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Montenegrin Independence on Hold

Pro-independence coalition in Montenegro scores pyrrhic electoral victory
By Milka Tadic

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic's secessionist coalition narrowly defeated its pro-Yugoslav opponents in last Sunday's parliamentary elections.


The slim margin of victory - just 2 per cent - means the president is unlikely to risk pushing for a referendum on independence in the summer.


The international community can now breath a sigh of relief. A convincing win for the pro-independence lobby would have ensured a plebiscite and Montenegro's almost certain withdrawal from the Yugoslav federation. This would have in turn raised awkward questions over the future of Kosovo.


Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, which called the elections, will feel the impact of the results most keenly. Although the pro-independence coalition won, the DPS has lost its overall majority in parliament. Provisional results indicate the Djukanovic bloc will take around 36 seats, the pro-federation parties 33.


The president's supporters had banked on an absolute majority in parliament. The DPS has dominated Montenegrin politics for a decade and Sunday's results came as a great shock.


The defeated parties are the ones celebrating the results. The Serbian media, meanwhile, is gloating a little, describing Djukanovic's victory as pyrrhic.


The "Together for Yugoslavia" coalition, comprising the Socialist Peoples Party, the Peoples Party and the Serbian Peoples Party, picked up 40 per cent of the vote. The Djukanovic bloc combining the DPS and the Social Democratic Party garnered 42 per cent.


In addition to the 36 seats won by the Djukanovic coalition, a further nine are expected to go to pro-independence parties - six to the Liberal Alliance and two to the two Albanian parties - bringing the total to 44 out of 77 seats in the parliament.


In order to form a government, Djukanovic will therefore have to join forces with the Liberals, and perhaps the Albanian parties.


Nevertheless, all the pro-independence parties combined fall short of the two-thirds majority needed in parliament to ensure the smooth passage of a bill calling for a referendum on secession. The Together for Yugoslavia parties said prior to the election they would boycott any such move.


President Djukanovic now faces an uncomfortable situation. His likely coalition partners, the Liberals, have been campaigning for independence since 1990 and are almost certain to make a referendum in the near future a pre-condition of their joining the government.


Liberal spokeswoman Vesna Perovic told the Beta news agency on election night, "I expect a quick start to talks on forming a government and our conditions will be that a referendum is called immediately and that the referendum question is a clear one."


The Liberals are also likely to demand the most sensitive jobs for members of their party, especially the interior ministry - an important facet of Djukanovic's control over the past decade.


The inconclusive results are also sure to intensify pressure on Djukanovic from overseas. Throughout the election campaign, the international community pushed the slogan "Democratic Montenegro within Democratic Yugoslavia" encouraging the pro-Belgrade bloc.


On Monday, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said the results "give no clear mandate for continuing with a referendum on independence...society is obviously divided on the issue of Montenegro's future status." Sweden currently holds the European Union rotating presidency.


Gerard Stroudmann, director of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, human right division said, "It has been the consistent position of the international community that these issues should be resolved through negotiations. I think this result confirms and will confirm that this is the only way out."


Senior EU officials, including British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, are due to visit Podgorica over the next few days, probably to hammer home the same message.


Meanwhile, Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica welcomed the results. "The elections have shown the vitality of the idea of Serbia and Montenegro's joint state," Kostunica told the Tanjug state news agency . Serbian Justice Minister Vladen Batic called on Montenegro's leaders to enter negotiations with Belgrade on the future make-up of a joint state.


Within hours of the polls closing, supporters of the pro-Yugoslavia bloc began gathering in downtown Podgorica singing "Chetnik" songs and making the traditional Serb three-finger salute. Some revellers fired shots into the air. Together for Yugoslavia leader Predrag Bulatovic declared emphatically, "There will be no referendum on the independence of Montenegro."


Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away in the government building, Djukanovic supporters waited into the early hours of the morning for someone to declare victory. A sense of panic and tension was palpable at the DPS headquarters.


But at a post-election rally, an apparently uncompromising Djukanovic told supporters, "We will start as soon as tomorrow on making the necessary arrangements to create a government committed to an independent, democratic and pro-European Montenegro."


Support for Montenegrin independence has never been greater. "Only 28 per cent of the citizens of this republic supported an independent Montenegro just three years ago - now we number 57 per cent," said SDP leader Zarko Rakcevic on election night. He included the Liberals and Albanian parties in the pro-independence total.


Nevertheless, that support is still insufficient to realise independence soon.


The president has been criticised in some quarters for not teaming up with the Liberals prior to the weekend ballot. Djukanovic was certain he would win a majority outright.


He wasn't helped by the fact that the fall of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic removed two crucial allies - the West and the democratic opposition in Belgrade.


The international community and the new government in Serbia have turned to Milosevic's one-time allies in Montenegro, the pro-Yugoslav parties, deepening divisions within the tiny republic and fuelling the sense of uncertainty.


Whichever way it goes now, Montenegro is certain to remain a divided society - torn between Belgrade and dreams of independence.


Milka Tadic is editor of Monitor, a Podgorica-based weekly magazine


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