Montenegro Splits From Serbia, Redrawing Europe's Map

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2006
Citizens of Montenegro voted Sunday to cut ties with neighboring Serbia,
crumbling the last vestige of communist-era Yugoslavia, according to
early results released today.

The results, if ratified by Montenegro's parliament, will draw a new political border between the two Balkan republics. (See map of Serbia and Montenegro.)

The last remnant of the former Yugoslavia has been known as Serbia and Montenegro since 2003, when the two republics agreed to remain together for three years, at which time either state could hold a referendum on independence.

"Today, the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their statehood," Montenegro's pro-independence prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, told a crowd of supporters in the capital of Podgorica this morning, according to the Associated Press.

More than 85 percent of eligible Montenegrins turned out to vote on the referendum for independence.

With nearly all votes counted, the referendum was approved by 55.4 percent, barely over the 55 percent required under rules agreed on by Montenegro and the European Union.

According to the latest reports, 19,000 votes were being disputed by pro-Serbian unionists, who called for a recount.

"Montenegrins have decided it would be best to not be affiliated with Serbia," said David Miller, a senior map editor with the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Miller has been following the possible split between Serbia and Montenegro with great interest, he says.

The National Geographic Society is preparing updated maps and will post new versions to the National Geographic Web site if and when Montenegro's independence is ratified, he added.

Montenegro Looks West

Montenegro encompasses 5,333 square miles (13,812 square kilometers), including about 186 miles (300 kilometers) of coastline on the Adriatic Sea.

In addition to Serbia, which includes UN-administered Kosovo, Montenegro shares borders with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Albania.

The last time Montenegro was independent was from 1878 to 1918. It joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes to form Yugoslavia in 1929.

Montenegro has fewer than 650,000 people, about 30 percent of whom are Serbs. Serbia, by contrast, has a population of about ten million.

Opponents of the independence referendum argued that Montenegro is too small to be economically viable as an independent state, according to news reports.

But Prime Minister Djukanovic, who was elected in 1991, has been steering Montenegro away from Serbia, casting his eyes instead on joining the European Union (EU).

"Montenegro has been looking more westward for a number of years now," National Geographic's Miller said.

The republic borders the Adriatic Sea and has a coastal economy based on trade, whereas Serbia is more insular, he adds. Montenegro already uses the euro as its currency, instead of Serbia's dinar.

A mountainous border acts as a physical barrier between Montenegro and Serbia, though roads and railroads through the mountains give Serbia access to the sea, Miller said.

European Union

Serbia and Montenegro share what is generally considered a common language, Serbian (though some say Montenegrin Serbian is a separate language, rather than a dialect), and the Christian Orthodox church is strong in both countries.

Despite these similarities, proponents of Montenegro's secession believe it will expedite acceptance into the European Union.

Currently, Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic that has gained membership in the European Union (see maps, fast facts, and more about Slovenia).

Gaining independence is the first step toward European Union membership, Miller says.

Next, Montenegro must apply for EU membership and meet certain demographic, economic, and agricultural criteria. The process typically takes a decade.

"Clearly, the desire for Montenegro is EU membership," Miller said.

"In other words, it doesn't want to be tied to Serbia anymore. At least, that's what the referendum seems to indicate."

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