The Montenegro Operetta

by Stevan Konstantinović

May 14, 2001

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The elections in Montenegro pleased both everybody and nobody. The current status quo appears to have been retained, but with it comes a fear that the future will not support half-baked solutions which will last only so long as there is sufficient money with which to pay for the fragile Balkan peace.

The Montenegrins have chosen neither outright independence nor a federal alliance with Serbia under the name "Yugoslavia." The elections, in which the voters split into two almost exactly equal blocs, have served to confirm what is already known.

This outcome was affected by a number of factors: the passing of Slobodan Milosevic from the Serbian political scene; the international community's fear of coming to terms with the eventual falling apart of Yugoslavia's final federation because of the problems this immediately poses with respect to Kosovo, Macedonia and especially Bosnia; and, last but not least, the conditions of life in the tiny and economically undeveloped Montenegro.

At the time that Tito's Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, Tito's men in power in Montenegro were replaced by the then very young followers of Slobodan Milosevic - Milo Djukanovic, the current President of Montenegro, born in 1963, and his (then) very close colleague Momir Bulatovic, ex-prime minister of the federal Yugoslavia and ex-President of Montenegro, born in 1961. Milosevic called this manner of taking control of the power base in Montenegro "two eyes in the head." There were differences - the "big eye" of Serbia and the "little eye" of Montenegro did not always see eye to eye, as it were, but the system functioned somehow.

Djukanovic and Bulatovic subsequently found themselves outside the power games of Slobodan Milosevic, but they found themselves closely involved in suspicious affairs with foreigners, particularly the Italians. Montenegro was the ground across which smuggling on an epic scale was taking place - all the cigarettes, oil, medicines, and other commodities required in Serbia during the long period of international trade sanctions. The tangle of state and the smuggling mafia in Montenegro became so close that it began to be difficult to separate the official from the "underground" business. When Serbia proper started to follow in these footsteps, and the ring of sanctions became ever tighter, what began as an inter-mafia war over interest spheres quickly led to the cooling of "official" relationships between Serbia and Montenegro.

The "cross-eyed"-ness of the two "eyes" of the Federation became more and more obvious until Djukanovic and his followers openly rebelled against the Belgrade Government just before the NATO attack on Yugoslavia. Bulatovic remained loyal to the Milosevic government, but he was ejected from his political party after the change of guard in Serbia in the October 5 elections.

Djukanovic et al., thanks to the fact that the West was backing any and every political entity which declared itself to be anti-Milosevic, have already achieved a de-facto independence of Montenegro. There are customs posts on the borders with Serbia; the Yugoslav currency, the dinar, has been replaced by the Deutschmark as the official currency; the Montenegrin government no longer accepts the jurisdiction of federal organs or courts; a Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been created; since the police force was already under regional authority the only things that remain that tie Montenegro to Serbia are an integrated army and the as-yet undeclared independence. In addition, there is the schism of the so-called "Montenegrin Orthodox Church," which has split from the Serbian partriarchate and a split on which the Montenegrin authorities looked with tacit approval.

The West, which has financially supported Djukanovic's government, did not make any forceful demands that he stop his illegal deals with the Sicilian Mafia, and in return for this looking the other way they asked only that he did not go through with the actual act of independence. At the time, Djukanovic would not have done anything in this vein anyway, since military forces loyal to Milosevic were in a position to take over power in Montenegro very quickly should he make the attempt. But Milosevic, faced with the saber-rattling by NATO, was not starting anything either. The balance of fear was set.

When this balance was swept away by the political fall of Milosevic, Djukanovic began speaking much more openly about his wishes for independence. The pressure from Belgrade disappeared, but so did the support of the West. He could not continue with the less-than-legal business operations because now that would mean direct conflict with western governments, primarily Italy, and any financial aid that was forthcoming was suddenly aimed less at Montenegro than Serbia. For Djukanovic, the only way out was the independence of Montenegro which could, as such, approach international financial organizations or the richer western countries under its own banner, finding someone in whose interest it would be to put some 600,000 Montenegrins under its sphere of influence. From the first moments of its modern existence (established at the Berlin Congress in 1878) Montenegro has existed with the copious aid of Russia, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire - as well as significant monetary aid received during the tenure of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and especially during Tito's reign.

Part of the electorate, which has hitherto supported Djukanovic, has now turned to the idea of the preservation of the common federation - driven by either an instinct of self-preservation or the centuries-long ties to Serbia - but not in sufficient numbers to destroy Djukanovic's policies. Djukanovic's antagonists have not won, and any change in the current entrenched state of affairs will be neither quick nor easy. Such changes are not something that the Government in Belgrade is interested in, either. Almost nobody in Belgrade these days is repeating the old reason raised against Montenegro's independence - the only Serbian route to the sea - but, rather, the only argument for the final decision concerning Montenegro is increasingly given as international financial aid. The message that Belgrade is sending to Montenegro is simply this: "Hurry up with the decision because it will affect how we deal with the international community - together or apart, whatever plays better." Right now, Serbia is in a much better position than Montenegro.

Closer ties between Serbia and Montenegro would instigate their own political tensions, if not a forced tearing apart of the two regions. So far the Belgrade Government's suggestions as to the resolution of the affair have leaned in the direction of confederation, that is to say, a state-level association of the two republics. This is essentially no more than a legalization of the status quo. The two republics would retain regional powers, each on its own territory, and they would present a single front to the international community. Montenegro - both the part that wants union and the part which espouses independence ideas - could be satisfied. So would Serbia, because in any other form of union Serbia would be the designated "guilty party" for everything bad that happens in Montenegro due to the discrepancy in population size as well as in economic development.

This election result should please the international community (exemplified by the US, and especially the European Union). If the end result had been Montenegrin independence or the strengthening of the Montenegrin-Serbian federation, the problem of Kosovo would become practically insoluble. If Montenegro declared independence, Serbia would be forced to seek international acknowledgment, and this would open the way to Kosovar Albanians to move towards demanding their own independence in a province which is only theoretically currently a "Serbian" one. This would throw into question the status of the Albanian minority in Macedonia, not to speak of the continued existence of Bosnia. With the current state of affairs, the Kosovo problem can be at the very least deferred, thus keeping the surface "peace" for a short period, at least until the balance of forces becomes untenable or the amount of money available to pay for the fragile "peace" in the Balkans becomes sufficiently small not to be able to cover the contingencies.

Until now, Balkan solutions have largely been of this sort - ones where everyone won and everyone lost and all the participants walked away looking satisfied on the surface, but waiting only for someone to put out the lights in the room. When those lights come back on, it is usually to shed enough illumination to count the bodies. So far, the events in Montenegro resemble nothing so much as an operetta which has failed to gather much applause, with the audience still waiting for something substantial to happen on the stage.



Stevan Konstantinović has a master's degree in literature from the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where he is presently preparing his doctoral thesis. He has published a book of literary analysis, Kaldrma citanja i misljenja ("the pavement of reading and thinking"), and a collection of short stories. He has published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in four languages, and has been active in translating literature from Polish and Ukrainian to Serbocroat. He is a member of the Authors' Guild of Vojvodina and the editor of the literary cultural journal Sidina. Until recently a journalist and a teacher, he is currently employed as an advisor for culture, education and science in the provincial administration of Vojvodina.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stevan Konstantinovic 2001. All rights reserved. This article was translated from Serbocroat by Alma Hromic, the author of Letters from the Fire and a frequent contributor to Swans.

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Published May 14, 2001
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