Montenegro Vote Points to Independence

Fifteen years after the fall of Yugoslavia, the last vestige of the communist Balkan state has been dismantled: In a historic referendum today, more than 55 percent of Montenegrin eligible voters decided the country should regain its independence from Serbia after 88 years.

According to the Center for Free Elections and Democracy, and the Center for Monitoring, unofficial results showed that just 0.3 percent more than the European Union-required 55 percent of the eligible voters voted in support of Montenegro splitting from Serbia.

The official preliminary results are expected on Monday morning.

Predrag Bulatovic, the opposition leader who spearheaded the campaign against integration, said his camp would not admit defeat based on an "arbitrary estimate by a monitoring group."

"The results are not final until they are confirmed by the state referendum commission," he said. "Such a crucial decision must not be carried out by a trick."

Since February 2003, Serbia and Montenegro have had a loose union, but the two republics have very different laws, customs, currencies and border services. Montenegro, a small mountainous nation, sided with Serbia during the bloody war that followed Yugoslavia's unraveling in the 1990s after the fall of communism.

But now, Montenegro wants to join the European Union.

Some feared being tied to Serbia, which failed to surrender fugitive former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic to the U.N. War Crimes tribunal last month, would hurt its chances for membership.

As soon as news of the election spread, hundreds of people gathered in from of the government building in the new Montenegrin capitol of Podgorica. Fireworks were set off around the city and people waved the red and gold Montenegrin flag.

By the time the polls had closed at 9 p.m. local time, 422,000 people -- or more than 87 percent of Montenegro's 485,000 registered voters -- had cast their vote without major incident or disturbance. In case of a problem, 3,000 foreign and local observers had been stationed throughout the country.

Both sides have urged supporters to accept the result peacefully.