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Montenegro Split Over Kosovo, Protests Threatened

PODGORICA (Reuters) -- Montenegro's parliament has passed a resolution that the opposition sees as a first step towards recognizing the independence of Kosovo, a sharply divisive issue in the former Yugoslav republic.

Opposition pro-Serbian parties said they would call on their followers to stage street protests if parliament recognizes Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in February.

"You have a historical responsibility to decide whether you will preserve the dignity of Montenegro or stab a bloody knife in the back of sister Serbia," Amfilohije Radovic, Serbian Orthodox bishop in Montenegro, said in a letter to President Filip Vujanovic.

The text of the ruling coalition's resolution on "the necessity to speed up the processes of joining the European Union and NATO" says it will "serve as a guideline for the country's policy on the Kosovo issue."

The document does not explicitly refer to recognition of Kosovo, a move Montenegro has postponed in order to avoid political turmoil. But it says Montenegro is "prepared to accept political reality that is valued as important for regional stability by the EU and NATO member states."

"The text of the resolution indirectly but clearly suggests the recognition of Kosovo and indicates that it is a precondition for EU accession," said Predrag Popovic, leader of the opposition People's Party.

Forty-five deputies in the 78-seat parliament voted in favor of the resolution. The vote was expected to take place next week, but parliament extended the debate to allow deputies to cast their votes on October 3.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 when NATO waged a bombing campaign to stop the ethnic cleansing of civilians in a counterinsurgency war in Serbia's former province.

Since Kosovo declared independence on February 17 this year, 47 countries have recognized it.

"Today, Kosovo's independence is a political reality and Montenegro cannot keep its eyes closed," Foreign Minister Milan Rocen told parliament on October 3.

Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic of some 650,000 people, voted to end its loose union with Serbia in 2006 and has since enjoyed strong growth, especially from tourism.

Freed from the wartime baggage of its neighbor, the Adriatic state signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU in 2007. But many Montenegrins still consider themselves Serbs and say that the country should support Serbia in its opposition to Kosovo's secession.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and other officials say Western countries have exerted pressure on Montenegro to define its stance on Kosovo.

Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said he expected early recognition from Montenegro and Macedonia.

"We have received signals from Montenegro and Macedonia that they will recognize Kosovar independence soon," Sejdiu said in Pristina on October 3.