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Minorities' Votes Critical in Montenegro Poll

Minority communities in Montenegro are likely to decide the country's fate in the forthcoming referendum on independence
By IWPR

Muslim voters, traditional foes of the Serbs, may paradoxically help to keep Montenegro glued to Serbia.


Making up 16 per cent of the population, their votes in a planned referendum on secession might just avert Montenegrin independence.


Most of Montenegro's national minorities, who make up around 38 per cent of 655,000 population, are expected to vote for their country to remain in Yugoslavia.


The Serb minority and Montenegrins who declare themselves Montenegrins "of Serbian origin", around nine per cent and 20 per cent of the population respectively, will also oppose secession.


Many of the latter previously supported independence because of the disastrous policies pursued by Yugoslavia's former president Milosevic. Since his fall, they seem to have had a change of heart.


Podgorica high school professor Vladimir Todorovic, who comes from the north of the republic where many of the Montenegrins of Serb origin live, said he voted for Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, who ardently advocates secession, in the last elections.


"My head told me to do so, even though my heart was with the other side," he said. "Milosevic is now gone, so I've changed my mind on independence."


Muslims, known as Bosniaks, almost unanimously want Montenegro to stay in Yugoslavia. Their chief aim is to preserve Sandzak - where most of them live - as a single entity.


Sandzak straggles both sides of the Montenegrin-Serbian border. Separation of the two republics would, Muslims fear, drive a wedge between many families.


Rifat Veskovic-, the leader of the Party for Democratic Action, the most influential Muslim party in Montenegro, said, "The party has no dilemma where Montenegro's independence is concerned - separation of Montenegro from Serbia would fragment the already small Bosniak national community."


At a recent meeting of Sandzak political and cultural organisations, there were calls for the region to be allowed to secede from one or other of the two republics if Montenegro goes its own way.


"Preservation of Yugoslavia is in the interest of all citizens, including us Bosniaks," said Dzemail Suljevic, president of the Coalition for the National Movement of Sandzak.


The President of the Islamic Community of Sandzak, Mufti Muamer Efendi Zukorilic said, "As far as the departure of Montenegro from Yugoslavia is concerned, I think that not a single patriotic-minded Bosniak can support dismemberment of the already small Bosniak people."


Zukorilic criticised Bosnian politicians for expressing support for the independence of Montenegro. "That is unacceptable as far as Bosniaks in Sandzak are concerned," he said.


One minority likely to buck the voting trend is the Albanian community, roughly seven per cent of the population. But Mehmet Bardhi, leader of the Democratic Alliance of Albanians, said their support for secession is by no means certain." We want the Montenegrin government to reassure us about our future before we give our vote for independence," he said.


Some observers believe Djukanovic's government keenly appreciates the importance of minorities, especially the Muslims, in the coming poll. This, they say, is demonstrated by the Administration's restitution of a former mosque, the "Sultan Hamid II" in Plav. Until recently the building was a police station. Officials are also making frequent conciliatory visits to Muslim municipalities.


But the government insists that while wooing the minorities is important, it's not as much of a priority as winning international backing for independence and outmanoeuvering the Montenegrin opposition which opposes the referendum.


Miroslav Filipovic is a regular IWPR contributor


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