Photo taken in Budva, Montenegro
Artillery Row

Can Montenegro recover from half a millennia of hurt, pride, rage, and war?

We have to be wise to what else is simmering beneath beaches and staggeringly beautiful mountain ranges of this little paradise

Ever tried a three-point turn in an unfamiliar hire car, half-way up a cliff-face, in the middle of the night, 20 miles along a road as bent and twisted as the regime of 30-year Montenegrin political supremo, Milo Dukanovic? No? Then I suggest you give that pleasure a miss.

Of all the nationalism in Europe, Serbia’s is the one whose hands are still moist with the blood of thousands

I’d found myself in this predicament, as I had been to the postage-stamp of an Adriatic country, to cover the August elections. A London based Montenegrin friend, knowing I was going, told me, “You must go to Pljevlja, it has the oddest of histories”, tossing a book at me. It was “The Dawning”, a family saga by Mika Bajic-Poderegin, written over the course of 30 years and published in 1978. It documents the end of a tribal honour-based society and its slow transition towards a modern European nation. The action takes place in the town, then part of Ottoman Turkey. Well, sort of Ottoman, since after an odd curlicue created by 1878’s Congress of Berlin, in that they provided the civil governance, and the Hapsburg Austrians here called Swabians, provided military governance. The locals, ethnic Serbs, had nothing but their church for 500 years. The novel is based in the town but dealing with the nationalism and loyalties of local families, Serbian, Austrian, Turkish. More recent history had put the town as the most Balkan of Balkan towns, with deep-set ethnic problems highlighted in the novel and the murder of six local Muslims in the 1990s during the ethnic conflict that blighted the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It was after 10 o’clock at night, the sky as dark as vulcanised rubber, and I’m perched on a limestone bulwark, at the side of the road attempting to file edited copy to The Spectator. Actually it wasn’t quite pitch black, there is a great disk of a full moon, which created a silverpoint etching of the Durmitor range’s karst peaks to the north and west. On the road itself though, and my little Mesozoic eyrie, the darkness of the surrounds sucks out the ambient light. I’m 20 miles along the Tara canyon road, having missed a turning and spent the past half an hour gingerly pootling along, trying not to think that to my right was a sheer cliff-face, stretching about 500 yards above, and to my left, was a similar drop into Stygian nothing. Funnily enough, meeting slightly beaten up tracks laden with logs chuntering coming in the middle of the road weaving the other way keeps you nimble.

I could hear the Tara river cataracts deep beneath me, a distant roar, and after struggling with my phone light and the yellowish smudge from the open car door the copy was in. But I was still pointed in the wrong direction. Thus, the three-point turn.

A couple of days earlier, I’d landed on the single-track airstrip that is the international airport and made my way to the centre of Podgorica, the capital. Though the streets were near-deserted with Corona fears in the blistering heat, the turnout in that day’s election was record-breaking.

Podgorica, for a while Titograd, is frankly not somewhere anybody would want to stay for long. Flattened by US and RAF bombing in the war, it then had the pleasure of communist planning under Tito. It is the sort of town that even its Covid-masked wearing inhabitants find it hard to love, but like parents of an ugly child, they do.

I was supposed to meet a local press photographer, but he was busy doing what snappers do on election days, waiting in empty rooms for sleek press spokesmen to say things of utter unimportance. So I made my way to the Albanian border to check on a rumour.

Most Serbs see themselves as the chosen people

The rumour was that the government had been encouraging ethnic Albanians to come over and vote. Though the government of Dukanovic has been accused of corruption, mafia links, nepotism, and the rest, the minority communities of Bosniaks, Croats, Albanians which make up 30 per cent of the country prefer the devil they know. The Devil they also know, the opposition parties backed by an aggressive and triumphant Serbian Orthodox Church is a hotbed of pan-Serbian nationalism. Something that local minorities have had good reason to fear. Of all the nationalism in Europe, after the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia in the 1990s, it is the one whose hands are still moist with the blood of thousands. I was told later that most of the movement had taken place in the days leading up to the election, and I did meet a couple of US-based emigres who had flown in but nothing like the numbers those in the opposition were claiming.

For the government, therefore, the more minorities that can be encouraged to arrive and vote (it is compulsory to vote in the country, there are no overseas voters) the better. Of course, the reason why there are so many exiles is the fear of Serbian nationalism, and so the dance continues. This influx was only vaguely visible on election day.

Instead, I was greeted by the lonely sound of a single bell, and the plump flanks of a small herd of goats at the Boshaj border crossing. They were crossing the border entirely untroubled by bureaucracy, and entirely unaccompanied. The crossing itself comprises of a tube of concrete communist modernism overlooking the stunning Skadar lake, and they ambled through its shaded ribs. I waited in the shade of an empty modern building, funded by the EU that served no visible purpose for the promised traffic. It did not come, so I kicked some fruit towards the goats and left to try and find my contact.

Finally, he picked up, he was uploading a press conference video to the Anadolu agency and would call back.

I was fine, had found a place to sit and write, the Boscovich Hotel, and sipped on thick Turkish coffee. I was down to my last cigarette and asked the young waiter for directions to a local tobacconist.

“It’s Sunday”, he said, “the kiosks are closed” (Montenegro has hundreds of street kiosks, selling fags, plastic toys, soft drinks, and papers).

