Adriatic Sea.

Ljiljana Bacevic, director of the center for the Belgrade-based Center for Political Studies and Public Opinion Research, says early elections in Serbia would be probable.

"Serbia would be a completely new state -- an independent state too. So we should have new elections to elect a new parliament, a new president and so on."

Some analysts also say independence for Montenegro could fuel the separatist aspirations of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and the UN-administered province of Kosovo. They say it could embolden ethnic Serbs and Croats who want to break away from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic say they will start talks to redefine Montenegro's status within Yugoslavia if voters decide to remain within the joint state.

But while the post-Milosevic reformers clearly favor the preservation of Yugoslavia, Belgrade has pledged to respect the will of the people in Montenegro, whatever they decide.

Djukanovic says Montenegro's small size -- about 650,000 residents compared with 9 million people in Serbia -- means it can never be equal in a joint state.