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Montenegro Plans Independence Bid
The BBC's Matt Prodger examines the shaky union of Serbia and Montenegro and the gulf that has opened up between them.
There can be few places more beautiful than Lake Skadar on a sunny winter's day.
From the lakeside in Montenegro you can look across an expanse of blue water to the snow-capped mountains of Albania.
It is scenery like this which is rapidly making Montenegro a hit among tourists and Western bargain-hunters snapping up second homes.
Milo Dobric, a Montenegrin born and bred, is banking on a prosperous future.
He runs pleasure boat cruises on the lake, and has plans to build a resort to cater for British birdwatchers.
"Tourism is definitely the future," he says. "During the summer we have many tourists here. This summer we are expecting much more."
But before the tourists arrive this summer, Milo and his countrymen expect to make a big decision.
For more than 80 years, this tiny republic of little more than 600,000 people has been in some sort of union with its much bigger neighbor, Serbia.
Now Montenegrins are preparing to vote in an independence referendum that could see the two countries split.
The driving force behind it is the country's long-serving prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, who wants to hold a referendum as early as April.
"The state union between Serbia and Montenegro is dysfunctional," he told me. "In particular it doesn't serve Montenegro's interests, and so it's time for the citizens to assume responsibility for themselves."
But it is shaping up to be an acrimonious divorce, and the reason that it is concerning Western diplomats is that in this part of the world the worst-case scenarios of Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo have demonstrated that such divorces can be very acrimonious indeed.
One small Serb party in the Montenegrin parliament has even warned that violence is a possibility.
"If the referendum is done by the book, there will be no problem," says Andrija Mandic of the Serb People's Party. "But if the government of Montenegro tries to bully us into a decision - as it has in the past - then there's a very high potential for violence.
"Over the last five or six years, this government has discriminated more and more against Serbs. And if Montenegro becomes independent, I can assure you there will be a strong movement to reunite the countries, and to restore the rights of Serbs here."
Relations between the Serbian and Montenegrin governments have also soured.
One Serbian government minister has threatened to strip the citizenship of a quarter of a million Montenegrins living in Serbia. Some Serbs living in Montenegro - nearly a third of the population - have talked of boycotting the referendum in an attempt to declare it invalid.
"Past experience has shown that Serbia has a tendency to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors," said the Montenegrin prime minister.
"I'm afraid that Serbia has not learnt those lessons from the past."
There are tensions within Montenegro between the pro-independence government and the pro-union opposition, who are unable to agree on the terms of the referendum: in short, just how many people need to vote to make it count.
But while the referendum dominates the media here, beneath the sleepy charm of Montenegro's coastal towns, the people talk of more pressing issues than the country's relationship with Serbia.
As one man put it to me: "This is a small country, with poor people, and a big mafia."
Nebojsa Medojevic, from the Group for Change, is a Montenegrin political activist who believes the government is using the issue of independence as a distraction from those very problems.
"We have a lot of problems with organized crime,'' he says. "Unsolved murders, corruption, and accusations from Italy and other EU countries about government links with the mafia. And because of all that, the role of the EU in supervising Montenegro beyond all of this is crucial."
He accuses local politicians of "playing the old Yugoslav game" - stoking up ethnic tensions between Montenegrins and Serbs within the country.
At Lake Skadar, another bout of Balkan violence is the last thing Milo Dobric needs for his boat business. Instead, he is hoping that Montenegro will loosen the ties and drift peacefully away from its big neighbor Serbia.
"My opinion is that they should be separated," he says. "Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia have already separated. So should Montenegro. Why not?"
It is a course that the rest of his people have yet to decide on, but local opinion polls suggest that more Montenegrins are in favor of independence than against it.
Story from BBC NEWS:
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