PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro – Montenegro voted by a slim margin to secede from Serbia and form a separate nation, erasing the last vestiges of the former Yugoslavia, according to the results Monday of its referendum.
With nearly all ballots counted, 55.4 percent of voters chose to dissolve Montenegro's 88-year union with its much larger and sometimes overbearing Balkan neighbor. That is just over the 55 percent threshold needed to validate Sunday's referendum under rules set by the European Union.
Hours before the official results were announced, independence supporters flooded streets of the capital Podgorica and other towns, even though their victory did not appear at all certain at that point.
"I congratulate you on your state," said the pro-independence prime minister, Milo Djukanovic. "Today, the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their statehood."
In Podgorica, people fired celebratory shots in the air and drove up and down the main street, honking and waving the eagle-emblazoned flag used when Montenegro last enjoyed independence, from 1878-1918.
In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, officials urged calm. Ethnic Serbs make up 30 percent of the population and many strongly oppose separation from Serbia. Serbia did not want separation, but has said it will respect the decision.
The Serbia-Montenegro union is the last shred of the federation of Yugoslavia that began its blood-drenched breakup in the early 1990s.
Montenegrins and Serbs share the same language, Orthodox Christianity and culture. They have so much in common as two tribes of the same nation that the one of the anti-independence camp's key arguments against separating was that there is no difference at all.
However, over the centuries, a separate identity developed among Montenegrins. Because they live in an isolated, mountainous region, Montenegrins were able to preserve their customs better than easier-to-conquer Serbia, which was occupied by the Turks.
In the former Yugoslavia's recent history, referendum results have sometimes led to major clashes and outbursts of nationalism. The Bosnian war started on the day that former republic voted for independence in early 1992, when its minority Serbs rebelled against the pro-independence government.
The State Electoral Commission said 88 percent of Montenegro's 485,000 voters cast ballots in the referendum — the highest turnout since the first democratic elections in the 1990s.
Montenegro's pro-independence camp argued the impoverished but spectacular country of soaring mountains and stunning Adriatic coastline was being stifled by Serbia. The ruling group said breaking away would boost the economy and speed the country's path to joining Slovenia, also a former Yugoslav republic, in the prosperous European Union.
The pro-Serbian camp said Montenegro, with a population of 620,000, is too small to be viable on its own.
Once an independent kingdom, Montenegro was erased from the map after World War I and merged into the newly formed Yugoslavia. Many Montenegrins resisted and a seven-year guerrilla war followed.
After World War II, the six-republic Yugoslavia became communist.
During the federation's violent breakup in the 1990s, Montenegro's leaders sided with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died recently while on trial before a U.N. war crimes tribunal.
But relations soured, and the EU brokered a deal in 2002 to keep Serbia and Montenegro together.
EU spokesman Amadeu Altafaj Tardio said the European Commission was still awaiting final confirmation of the results from international vote observers, but welcomed that the referendum "was carried out in a calm manner and with high turnout, which is important for the legitimacy of the vote."
EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn called on "all Montenegrin parties and citizens to preserve their unity and to build a consensus on the unity of the republic, on the basis of European values and standards."
Altafaj Tardio said that once the results of the independence vote had been confirmed, the commission would move to draft a proposal to start talks on a separate aid and trade pact with Montenegro.
Talks on a so-called stability and association agreement, meant to ready non-EU countries for possible EU membership, began last year with Serbia-Montenegro.