#42: Montenegro: Beach Bums, Mountain People And Dreams of Independence
13 July 2002
I arrived in Bar, Montenegro, now Yugoslavia’s only port, and perhaps not for much longer. From there I hopped onto a Combi, or mini-van, to Budva, Montenegro’s most fashionable resort city. Upon arrival, I was mobbed by people offering holiday accommodation. Most of them ignored me when they learned that I was staying for only 1 or 2 nights. There are ample customers staying for one or two weeks, even more, and who cares about a budget-tight backpacker in Budva?
I walked along the waterfront as soon as I have found my lodging (after some great difficulty). The place was full of tourists – and mostly from Serbia. Young Belgraders come here during summer school vacations – the fit, healthy and beautiful – gorgeous golden-haired Serbian girls, and muscular lads with 6-packs – this is the Serbian version of Miami Beach and California. Many come here for one to three months, working in bars and restaurants while having a good time. This is a family place too, with entire families escaping the oppressive heat trapped in the Danubian valleys inland. It seems that all Serbia has decamped and moved to the Montenegrin coast. Prices are extraordinarily high by Belgrade standards. In fact, a meal can easily cost as high as in Greece or Croatia, if not higher. Is this really Yugoslavia, the country that has just emerged after a wasted decade of war and stagnation?
Bored, no matter how nice it was looking at bright young things, I got onto a bus to Cetinje, Montenegro’s old royal capitol in the mountains. OK, who are the Montenegrins? Let me be careful in telling the story, for once again, I am stepping on to a political minefield.
Montenegro is located on the southwestern coast of Yugoslavia. This is a wild mountainous land between Bosnia and Croatia on the northern side, and Serbia, Kosovo and Albania on the other. Scarcely populated (500,000 people), it is home to one of the most hardy peoples in Europe. Once led by their prince-bishops, the Montenegrins are a Serbian speaking people, and the only Balkan nation never to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who launched numerous raids against them but failed to defeat them. The symbol of this people is the mountaintop mausoleum of their greatest epic poet and ruler, Prince Petar II Petrovic Njegos, on shady Mt Lovcen, thus this land is known as Montenegro, or “Black Mountain”.
Amongst themselves, they were practitioners of ancient codes of honour, which more often than not, demand the satisfaction of deeds on a tooth-for-a-tooth basis, leading to generations of disastrous blood feuds among clans and tribes. During WWI, Montenegro joined Serbia in her fight against Austria-Hungary, but was annexed into Yugoslavia after the war. During WWII, Montenegrins were formidable fighters in Tito’s partisan army, tying divisions of Hitler’s army in this harsh land. During the wars in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Montenegrins were known as great fighters and enthusiasts in maintaining the unity of old Yugoslavia. Not only were Montenegrin regiments – formal or irregular ones – among the most ferocious fighters in the sieges around Dubrovnik and Vukovar, but major Serbian leaders like Milosevic and Karadzic (presidents of Serbia and Republika Srpska respectively) are of Montenegrin descent.
The collapse of the Federation after all these wars, particularly after the loss of Kosovo in 1999, have brought a new political thought to the forefront – that of an independent Montenegro.
The President of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, is a proponent of independence and so are about 40% of the population. However, another 40% of the population fiercely oppose independence. Montenegrins are Serbians too, they argue, and the country is too small to be separate from Serbia anyway. The issue threatens to lead to another civil war. After repeated mediation by the European Union, a temporary measure was decided upon – both Serbia and Montenegro to remain in a loose union for three years, in a new country named Serbia and Montenegro, pending a final solution. Nobody knows what this would lead to; the nationalists see this as an interim measure towards final independence, while latest reports said that EU had indicated that they would not support an independent Montenegro joining the EU.
In reality, Montenegro already has de facto independence of sorts. They have denounced the Yugoslav Denars in favour of the Euros, and have their own border and passport controls, which in contravention to federal and international regulations, refused to allow me to enter though federal rules would approve it. They have their own telecom systems and postal network (although still using unpriced Yugoslav stamps).
As the old royal capital of the Montenegrin kings, Cetinje is the hotbed of Montenegrin nationalism. Pro-independent posters proclaim support for the cause, something that one hardly sees on prosperous coastal cities like Bar and Budva, which depend a lot on tourism and trade with Serbia. Located in the spectacular highlands high above the sunny coastal plains, Cetinje was once the unconquerable fortress of this mountain people. Today, the capital is in the more comfortable lower-land city of Pogodrica (known as Titograd in Tito’s days), and Cetinje is but a sleepy (read “boring”) provincial town. I visited the sloppy National Museum and walked around looking at turn of the (19/20th) century old diplomatic missions of European powers and decaying facades of royal palaces and government buildings. Will this be an independent state again? Will it work economically? Will all the people support it? Is independence worth fighting for, especially when half the population does not support the idea?
I dropped by the old city of Kotor, a beautiful walled city once controlled by the Venetians. Located at the far end of the deep water Kotor Bay, Kotor is spectacularly stunning with the high cliffs above it and surrounding the winding fjord of Kotor Bay. No wonder this is an UNESCO World Heritage site. But will this be the next World Heritage site to suffer the ravages of war?
As I watched young Belgraders party day and night on the same beaches where half the population may vote for independence, I wonder if all these are for real. Why can’t they all live together in peace and harmony?
I got onto a bus to Uclinj, the southernmost city of Montenegro, also an old Turkish city and slave trading port. 90% of the population here is ethnic Albanian. Whereas all of Serbia appears to be on the beaches of Budva and resorts further north, Uclinj is the holiday resort for the similarly inland Kosovar Albanians. Tourism in the Balkans is ethnically based. You go to where your own race goes for vacations. Here connections are excellent if you are going to Albania, Kosovo and the Albanian inhabited part of Macedonia.
Here, I got onto another overnight bus, this time Kosovo-bound. That is yet another adventure.