The narrow election gap between tiny Montenegro's pro-independence ruling coalition and factions loyal to Serbia, its senior partner in what remains of Yugoslavia, has renewed Western opposition to proposals that the republic's 650,000 people should go it alone.
Unofficial results Monday showed a difference of only about 5,000 votes, a 2 percent margin, in favor of President Milo Djukanovic's independence-seeking government, after counting nearly 99 percent of the ballots cast.
European states, including Germany and Greece, immediately repeated old warnings that Montenegro's unilateral independence and resulting end of the Yugoslav federation could alter Balkan frontiers and unsettle the entire region.
Concerns About a Majority
Before the elections, Western political observers said a firm constitutional mandate for independence could come only from a clear two-thirds majority.
Djukanovic and his party are on track to win only 40 of the 70 seats in the Montenegrin parliament; not enough for a constitutional mandate.
Nevertheless, Djukanovic, has indicated he will press ahead with efforts to hold a referendum on independence. Yugoslavia "doesn't [really] exist," and the international community should recognize that "it is an artificial entity," he said.
Serbia and Montenegro, he told a Polish newspaper, "have two different currencies, independent armies, separate foreign policies and customs."
In Belgrade, however, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac told the national daily Politika that the election showed "Montengro is completely divided … There is no basis to hold a referendum."
The two states both speak Serbian and share Orthodox Christianity as the majority religion.
However, the heir to Montenegro's once-existing royal throne, Prince Nikola, who works as an architect in Paris, said independence was the only choice. Otherwise, he said, Montenegro "will become a province of Serbia."
Before last October's fall of Yugoslav ex-President Slobodan Milosevic, now imprisoned and awaiting trial in Belgrade for corruption, the Clinton-led U.S. administration leaned toward supporting Montengro's independence.
However, the Bush administration in Washington and governments in allied capitals including Athens, Berlin and Paris, have recently urged Djukanovic to compromise with the new Serbian leaders in a way that gave Montenegro more leverage in the existing federation.
Otherwise, they argue — and this is strongly echoed by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's new and more democratic Belgrade government — Montengro's breakaway would unsettle Serbian domestic politics.
It could also have the "domino effect" of enflaming and encouraging ethnic Albanian separatist guerillas in neighboring Kosovo, still nominally a Serbian province, to launch more attacks.
U.S. and NATO analysts say this would also encourage ethnic Albanian aspirations for a "greater Albania," and inspire Croat and Serbian separatists inside Bosnia..
This would further weaken, these analysts say, the structure of accords brokered in the 1990s, which saw Serbia progressively lose the other former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia from the Yugoslav federation.