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An Independent Montenegro?

May 11, 2006

By David Binder

The United Nations has 191 members. Four of those which have joined since 1991 were constituent republics of the former Yugoslav Federation. So who could be surprised if the world body grows to 200 in the next few years, with some of the newest additions again emerging from the mess that was made of Yugoslavia?

Montenegro, anyone? To be followed by Kosovo? Sandzak? Vojvodina? Bay of Kotor? Tuzi?

You smile. Yet we have entered a new age of atomization, with the UN leading the race as a growth industry, trailed a bit lamely by the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. All three groupings are in the business of legitimizing the splitting off of chunks of older, larger state entities.Montenegro, population 690,000 – a new mini-state? At least it could boast three times more population than Vanuatu, which joined the UN in 1981, and ten times more than Andorra, which joined in 1993.

Weighed on the scales of world events, the May 21 referendum on independence of Montenegro may amount to something between a sigh and a hiccup. But for those who know a little and care more about the Balkans it is something of greater gravity.

This is so because Montenegro represents an essential part of the Serbian cultural space. Montenegro’s princes of the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty made their link to Serbia abundantly clear from 1697 onward. Two of the most accomplished contemporary writers have underscored this attachment. Milovan Djilas said in 1993 (to me as I am sure he said to others): “Montenegrins are basically Serbs.” And just last month Matija Beckovic, a friend of Djilas, branded the referendum “the greatest insult to the national consciousness of Montenegro.”

For the last 15 years, Montenegro has been ruled by what earlier was called a petty despot (the usage is considered old-fashioned). Now we call such a person a crook. That characterization emerges from indictments involving international tobacco trafficking in the law courts of three countries, in which Milo Djukanovic is named as a conspirator.

But tobacco smuggling is only part of Montenegro’s dark side under Djukanovic. Exposes of sex trafficking have revealed the involvement of officials of his government. His territory is also crossed by transit routes for drugs and weapons. Just two years ago, an opposition journalist, Dusko Jovanovic, was killed by a gunman who remains free today.

Concerned by the high bar set by the European Union for winning the referendum – 55 percent of the vote – the Djukanovic forces were found trying to buy votes in March.

To a degree in the 1990s the Clinton Administration helped to advance the career of Djukanovic. It overlooked his origins as the proteges of Slobodan Milosevic, while backing his separatist ambitions at critical junctures during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Djukanovic still has opportunistic advocates here in the persons of Mitch McConnell, the Republican from the tobacco state of Kentucky and one of the most powerful men in the Senate; Morton Abramowitz of the Century Foundation and Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, now director of the board of a lobby group set up to push the Kosovo Albanian independence project in Washington. The other two are also vocal supporters of Albanian causes.

The Bush Administration has been cooler than its predecessor toward Djukanovic. This was demonstrated when four members of the Montenegrin opposition were cordially received at the National Security Council and the State Department in April despite last minute bungling of their preparations.

There are bizarre polarities in this existential moment of the onetime mountain kingdom – ranging from the sublime to the criminally suspect. This was prefigured perhaps in the contrasting subjects of the two main literary works of the Prince-Bishop Petar Njegos – The Mountain Wreath and The False Tsar Scepan The Small.

For instance, some polls show the voters of Montenegro are divided on the independence issue. Yet the 300,000 Montenegrins who reside in Serbia, are not permitted to vote in the referendum. This means that the small minorities of ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims could swing the outcome in favor of independence.

A mid-April poll conducted for the Podgorica government indicated that 55.9 percent of surveyed citizens of Montenegro will support independence in the referendum. This reminds one of a Belgrade joke on the subject:

In a tavern a Serb is asked whether he would prefer an independent Montenegro or a unified state comprising Serbia and Montenegro. He replies: “I would prefer another beer.”

These two polls might make a metaphor for the referendum: the public opinion testing, ritually practiced almost daily in self-styled democracies almost as a substitute for actual elections, versus the joke about the poll.

On that note, let us consider how Milo Djukanovic might deal with Montenegro’s residues of Serbian culture in case he wins the referendum. He could rename the country Djukanistan.

*David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on May 11, 2006.

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