Montenegro referendum: no independent state

If public opinion were judged by the sale of T-shirts in this Adriatic Sea resort, Montenegro would be an independent state. The red "Da" (yes) jerseys are "selling like crazy," said T-shirt vendor Milan Jakic Friday. "If you compare the sale of yes and no, there is no doubt Montenegro will be independent." In nearby Bigovo, however, people favor the "Ne" (no) shirt. "This is not Montenegro , this is Serbia ," says graffiti painted on a dock in this quiet fishing village where people say they will vote against independence in the referendum on Sunday.

The division, which goes deep into Montenegro 's history, has split families, friends, regions, towns and even sports fans. Montenegrins who consider themselves Serbs and those who want to restore the republic's statehood, abolished in 1918, are so far apart that there are fears violence could erupt between the two rival blocs after the referendum results are announced.

At the end of World War I, many Montenegrins resisted their country's integration into the new Serb-led South Slavs ' state, after an assembly of hand-picked Serbian supporters voted to abolish the Montenegrin monarchy. This led to bloody clashes and a guerrilla war that lasted until 1925. Still, during World War II, the two groups again fought together as part of a communist-led resistance movement against Nazi occupation. After that war, Montenegro and Serbia became part of the new, six-member Yugoslav federation until that collapsed violently in the early 1990s.

Although Montenegro 's leaders, including Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, supported former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's war campaigns in Croatia and Bosnia , relations later soured, and in 1999 Montenegro tacitly backed the U.S.-led NATO air offensive against the Serbian strongman. Since then, their ties have remained uneasy, and in 2003 the two governments accepted an EU-dictated agreement setting up the loose "state union of Serbia and Montenegro ."

"I'm now 17 years wiser," independence supporter Djukanovic said, referring to his start as Europe 's youngest prime minister at the age of 27 after he was hand-picked by Milosevic. "Politicians make mistakes, and I made mine." "The referendum is 'to be or not to be' for Montenegro ," Djukanovic said. "Despite our warrior traditions, I don't expect trouble. I hope we have learned our history lessons."

Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of the anti-independence faction, said that he would recognize any referendum results if there are no irregularities during the vote. "In that case, we will shake hands, and I will congratulate them on their victory, because only such behavior will help patch up Montenegro 's internal divisions," Bulatovic said. He warned that "if we were to go down the path of instability ... that would be a catastrophe for Montenegro ."

Bulatovic and his supporters are arguing that tiny Montenegro , which has only 620,000 people and is economically weak, would be much better off with 10-times-larger Serbia . Djukanovic and his camp, however, insist that by wrestling away from Serbia 's stifling embrace, Montenegro would move quicker toward the EU membership and economic recovery.

The latest opinion polls indicate that a slight majority of Montenegrins will vote for independence, but possibly not enough to cross the 55-percent threshold set by the European Union for it to be valid. The majority of pro-Serbian support in Montenegro comes from northern and rural areas bordering Serbia , where men take pride in brandishing guns and glorifying their ancestors' traditions of maintaining brothers-in-arms relations with the Serbs.

The hard-line nationalists there have warned that they will secede their territories from Montenegro , and join them with Serbia , if Montenegro votes for independence. "I can't imagine living without Serbia ," said Ranko Babic, a battle-scarred Montenegrin who fought in Milosevic's army in neighboring Croatia during the war there in the early 1990s. "If Milo and his criminals want their own state, let them have it. But without us," he said in the northern town of Pljevlja , reports the AP.

N.U.