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Montenegro polls test appetite for independence

PODGORICA, Jun 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) Montenegrins voted on Sunday in local elections that tested the public's appetite for independence in the only republic still left alongside Serbia in Yugoslavia.

The polls, in just two towns in a republic whose total population is well under a million, have attracted worldwide attention because of concern that Montenegro could see violence like that which hit other republics that split from Serbia.

A pro-Western Montenegrin government has teased control of the economy, foreign policy and some borders from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic over the past two years, winning backing from the West for its caution and ethnic tolerance.

But it has angered the isolated Milosevic, whose allies are running in the polls with the Montenegrin government's main domestic opponents, the pro-Serb Socialist People's Party (SNP), in a bloc called Yugoslavia. Its aim is to restore his control.

Voting got off to a brisk start in the capital Podgorica, where President Milo Djukanovic's officials had urged people to cast their ballots before heading to the rocky Adriatic coast.

"I voted for the Yugoslavia coalition because it's the only guarantee we will continue living together with Serbia," said Stevan, a 75-year-old pensioner among the first to vote.

Turnout seemed high. Officials said they expected 80 percent of the electorate to have voted in Podgorica by the close of polls at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) and 70 percent in Herzeg Novi.

DJUKANOVIC SEEN WINNING

Most analysts predict Djukanovic's "For a better life" coalition will retain its leadership of both Podgorica and Herzeg Novi on the coast, although a large number of pensioners and veterans could help the Yugoslavia bloc in the seaside town.

"When you look at the democratization and integration processes going on in Europe it is logical to expect a victory by the government that has already moved in that direction," said Ilija, a 40-year-old teacher who gave only his first name.

In a sign they fear defeat, some opposition leaders have predicted fraud and raised the prospect of a violent response.

But while Momir Bulatovic, head of the main opposition party and Yugoslav prime minister, accused the United States and the European Union of interfering in the poll by funding Djukanovic's government, he said there would be no trouble.

"No one should expect us to start a war, take up weapons against one another," he told reporters after he had voted.

The smaller Liberal Alliance party triggered the polls by pulling out of government-led coalitions in the two towns.

It, and a number of people within Djukanovic's ruling coalition, hope the vote will show a strong swing away from the Yugoslav Federation dominated by Serbia and Milosevic and encourage moves towards a referendum on independence.

The West worries that a referendum may spark violence among a mainly Slav population which is deeply split over the issue.

Djukanovic indicated he would resist any risky moves.

"I expect the election results to be an important contribution to the further maturing of democracy and the stability of Montenegrin politics," he said as he voted.

Commanders of the Yugoslav army units in Montenegro that Milosevic controls have condemned what they call Western-backed separatism and accused Djukanovic of mobilizing extra police.

But police kept a low profile on Sunday and there have been no signs of overt tension in what has been a lively campaign.

Some results had been expected on Sunday evening but the first preliminary total will be issued on Monday morning. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the vote, will give its assessment later in the day.



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