“Can you ride a scooter?” (No)

“Yes of course”.

He gave me a couple of cigs from his own packet on a silver platter, and when I’d finished the coffee, offered me his pride and joy, a brand-new electric scooter. Gave me directions by the universal language of semaphore and fired me across town towards an open garage. Never tell me that there is no service culture in the Balkans.

Finally, Milo called back, an hour or so later, “I’m so, so sorry”. The election had got to him and he was clearly utterly hammered. “I’m your host and I’m so sorry”.

My friendly waiter intervened as Milo’s English had been kyboshed by Niksic beer and rakia, so after this rough translation and a dirty cheap taxi ride I arrived at the Appolon Caffe in a city block, Block 5.

It’s hard to put into words quite how ugly Block 5 actually is. Built in 1975 by Mileta Bojović (who should be arraigned at the Court of International Aesthetics) it is the epitome of socialist brutalism. Spattered with rust and ill-fitting windows, up its multiple 16 story block towers and festooned by graffiti at ground level.

The bar itself was loud and welcoming. Preliminary results had been coming in, and at this point in the day it looked like a big win for the pro-Serbian, pro-Russian opposition, something that at this bar was obviously very welcome.

As was I, with beer trust in my hand, and a great pile of cufte meatballs and pita to share in the centre of the table. The crowd was hitting the, “I love you, I hate you”, level of emotional lachrymosity. And I was a representative of the UK, NATO (who had bombed the city in 1999) and the West.

It was clear that I hated them. I didn’t of course, but the Serbian soul, awakened by an ongoing row between the Dukanovic government and the Serbian Orthodox church and now being reanimated in polling stations across the country was on view. Most Serbs see themselves as the chosen people, and Montenegrin ones see themselves as the chosen of the chosen. Spartans as I was told.

The drinking continued, as did the victorious self-pity

This is all down to the fact that over the period of Ottoman control of the Balkans, a few valleys of this prickly mountain Prince-Bishopric maintained ferocious independence, regularly handing the Ottoman forces bloody noses as their handfuls of tribal Christian fighters fought off incursions from Turkish armies, often outnumbered by a factor of ten. They are the swords of St Basil (the key local saint, whose shrine at Ostrog, a 16th-century monastery a few miles away, is carved into the side of a cliff), and pride pours down their faces in rivers at moments like this. Or maybe it was the regular nasal loo visits, but the bottom line is that, in an echo of Millwall, the attitude is very much, “nobody likes us. We don’t care.”

The streets were darkening and filling-up with cars, careering around, flying Serbian flags, and banners proclaiming loyalty to the church, whose leading figures had threatened ex-communication and the eternal damnation of St Basil for those still supporting the pro-Western, and pro-NATO Dukanovic.

Montenrgrin opposition supporters waving Serbian flags outside the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Podgorica (photo credit: Gawain Towler)

They gathered in force outside just a few hundred yards away in the gravel carpark of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. A modern but timeless effigy, only consecrated in 2013 designed on a Byzantine model and a powerful statement from the Serbian church that they are having no truck with modernity in any way, to be fair in my eyes it is a bit of a marvel, the best modern cathedral I have seen. On the other side of town is a brutalist monstrosity that the local catholic church has erected, the sort of building that should have “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” carved into its overbearing concrete lintel.

They were chanting soldier songs about Kosovo, about greater Serbia, and the mood though joyous, was threatening. The drinking continued, as did the victorious self-pity. I’m not at all sure how I made it home, but I did, in order to surface bright and early to complete an hour’s exercise routine from the floor of a Hilton hotel room. This was via the wonders of the internet with a couple of primary school children on the other side of the world, oh how they laughed at my fat and sweaty proto corpse flipping ungainfuly, like a manatee on a prayer-mat.

This was the point I set off for Pljevjla, and my encounter with a canyon in the dark.

Half a millennia of hurt, pride, rage, and war are a paper-cut from being exposed again

Pljevlja itself still has some of the remnants of its Ottoman past, most notably the Husein Pasha Mosque, built in 1594, a stunning piece of pure Turkish Islamic art, with the tallest minaret in the Balkans. Sadly, when I went to look in the morning it was locked, though its graveyard is full of turbanned grave pillars at crazy angles. Worse was the state of the Islamic centre next door. The doors had been smashed-up and glass was everywhere. It was still early and I looked through the newly smashed windows and saw that amongst the stones and shards on the floor was a crumpled note.

Broken door as the Pljevlja Islam centre next to the Hussein Pasha Mosque (photo credit: Gawain Towler)

Later when others arrived, shocked, fearful, and angry, I discovered that the scrawled words were a call for this town to become a new Srebrenica, the town where 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were massacred by Serbian nationalists.

Small groups of men and women gathered in the square, silence reigned.

Though most applaud the defeat in the elections for Dukaniovic, and hope for an end to his kleptocratic regime, we have to be wise to what else is simmering beneath beaches and staggeringly beautiful mountain ranges of this little paradise. For visitors, it is a constant unfolding wonder. However, half a millennia of hurt, pride, rage, and war are a paper-cut from being exposed again. Comfortable commentators, in their comfortable homes, can pontificate about cleanliness in politics, yes of course. But cleanliness can also beget fanaticism.

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