- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Republic of Montenegro, a mountain bastion in the Balkans, is breaking out of the “world’s most beautiful prison” in a bold search for a future without Serbia.

A night of festivities, fireworks and joyful gunshots after last Sunday’s referendum could hardly hide the dichotomy of that nation of 650,000 people — independence was approved by 55.4 percent of its voters, barely above the 55 percent required by the European Union, which Montenegro hopes to join.

“We want to be in charge of our future,” said Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic as he appealed for the dissolution of Montenegro’s union with neighboring Serbia. Despite official optimism, the path is likely to be difficult and the separation from the much larger “sister state” of Serbia will be painful to many, although their union had been moribund for the past three years.

The two countries have different currencies, different laws and their joint parliament met rarely. Their main links were ethnic origin, the Serbo-Croatian language and Orthodox Christian faith. They shared control of the army and diplomatic service, but disputes over appointments were frequent.

A large proportion of Montenegrins consider themselves Serbs, have close families across the border, and resent becoming the last nail in the coffin of post-Tito Yugoslavia, where Serbia was the dominant power. There is considerable trepidation over the likely damage to economic, family and political ties with Serbia, despite their unequal partnership.

Serbia, with a population of close to 8 million, often tried to dominate Montenegro in its secluded, colorful setting along the Adriatic. The name Montenegro means black mountain.

The federation born after World War I as “The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” was later renamed Yugoslavia. After World War II, it was a mosaic of six republics and two autonomous regions, with its own brand of communism created by Josip Broz Tito.

“Titoism without Tito” survived barely 10 years after the marshal’s death in 1980 as national passions trampled over “brotherhood and unity.” The disintegration included 10 years of bloodshed as the republics in search of independence one by one rejected Serbia’s domination. Only Macedonia avoided conflict, and Montenegro opted for a union with Serbia, which was rejected May 21.

Montenegro’s decision to go it alone has caused considerable bitterness in Serbia. To Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radikals Party, it was “a dangerous and painful blow, the tragedy I warned about.” Other officials and politicians in Serbia felt that Montenegro’s secession had been inevitable sooner or later. Some felt Mr. Djukanovic dominated the press during his campaign for independence, and swung the vote with the arrival of some 16,000 members of the Montenegrin diaspora.

Economically, Serbia loses little by Montenegro’s defection. Perhaps its biggest loss is access to the Adriatic coast where many Serbs have relatives and property.

Montenegro stayed with Serbia largely because of ethnic ties, and suffered the consequences during the United Nations embargo to curb Belgrade’s military quest for a “greater Serbia.” Alongside Serbia, Montenegro became an international outcast.

It was at the height of the crisis, in 1994, that then-President Momir Bulatovic pleaded with visiting Western journalists: “Please help us to get out of the world’s most beautiful prison.” He made that statement at Cetinje, once the royal capital of Montenegro and still to many a symbol of its past and of Ruritania-like charm.

Cetinje perches amid craggy peaks where the air is clear and cool. Eagles circle over its red-roofed houses and wild goats dart in the surrounding thickets. Far below to the west, beyond the coastline dotted with ancient forts, the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea dazzle.

The republic’s capital, called Podgorica today (Titograd before Tito’s death), is southeast of Cetinje, reachable by a winding road with hairpin bends.

Before 1918, Montenegro’s only king, Nikola I , ruled for 56 years from a two-story terra cotta palace now turned into a museum. He liked to review his colorfully uniformed troops riding on a donkey around a parade ground surrounded by a fence of 2,000 captured Turkish rifles.

Ambassadors from 12 European countries attended the parades in full regalia. The king was well known at European courts, and four of his six beautiful daughters married royalty. Their portraits adorn the walls of the royal museum.

Contemporary Montenegro has other aspirations. It hopes to become a modern and independent country, part of the European community, and an attractive investment opportunity for foreigners.

“We need to show people there is a positive future ahead,” said Zoran Vukvevic, director of the Office for Development of Small and Medium Enterprises. “Come to Montenegro, invest and enjoy.”

The most immediate project is to sever the “Serbian umbilical cord,” which involves renegotiating a host of agreements with Serbia as well as applying for membership in the United Nations, the European Union and other international groups.

The government has yet to convince all those who opposed independence that Montenegro, once a stepchild of Tito’s Yugoslav federation, will go further economically without the burden of association with Serbia.

When Tito was alive, the distribution of federal subsidies, contributed mainly by Croatia and Slovenia, depended on the size and economic development of recipients. Montenegro, among the poorest recipients, was entitled to 13 percent of the fund, trailing the republic of Macedonia and the autonomous region of Kosovo.

Outlining prospects for the future in documents submitted to potential foreign investors, the Djukanovic government claims that at the time of the federation’s disintegration, “the greatest achievement of Montenegro was that it preserved peace.”

Foremost among the government’s projects is EU membership. Montenegro has already adopted the euro as its currency, and during the past year it revised 120 laws and regulations according to EU requirements.

Said Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Gvozdenovic: “We have established a Ministry of European Integration, and first on the agenda of government meetings is European integration and its implications. It is a sign of our determination.”

As usual, the European Union was careful in its initial assessment of Montenegro’s referendum. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, merely said the organization would accept the outcome. “It seems that the process was orderly and we have to congratulate everybody for that,” Mr. Solana said.

Much of Montenegro’s appeal for Europe is its breathtaking scenery and shores similar to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.

Tourist brochures vaunt Montenegro as “Europe’s undiscovered holiday destination,” and promise “skiing and pristine beaches the same day” in the “secret holiday jewel far removed from the usual mass tourism.”

Recovering quickly from the international ostracism for its involvement with Serbia in the 1990s, Montenegro has improved facilities at Podgorica and Tivat airports and invited European airlines to use them.

“Major Western European capitals are only a one- or two-hour flights away,” said Tourism Minister Predrag Nenezic. “We have created an aerial bridge between Montenegro and Europe and forged a connection between the two.”

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