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Montenegro: Independence Supporters Row

Referendum row splits Montenegro's pro-independence bloc
By Radmilo Tadic

Within two weeks, Montenegro should know whether it is edging towards a referendum on independence - or towards more elections.

The Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic's pro-independence drive is in crisis, beleaguered by threats of boycotts from opponents, pressure from the international community and splits within the pro-independence bloc itself.

After scraping to victory in the April 22 elections, just ahead of the pro-Yugoslav bloc, Djukanovic realised that the country was split almost equally between supporters and opponents of independence.

The international community, never a great supporter of Montenegrin independence, is stipulating that more than half the electorate must take part in any referendum for it to be valid.

This is a sensitive issue because it is clear that around 40 per cent of Pro-Yugoslav Montenegrins may not turn up to vote for an independence plebiscite.

Since Montenegro is dependent on the international community's financial aid, Djukanovic cannot ignore its demand. His coalition is drawing up legislation on the referendum to put to the vote in the Montenegrin parliament at the beginning of November. That's where his problems start.

Djukanovic's own Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, sits uneasily with his coalition partners - the radically pro-independence Social Democratic Party, SDP, and Liberal Union, LS.

Neither the SDP nor the LS want the validity of the referendum to depend on a minimum participation level - clearly wary of the fact that a substantial proportion of the electorate may not vote - unlike Djukanovic's DPS which wants to keep on the right side of the international community.

The SDP and LS are pushing parliament to discuss urgently their proposal for holding the poll, under which voter turnout would not affect the validity of the referendum.

Their plan, for obvious reasons, is stoutly opposed by the pro-Yugoslav coalition.

Zoran Zizic, the deputy president of the Socialist People's Party and a former supporter of deposed Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, has warned that his party's followers would not vote in the referendum under the SDP/ LS proposal.

The head of the OSCE's Podgorica office, Julian Yates, noted that it would send the government its stance on the SDP/ LS plan within three weeks. The body is not expected to endorse the plan.

Djukanovic's party is unlikely to back its coalition partners' proposal either, but it says it will not make a final decision until after OSCE's official assessment.

"We cannot expect international recognition if we turn a blind eye to the

standards set by the international community, i.e. by the OSCE," said

Miodrag Vukovic, senior DPS official.

The president told the Podgorica media that Montenegro should respect the same rules that applied in the 1992 referendum, when the republic opted to become an integral part of Yugoslavia. Then more than a half of the overall electorate had to vote for the poll to be vaild.

Djukanovic's opponents believe his insistence on high levels of voter participation is yet another example of his foot-dragging on the referendum issue. The plebiscite had originally been planned for 2002, but wrangling within the president's pro-independence bloc is likely to postpone the vote.

The LS suspects Djukanovic is delaying things to protect his own interests. The party believes his power base would be reduced in a democratic, independent state.

"The DPS will try to prolong and postpone the referendum issue or make it totally irrelevant," LS spokesperson Slavko Perovic said.

The party is threatening to leave the ruling coalition over the issue - a move which would force the remaining DPS and SDP parties to call early elections.

Unless the referendum contest controversy is resolved soon, analysts in Podgorica warn that the vote may never actually take place.

Radmilo Tadic is an editor at the independent Podgorica daily Vijesti.