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Gloomy outlook ahead of Serbia-Montenegro vote

Written by: Staff
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BELGRADE, May 9 (Reuters) Things will never be the same for Serbia and Montenegro after the independence referendum in Montenegro this month, a government minister today said.

Rasim Ljajic, human rights minister in the union of Serbia-Montenegro, said the vote on May 21 was a lose-lose proposition. It would either fail inconclusively and set off the degeneration of the union, or succeed in slicing off a micro state that nearly half its people did not want.

''I think after the referendum in Montenegro things will be significantly different,'' Ljajic told reporters. ''Nothing will be the same...I fear this will cause further worsening of our political climate.'' Serbia-Montenegro is all that remains of the federation of six republics that was once socialist Yugoslavia. Montenegro's government seeks independence, arguing that the three-year-old ''state union'' is inefficient, dysfunctional and lop-sided.

Serbia has 7.5 million people. Montenegro, on the Adriatic Sea, has about 650,000 people.

''If Montenegro breaks away and becomes an independent country we will have a huge minority which will live in a state it does not want,'' said Ljajic, referring to opinion polls indicating only a slim majority in favour of a divorce.

Under pressure from the European Union, which it hopes to join in the next decade, Montenegro agreed to referendum rules which stipulate at least 50 per cent of voters must take part and at least 55 per cent must vote in favour of independence for the result to be considered valid.

NO ''GREY AREA''? Polls -- while not very reliable -- suggest the outcome could fall short of that benchmark, leaving a slim majority in favour of a split but no legal means of immediately securing it.

''If we end up in the so-called grey area we will have an agony which will last, and probably those who advocate an independent Montenegro will say that this was a no confidence vote in the state union,'' Ljajic said.

In that case the union would ''start to atrophy'', he said.

Montenegro's pro-independence prime minister Milo Djukanovic has said he will quit if the Yes vote comes in under 50 per cent.

But if it falls just short of 55 per cent, he says he will stay on to negotiate a looser union.

EU Montenegro envoy Miroslav Lajcak today said that there is no such thing as a ''grey area'' in the referendum rules.

''The qualified majority is a system which exists in all democratic states around the world.... the rules of the game are clear, everyone respects and accepts them,'' Lajcak told Belgrade's Radio B92.

''Over 55 per cent means the referendum is successful. Less than 55 per cent means it's unsuccessful.'' Critics say the union is already moribund. Montenegro has its own laws and customs regulations and uses the euro currency, obliging visiting Serbs to exchange their dinars.

The EU has tried to head off the independence drive, worried that success could spawn copycat splinter movements, for example by Bosnian Serbs who are restless in their union with Muslims and Croats, or among the Albanian minority in Macedonia.

There is also concern in European capitals about Montenegro's lingering reputation for corruption, its association with organised crime and the weakness of its democratic institutions.

REUTERS OM BD1930

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