Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the international community has insisted that there be no more border changes in the Balkans.
But leaders in the former Yugoslavia have persistently sought just the opposite. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought a war for independence. Macedonia has been plagued by unrest and ethnic conflict. In Bosnia, the fragile mix of Croats, Serbs, and Muslims seems ready to splinter.
And now, in a final blow, the tiny republic of Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, is trying to pave its own path toward statehood.
This weekend, Montenegrins went to the polls and gave President Milo Djukanovic and his allies barely enough votes to control the republic's Parliament. Mr. Djukanovic's coalition, known as "Victory Belongs to Montenegro," has made separation from Serbia its primary political goal.
"We have won," Djukanovic declared early yesterday morning. "It's important to emphasize that the political parties in favor of the reestablishment of Montenegrin statehood will have power in the Parliament."
Early election results, which were still being tallied yesterday, indicated that the Djukanovic coalition won 42 percent of the vote, worth 35 parliamentary seats. That - along with six seats won by the Liberal Party and three won by the Democratic Union of Albanians Party - ensures that pro-independence parties will have a majority in the 77-seat Parliament. Voter turnout was a striking 81 percent.
Do Montenegrins want separation?
Yet, independence will not come easy for Djukanovic and his supporters. They had hoped to gain a two-thirds majority, which would have made it easy for them to hold and approve a referendum on independence.
"Mr. Djukanovic has no reason to proclaim victory in the elections, especially according to everybody's expectations," says Dragan Soc, leader of the opposition Popular Party in Montenegro, which wants to keep the federation with Serbia. "We are satisfied with the results."
Even without that majority, Djukanovic could push for an independence referendum, but the outcome would be in doubt and it is unclear if it could be ratified by the parliament.
Already, Montenegrin officials have indicated that they will postpone their initial plans to hold the vote in June. Western governments want them to hold off at least until fall.
"This result is a big step backwards for Djukanovic," says Darko Brocic, a political analyst in Belgrade. "He will theoretically be able to hold the referendum, but he will lose a lot of his supporters and may not have enough votes to win."
A significant portion of Djukanovic's supporters are said to be lukewarm on independence. Meanwhile, those who voted for the pro-Yugoslavia opposition coalition led by Predrag Bulatovic are less likely to defect to the other side if there is an independence vote.
Many Montenegrins, particularly in the north of the republic, consider themselves ethnic Serbs. They fear that an independent Montenegro will not be strong enough - economically or militarily - to protect itself in one of the world's most volatile regions. Independence supporters counter that Montenegro would be better off without Serbia, which in recent years has only brought war and poverty.
Meanwhile, US officials oppose an independent Montenegro, because they think it could trigger similar movements in Bosnia and Macedonia. It could strengthen the already strong separatist drive of the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Long history of independence
Although Montenegrins and Serbs are ethnic cousins with the same Orthodox religion, their relations have been strained for years.
Montenegro has a long history of independence, and was a sovereign monarchy until 1918, when Yugoslavia was formed as a union between Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Josip Broz Tito created the modern Yugoslavia during World War II, and he carefully balanced the different ethnic groups, which was necessary to keep the diverse federation together.
But with the rise of nationalism in the 1980s, the country broke apart, and war followed. After the 1995 Dayton peace accords, Montenegro, with a population of 600,000, and Serbia, with nearly 10 million people, were all that remained of Yugoslavia.
With Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in full control of Yugoslavia in 1989, relations between the two republics soured.
The Montenegrins felt they were not given their fair say in federal issues; the Serbs argued that their population advantage gave them the right to control the federation.
Djukanovic was elected Montenegrin president in 1998, using a pro-Western platform that was just the opposite of Milosevic's isolationist vision. When war broke out in Kosovo, Djukanovic distanced himself from the Milosevic regime and became the sweetheart of Western policymakers.
Now, however, with Milosevic out of power, Djukanovic has lost his raison d'etre, analysts say.
Yugoslavia has a new, democratically oriented president in Vojislav Kostunica, and the case for Montenegrin independence is no longer as strong as it once was. Yet, analysts predict that Djukanovic will push forward with his drive for statehood, largely because it is the only way he can survive politically. Survival has been the primary objective of other Balkan leaders, including Milosevic, and its pursuit has caused much of the violence in the region.
"Djukanovic has waged his political destiny in a referendum, and now he needs that to survive," says Stojan Cerovic, a political writer for the Belgrade weekly Vreme.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor