Montenegrin Albanians Backing Independence

Albanians in Montenegro shun their own ethnic parties in favour of the republic's pro-independence president

Montenegrin Albanians Backing Independence

Albanians in Montenegro shun their own ethnic parties in favour of the republic's pro-independence president

Parked in a tatty old chair 74-year-old Gjergj, an ethnic Albanian from Tuzi, listens approvingly to an election campaign speech by Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic.

"I'll vote for this man," said Gjergj. "He saved my son from the wars."

Gjergj is referring to Montenegro's decision in 1995 to exempt would-be conscripts from serving in the Yugoslav army, sparing many ethnic Albanians the horrific prospect of having to fight their kin in Kosovo.

Djukanovic also won the sympathy of minority groups by defying Milosevic and providing a safe-haven for thousands of refugees from Bosnia, and more recently, Kosovo.

"People are afraid, " said Rexhep, a 42-year-old ethnic Albanian from Tuzi.

"They feel safe with Djukanovic."

After ten years of conflict in the region, Albanians in Montenegro, who make up 7 per cent of the population, seek peace and stability, things they believe an independent Montenegro can deliver.

The pro-Yugoslav coalition, led by Milosevic's old ally Momir Bulatovic, has won no friends in the community after making a series of anti-Albanian comments.

Sat in a café in downtown Tuzi, Mark, a 40-year-old ethnic Albanian, said, "We're ready to sacrifice our own rights for the independence of Montenegro." His friends nod in agreement.

Montenegro's Albanian minority is concentrated mostly along the coast. Ulcinj has 11,000 Albanian voters, Tuzi 8,000 and a further 1,000 or so live in the mountainous area to the north.

Djukanovic is pulling out all the stops to garner Albanian support ahead of the April 22 election.

"Government 'officials' are distributing flour and food supplies in areas which support Djukanovic," Mark said. " Roads are being built in these places too."

Support for the president is considerable within the Albanian community - so much so that its political representatives have accused the government of buying Albanian votes.

Albanian political parties - of which there are three - are clearly worried that they will lose votes to Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists.

Their strategy has been to stress that only Albanian political representatives can protect the community's interests. "Albanians should be aware that they cannot decide on major issues in Montenegro, so they should concentrate on their own interests," said Luca, a 53-year-old ethnic Albanian.

But some analysts think this policy is a mistake. "They want people to vote for them purely because they are Albanians," said Dino Ramoviq, editor-in-chief of the Albanian language radio station in Tuzi. " This is the first error, the second is their failure to join forces in some form of Albanian coalition, which would give them a better chance of doing well at the polls."

Significantly, while many Albanians will vote for Djukanovic, Montenegro's other minorities, notably the Muslims, who form around 16 per cent of the population, are expected to opt for parties favouring the preservation of Yugoslavia.

The fear independence will lead to the separation of the Sandjak region, straddling the border between Montenegro and Serbia, where most of them live.

Some analysts believe minorities will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of this weekend's election. The ballot is likely to be very close-run affairs and their votes are expected to tip the balance between pro-independence and federalist parties.

Lindita Camaj is Koha Ditore journalist covering elections in Montenegro

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