On Saturday, Montenegro marks a decade since it separated from Serbia. But opinions differ as to whether there is really anything to celebrate. Ten scenes from 10 years in the smallest EU candidate country.
The old prince
Only 10 years of independence? That’s something you shouldn’t say too loudly on the streets of Podgorica. The city is simultaneously commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir. That is why today’s ruling elite, which has the last word on how things are to be seen and is organizing all the anniversary fun, likes to call Montenegro a 1,000-year state. The billboard above reads: Montenegro forever!
It doesn’t make any difference that Prince Vladimir lived a very long time before Montenegro even existed and was thus no more aware of the country than of the constellation Andromeda, as one wag noted in a post on an internet portal. Even today’s independence did not come about without controversy: exactly 10 years ago, the referendum on whether to separate from Serbia was so close that many suspected fraud. This dwarf state between the Adriatic and the mountains is the second-youngest internationally recognized state of the present day. Only South Sudan became a UN member at a later date.
The not-so-new prince
Politicians in the Balkans are known for the obstinacy with which they cling to their seats. But even amid this strong competition, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic is an uncontested heavyweight: In the whole of Europe, perhaps only the mustachioed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko could rival him in this regard.
Djukanovic has been either prime minister or president of his country since 1991 – OK, there were two short breaks, but he took them of his own volition. All the while, the Montenegrin strongman has been more or less everything that the zeitgeist of the particular time demanded: young communist functionary, ally of the nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, ideologue of the separation of his country from Serbia and, finally, a partner of the West who wants to lead his country into the European Union and NATO. His critics accuse him of ruling Montenegro as if it were his private property. The two-meter tall (6 feet 7 inch) leader couldn’t care about that. And what doubtless really frightens his opponents is that he is only 54 years old.
With an average monthly wage of 480 euros ($539) and an unemployment rate of 15 percent, the 620,000 inhabitants of Montenegro are slightly better-off than people in Serbia – even though quite a few people feel that these official figures put things in a too rosy light. It would be interesting to know how the Montenegrins that have party membership in the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists are faring because criticisms regarding nepotism, the party’s grip on government institutions, and corruption are simply ignored by the prime minister, as are the accusations leveled at him by Italian state prosecutors, who described him personally as a patron of cigarette smuggling in the 1990s. The opposition couldn’t score decisively even with an audiotape in which Djukanovic’ closest associates could be heard organizing the distribution of jobs in the public sector to loyal followers. “One job – four votes,” one of them said.
The opposition is the main reason why Djukanovic has ruled for such a long time, cynics say, and mean it only half in jest. Hopelessly disunited parties that can’t even reach a consensus on whether they want to drive Djukanovic from office, or not. Some occasionally work together with him, while rumor has it that others were either established or bought by him in order to weaken the opposition still further. There have been attempts to form a broader alliance against Dukanovic; the current version is called Democratic Front. But most of them have failed because the pro-Western and pro-Serbian parties of the opposition do not get along very well.
The most recent round of protests, last fall, mainly addressed corruption. In Podgorica alone, there were 10,000 demonstrators who for weeks turned the main road into an opposition camp. But then fewer and fewer citizens came, as the iconography of the protests was unbearable for many. This included Serbian nationalist songs, flags and symbols that are part of the stock inventory for many supporters of the pro-Serbian parties. According to what one hears, the Serbs – some 28 percent of the country’s inhabitants see themselves in this category – are more concerned with blocking accession to NATO than with corruption. And that accession is almost a done deal in Montenegro. Accession papers were signed on Thursday so that now only formalities remain. Djukanovic has long since accepted the fact that he has angered the traditional ally, Russia. Unlike Serbia, the small country is participating in EU sanctions against Moscow.
Does the fact that Russian property owners have tended to leave the Montenegrin coast over the past few years also have something to do with the topic of NATO? They are said to still possess around 70,000 pieces of real estate in Montenegro, making them far and away the most important customers of the tourist industry, which makes up a quarter of GDP. The Montenegrin coast was meant to be for everyone, but the rich guests are preferred. The yachts of the oligarchs spend the winter in the havens; even James Bond (Daniel Craig) visited a Montenegrin casino.
Before this scene in “Casino Royal,” an express train is shown racing through the north of Montenegro. Unlike the casinos, however, a rapid train like this in Montenegro is pure fiction. In reality, the whole of the mountainous north is a region of misery that contrasts strongly with the luxury on the coast. In the towns, mostly inhabited by Serbs and Muslims, every third person is unemployed. Old factories and mines are overgrown with weeds, and many people want to emigrate – to western Europe, or at least as far as Podgorica or the aforementioned Adriatic coast. Many have tried applying for asylum in Germany, but last year, Montenegro ended up on the list of the “safe countries of origin” along with others of its West Balkan neighbors.
It’s a big deal for such a small country – and is meant to improve transportation connections with the north and attract more tourists. Because the canyons of the rivers Tara and Moraca are magnificent; the former, which is 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) deep, is even the deepest in Europe. What is not so magnificent is driving on a simple two-lane road between an abyss like that on one side and slippery rocks on the other. For this reason, the highway has been a kind of project of the century for Montenegro. It is currently being built by Chinese. Critics say that the local economy is profiting little, if at all. Because the Chinese “invest” in the Balkans as follows: a Chinese bank provides the loan, a Chinese company is awarded the contract and Chinese construction workers come and bring their own food with them. From China.
As well as corruption, the situation of the media in Montenegro is always being criticized in EU reports. Twelve years ago, Dusko Jovanovic, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Serbian daily “Dan,” was murdered. Since then, the paper has displayed his picture every day on the front page with the question: Who murdered him? In the past 10 years as well, there have been dozens of attacks on critical journalists, and the perpetrators are still listed as “N.N.” Baseball bats and bombs are used. Once, the attacker was publicly known: no less a personage than the mayor of Podgorica, who beat up two journalists in the city center, together with his son. The party friend of the prime minister was punished, of course – he had to pay a 400-euro fine.
Socialist Yugoslavia has long since ceased to exist, but the clichés about its peoples have survived effortlessly. Even today, jokes are told in which the Slovenian is miserly, the Bosnian a little thick and the Montenegrin lazy. So what does the Montenegrin waiter do when the upright German tourist orders a beer? He says: “There’s the tap, and bring me one as well!”