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Montenegro Deals Blow To Serbia Over Kosovo

BELGRADE (Reuters) -- Montenegro, the last Balkan state to end its union with Serbia, has recognized Kosovo in a blow to Belgrade's efforts to counter the secession of its former province.

Montenegro announced its decision a day after a key UN vote designed to halt such moves.

On October 8, the UN General Assembly supported Serbia's initiative to seek an International Court of Justice opinion on the legality of the independence declaration made by Kosovo in February and recognized by 48, mostly Western, states.

"The government has decided to recognize Kosovo," Montenegro's Foreign Minister Milan Rocen said after the government session the following day. "We hope that our relations with Serbia will remain friendly."

A second former Yugoslav country, Macedonia, was expected to make a similar move.

Montenegro and Macedonia have been close allies to Serbia and are the only two former Yugoslav republics that ended their union with Serbia peacefully. Both states are majority Orthodox Christian like Serbia.

Serbia hoped the legal review would stop further recognition of Kosovo. "It leaves the strategy in tatters," said one diplomat in the Balkans. "The whole point was to block further recognition and reopen the status question."

Yet Serbian President Boris Tadic hailed the vote.

"This is a great diplomatic victory, it's Serbia's great victory, the first one in the international field after many years," he said in a statement. "This is a marathon and it is necessary to prepare...many future steps in the coming years."

"They are being blackmailed by certain states which threaten to make problems for their European integration," Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Konuzin told Reuters.

"Montenegro and Macedonia are under the strongest external pressure which is aimed at forcing these two countries to recognize the so-called independence of Kosovo."

One Western official denied that Western lobbying of those countries had sought to jab Serbia in timing the recognition.

"I can't imagine that others won't draw that conclusion, that these master marionetters, the Americans, have done this again," the official said. "We have encouraged them all along and this was not a date that was chosen, as far as I know, in response to what happened yesterday."

Parliamentary Debate

Macedonia's parliament was due to debate a resolution later in the day by the three main ethnic Albanian parties asking the government to take immediate steps to recognize Kosovo. The decision was expected to pass after the ruling party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski announced its support.

For months, the Macedonian government has been under pressure from its ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up one-third of its 2 million population, to recognize its northern neighbor.

Montenegro's government is expected to decide formally on the recognition of Kosovo on October 9 after parliament passed a resolution last week. The move was seen as an effort to speed up the country's European Union integration.

Pro-Serb parties in Montenegro have threatened to protest if the government makes what Serbia's Jeremic said would be "a knife stabbed in Serbia's back."

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 after NATO bombed the country to stop the killing of civilians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.

Kosovo declared independence on February 17, and the United States, France, United Kingdom, and other nations recognized it immediately. By the end of the month Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and eight other countries followed suit.

In March Slovenia and Croatia, both former Yugoslav republics, recognized Kosovo. Portugal became the 48th country to recognize Kosovo two days ago.