Au revoir, Montenegro?

Vesna Goldsworthy
22 May 2006

I was not one of those 484,718 people who voted for or against Montenegrin independence in the referendum on 21 May 2006. In Montenegro itself, many families were themselves divided. On Sunday morning, I rang a friend from the provincial Montenegrin town of Danilovgrad to discover that her voting intentions were different from her brother's. Neither was a rabid, Ruritanian-flag waving, nationalist figure of the kind much beloved of western TV crews, and both had sound arguments in support of their chosen option. Montenegro has a proud history of independent statehood which is longer – or less interrupted – than that of the other new states in the Balkan region, but also genuine and close historic links with Serbia which made the union a compelling option in the first place.

I have harboured mixed feelings about the outcome of the vote. I was born and bred in Belgrade, as was my father, but – like so many in the Serbian capital – he has strong ancestral links with Montenegro. While my mother comes from one of those picturesque villages in the lush valley of the Morava river which are the closest Serbia has to the heartland region of southern England known as the "home counties", my father is half-Montenegrin, half-Herzegovinian. The meaning of such distinctions has been recast again and again by the flow of Balkan history, but both my paternal grandparents would have been as surprised to be told that they are not Serbian as a Yorkshireman or a Devonian woman would be at hearing that they might not be English.

My grandmother, who lived with us throughout my youth, was fiercely proud of her Montenegrin identity. She was named after Zorka, the eldest daughter of the first and the last king of Montenegro, Nicholas Petrovich, during whose reign she was born in a village on the slopes of the kingdom's Durmitor mountain in 1908. She used to kiss King Nicholas's picture if she happened to come across it in the newspapers or on the pages of the history books in our library.

Zorka's speech was peppered with phrases from the Montenegrin epic poem, Gorski Vijenac (The Mountain Wreath), the work of its great Prince-Bishop Njegos ("Oh my dark day, o my black destiny! O my wretched Serbian nation snuffed out!"). Even her prayers were Montenegrin. Whereas my maternal grandmother used to keep a small icon of the Virgin by her bedside, Zorka treasured an image of St Vasiliy, the most famous Montenegrin saint, standing proudly in front of the monastery at Ostrog, the Montenegrin holy of holies, which is carved into a steep rockside near her place of birth.

On one of my visits to Belgrade from London, I produced – just for her – a translation of Alfred Tennyson's 1877 sonnet Montenegro, written by the country's then poet laureate at the request of his friend, Liberal politician William Gladstone. Montenegro was, wrote Gladstone, a name "perhaps less familiar to the European public than that of Monaco, and little more than that of San Marino" – and yet it would have gained immortal fame had there been "a Byron to spend and be spent on its behalf". Taking on the mantle of a Montenegrin Byron, Tennyson produced verse which pleased my grandmother enormously.

"They rose to where their sovereign eagle sails,/ They kept their faith, their freedom, on the height,/ Chaste, frugal, savage, arm'd by day and night/Against the Turk" the sonnet began, to culminate in the invocation of "Great Tsernogora" with its invincible race of mountaineers mightier than any other highlander clan. No wonder granny concluded that Tennyson was a genius. She was in no doubt that Montenegrins were a superior sort of Serbs, probably descended from those remnants of the Serbian feudal nobility that survived the battle of Kosovo in 1389. To question her Serbianness would have been more than my life's worth. I grew up proud of my own Montenegrin blood and the sorts of highland legends that would put Rob Roy or Braveheart to shame.

Vesna Goldsworthy is senior lecturer in English literature and creative writing at Kingston University, London. Among her books are Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination (Yale University Press, 1998) and the memoir Chernobyl Strawberries (Atlantic Books, 2005; new edition, 2006). Her website is here.

Also in openDemocracy, personal perspectives on the Serbian complex and the dissolution of Yugoslavia:

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory"
(21 August 2002)

Dejan Djokic, "A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

Alexandra Kovac, "Inat" (18 November 2004)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life"
(28 June 2005)

Slavenka Drakulic, "Sudden death and the afterlife of truth"
(16 March 2006)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

Between myth and history

The fact that my ancestral lands will again belong to three different countries, as was the case when my grandparents were born, fills me with a degree of melancholy, but I understand the reasons for these separations. My Serbian compatriots have proved equally ineffectual in the arts of war and public relations. The image of Serbia in the outside world is now such that, on the day of the referendum, a restaurant critic in the Sunday Times – hardly an authority on Balkan politics – found it amusing to observe, in a review of a Sichuan restaurant in Soho, that "the people who are most addicted to chillies are not Mexicans, Sri Lankans or Hungarians, but Serbs".

"Their consumption of insanely psycho pickled chilli", the author continued, "has nothing to do with food, it's simply part of their rudimentary, sadomasochistic bonding that involves drink, stomach ulcers and recreational pogroms". The Serbs are now collectively seen as the sort of people with whom no one would want to share a restaurant table, let alone a state.

My best hope is that, with Montenegro's departure, Serbia finds its own independence too, and turns a corner of some kind. With the right sort of action, it doesn't necessarily take long to change external perceptions. The brutal regicide in Belgrade of 1903, after which the Serbs were commonly described in the British press as the most savage people in Europe, and the British call to arms in aid of "plucky little Serbia" in 1914, were, after all, divided by little more than a decade.

Interestingly, as in every move for secession from what once constituted Yugoslavia, the Montenegrin vote was presented as a Manichean choice between Europe of light, peace and plenty and Balkan darkness. In the limbless torso of the old Yugoslav federation, Serbia and Montenegro were already asunder in all but name. With different currencies and different fiscal and economic regimes, the army and the air-control system have represented the last functioning federal organisations for many years now.

Paradoxically, what Serbia and Montenegro share is a desire to join the European Union. Indeed, Europe featured prominently on both sides in the Montenegrin referendum campaign. In striking for independence from Serbia, Montenegro is likely to find in Europe a small store of good will, and my hope is that it will use it wisely in order to join the EU as soon as it can. With a population of 680,000 smaller than that of an average English county, it can be absorbed into the EU much more easily than Serbia, which is more than ten times larger.

I can't help feeling that, as in much of east-central Europe, the European Union tends to be seen as an updated version of an earlier communist utopia ("From each according to their ability, to each according to their need"), but – for better or worse – the carrot of European integration is the best hope anyone has for long-term stability in Europe's troubled deep south.

I vaguely remember an old anecdote about an Ottoman official talking to an English diplomat after a costly British military intervention in one of the 19th-century crises du jour. "Why didn't you just bribe them all?", asked the pragmatic Ottoman, "it would have been much easier and cheaper in the long run". There's nothing wrong with a bit of European bribery.

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