Another new country for Europe

Montenegro voted to break from Serbia, with 55.4 percent in favor.

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The joyful fireworks and street parties that exploded in the streets of Podgorica on Sunday night, as Montenegrins celebrated a vote in favor of independence, found few echoes Monday in other European capitals.

Europe's lack of enthusiasm for the imminent birth of a new nation on the shores of the Adriatic is prompted by its unease at seeing another small Balkan state emerge on its edges, reminding the EU of its failure to prevent the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

"There is a feeling of reluctance at having yet another country to deal with," says Nicholas Whyte, European program director at the International Crisis Group.

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The last of five Balkan republics to break away from Serbia, Montenegro's vote is also seen as a harbinger of Kosovo's independence.

"Kosovo is on its way to independence," Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu said in a message of congratulations to Montenegro, where official preliminary results gave pro-independence forces in this tiny mountainous Balkan state 55.4 per cent of the vote - marginally above the 55 percent majority that the EU had demanded for recognition of the new country. At press time, about 5 percent of the vote was still to be counted.

The results were met with grudging acceptance from the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana. "It seems that the process was orderly and we have to congratulate everybody for that," he said. "We will fully respect the results of the referendum."

Mr. Whyte says that although "fans of Montenegrin independence are not numerous in Brussels," the EU headquarters - partly because a plethora of microstates joining the EU, each with the same official political weight as giants such as Germany, France, and Britain, would make the union increasingly hard to manage - "there will be relief that there was a clear answer to the question" of independence.

The narrowness of the vote reflected deep divisions in Montenegro, which has been united with Serbia since 1918, and even families were split by different views of the future.

Dusan and Dusanka Mirocevic have been married for 34 years, raised four children together, speak similar dialects of the same language, and share the Orthodox Christian religion. But they marked their ballots differently on Sunday.

Mrs. Mirocevic voted to maintain the union, fearing that a new border could separate her from her brothers, who live in Serbia. Her husband, though, voted for Montenegro to go its own way, as the government had advocated. "There's not going to be some kind of Great Wall of China at the border," he says. "Montenegro has already been on its own for the past five or six years. We can be alone without the help of Serbia, but always with love for Serbia," he says.

Brussels had long argued against that logic, maintaining that Montenegro stood a better chance of one day becoming a member of the European Union in tandem with Serbia, rather than as a minuscule sovereign state of just 650,000 people with little economic activity other than tourism to its spectacularly beautiful coastline.

That argument, however, lost a good deal of its force earlier this month, when the EU suspended talks with Serbia & Montenegro on a trade and aid deal - the first step on the road to EU membership - because of Belgrade's refusal to hand over suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic to the international court at The Hague by May 1.

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said Monday he hoped to restart talks on a Stability and Association agreement with the EU as soon as possible, and conclude them by the end of the year. Officials acknowledge, however, that they have a long way to go before their nascent country - long notorious as a smugglers' haven with a weak judiciary and poorly functioning state institutions - looks like a modern European nation.

"Statehood is the only thing we can resolve in a single act or decision," says Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic. "All other issues, as is the case in the Balkans, require a continuous, long-term, devoted serious effort."

Sunday's vote, though close, in fact only set the seal on a de facto situation that has developed since the late 1990s, when Montenegrin Prime Minister Mr. Djukanovic broke with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Montenegro has its own currency, (it uses the euro), its own more reform-oriented trade and economic policy, and its own border guards patrolling the frontier with Serbia.

The joint parliament, created under a 2003 agreement brokered by Mr. Solana in his efforts to keep Serbia & Montenegro as a unitary state, has hardly ever met.

Officials in Podgorica have set July 13 - the date of Montenegro's original independence in 1878 - as their unofficial target for a new declaration of independence. That will depend, however, on the pace of negotiations with Belgrade over the nitty-gritty of the breakup.

Beside questions such as the division of assets, pension rights, and healthcare, the thorniest issue may concern military hardware, which has been under the control of the Serbia & Montenegro union government. Serbia will lose its coastline when Montenegro achieves independence, and will have no use for the navy. Though the results of the referendum are expected to inflame Serbian nationalists, who are on the rise in Belgrade, EU officials hope that the talks on the logistics of the breakup will go smoothly.

By any measure, it should be an easier transition than Montenegro's sister republics experienced. Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia all fought wars in the 1990s to break away from Serbia. Only Macedonia left peacefully. Now Montenegro's vote closes the last chapter in the history of the former Yugoslavia.

"We respect the outcome and we want everybody to do the same," says Christina Gallach, Mr. Solana's spokeswoman.

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