EU awaits Montenegro independence vote
19.05.06 @ 19:25
The EU will on Sunday night (21 May) know if it has an extra candidate on its hands for Balkan enlargement as exit polls come in for Montenegro's referendum on splitting from Serbia.
Latest surveys indicate 56 percent will vote for independence, scraping past the high 55 percent threshold recommended by the EU for secession to be legitimate.
The worst result for regional stability would be a "grey area" vote of 50 percent to 55 percent, making it difficult for Montenegro's pro-independence government to justify sticking with Belgrade, Podgorice has warned.
"The EU's formula contains a virus which is dangerous to the stability of society when it comes to the implementation of the results," Montenegro's prime minister Milo Djukanovic said recently.
The EU envoy to the region, Miroslav Lajcak, is confident there will be no violence however, telling the FT on Friday that "there is no potential for serious incidents" after a peaceful run-up to the weekend vote.
Whatever the result, the referendum marks a crossroad in relations between the two countries with Mr Lajcak predicting complex bilateral talks between Belgrade and Podgorice in the aftermath of the decision.
Big day on Sunday
Around 485,000 eligible voters out of a population of 620,000 will go to 1,100 polling stations from 08:00 local time on Sunday to answer the question:
"Do you want the Republic of Montenegro to be an independent state with full international and legal subjectivity?"
Ethnic Montenegrans and Albanians - who together make up 50 percent of the population - are likely to vote for independence, polls say.
Montenegran Serbs - 32 percent - are expected to vote for keeping the union while a 12 percent Bosniak and Muslim minority remains largely undecided.
The voters' ranks will be swollen by 380 OSCE observers as well as Montenegran and Serb expats from both regional and long-haul destinations.
Exit poll results are due at 22:00 local time Sunday night and the official result is tabled for 21:00 on Monday, with member states reportedly still lacking consensus on whether or not to welcome a pro-independence vote.
EU foreign affairs chief Javier Solana masterminded the state union in 2002, with some analysts saying that the EU-recommended 55 percent threshold reflects Brussels' preference for Serbia and Montenegro sticking together as they head for EU accession.
Winners and losers
Montenegro leader Djukanovic has argued Belgrade is holding back Podgorice's EU progress after the European Commission suspended EU integration talks with Serbia on 3 May over war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.
The small, mountainous state already uses the EU's single currency - the euro - and is more flexible in terms of legislative and economic reforms than its larger Serb partner.
But Montenegran independence could play into the hands of radical Serb nationalists in Belgrade, which already hold a majority 30 percent of the vote.
The moderate minority Serb government of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica is also facing the damaging prospect of an independent Kosovo emerging out of UN-led talks later this year.