BHHRG

About BHHRG

The British Helsinki Human Rights Group monitors human rights and democracy in the 57 OSCE member states from the United States to Central Asia.
* Monitoring the conduct of elections in OSCE member states.
* Examining issues relating to press freedom and freedom of speech
* Reporting on conditions in prisons and psychiatric institutions

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The Referendum Campaign in Montenegro
HITS: 3475 | 12-01-2007, 16:36 | Commentaire(s): (0) |
 (Votes #: 0)

BHHRG visited Montenegro in the pre-referendum period to observe the conduct of the campaign. Large billboards urging people to vote ‘Da’ (Yes) were plastered all over the scruffy capital, Podgorica. It took some time to find any ‘No’ posters although there were many more in coastal areas, for example, and the north of the country. The ‘Yes’ campaign concentrated on Montenegro’s historical past and harking back to the republic’s noble ancestry, the authorities have erected large statues of the country’s last monarch, King Nikola, astride his horse - one stands in Podgorica while another was delivered to the depressed industrial town of Nikšić shortly before the poll.
Apart from the daily Dan[1], all newspapers in Montenegro (e.g. Pobeda, Vijesti and Republika) were vocally pro-independence. Television coverage was even less diverse although the authorities claimed that independently owned Montana and Elbig TV were somehow immune from bias. The most egregious propaganda vehicle was Montenegrin state television, Television Crna Gora (TVCG). It took many forms, mostly directed to Montenegro’s brief period of independence: grainy black and white film of King Nikola, his courtiers and family was played and replayed; the new/old crimson Montengrin flag embossed with the Njegoš coat of arms fluttered above rallies of enthusiastic citizens and, members of the Academy of Sciences solemnly took possession of sets of leather bound tomes containing a recently completed history of Montenegro.
Television Crna Gora carried the ‘Yes’ message through into the period of election silence. On 19th May it broadcast a “new film” about Krsto Zrnov who opposed the unification of Serbia and Montenegro in 1918 which was repeated on the eve of the referendum. The newspapers, too, continued to the bitter end with the historical theme: under the headline “God bless the Montenegrins” Republika published yet another article about the history of King Nikola as well as “several reports” on “important events throughout Montenegrin history”. Pobeda told its readers that another monument was going up – this time to Montenegrin Prince Bishop St. Peter Cetinjski. On referendum day itself an elderly gentleman paraded himself in front of both the local and international media in Podgorica dressed up as King Nikola.
When not giving history lessons TVCG turned its attention to other examples of small countries which successfully managed the transition to independence (and, of course, dependence in the form of EU membership). On 3rd May, the station broadcast an hour long programme on Slovakia which scaled almost Stalinist heights of propaganda: happy Slovaks were shown on their mobile phones, gainfully employed and integrated with their large (c. 400,000) contented Roma majority. There was no mention of the c.18% unemployment rate, high costs of health care, falling school rolls as young people leave the country or the squalid conditions lived in by the country’s gypsies.
In fact, Slovakia played a leading role in the referendum campaign with two of its diplomats at the centre of the process. František Lipka, a former Slovak ambassador to Brussels, was appointed head of the Referendum Commission; for some reason, the referendum law stated that this post had to be filled by an EU official, which, presumably, implies that the Montenegrins didn’t trust themselves to oversee the poll. The same law even went as far as giving the commission head (a non-Montenegrin) a casting vote in the event of a tie.[2]
The other Slovak, Miroslav Lajčak, was appointed to be the EU’s envoy in Montenegro by the bloc’s foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana. In an interview with the Podgorica journal Monitor Lajčak made none too subtle comparisons between Montenegro and Slovakia.[3] Although no names were mentioned, he recalled the time when former prime minister, Vladimir Mečiar, was in power and Slovakia was regarded as a ‘black hole’ in Europe. As Lajčak put it, by voting out Mečiar, Slovaks were able to get on the fast track to EU membership - so, by analogy, if Montenegro voted to move away from Serbia it would also face a similarly bright future. The media presented Lajčak as an “experienced diplomat” and “arbiter” of the various disagreements that arose between the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps, but he was parti pris right from the start. When the pro-union bloc started to complain about the conduct of the referendum in the days following the poll his much-touted objectivity melted away and he chided them for being “un-European”.
Many people complained to BHHRG about the propaganda overload. The Ruritanian world of King Nikola can have little resonance today. Unemployment is high in his former ‘capital’, the mountain village of Cetinje, where many shops, cafes and businesses have closed since the Group’s last visit in 2001. None of the 4 DPS pro-independence workers interviewed in the town had work and they said that thousands of industrial jobs in the town had gone. The dissonance between Djukanovic’s regal aspirations and the real state of affairs in Montenegro was brought home by a group of poverty stricken workers from the Nikšić confectionary factory who were on strike outside the government building in Podgorica as the referendum unfolded.
Perhaps the Njegoš dynasty (if it can be called that) does not stand up to too much examination anyway. The court in Cetinje was tolerated by the Great Powers as an instrument in keeping the Turks at bay. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the need for minor potentates like Nikola faded and he was abandoned by the allies in Versailles at the end of the First World War. He also stood accused of duplicity siding with one side or another during the war when it suited him. One historian writes that “the British Foreign Office …regarded him as a treacherous ally”[4] Others were less discreet: “Troops could be promised to one power if there was a chance of screwing up another power for a bigger subsidy”. “His reign mounted to peak upon peak of treachery” he was “a conscious buffoon”[5] In fact, the allies felt such hostility to Nikola that they incorporated Montenegro into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia which was formed as part of the peace settlement.
Nikola went into exile and died in Antibes. So far, his descendants have shown little desire to move back to Cetinje although his grandson, an architect in Paris, occasionally returns to the country, appearing, so it was said, in time for the referendum. Perhaps the most striking similarity between the ‘reigns’ of Nikola and Djukanovic is their reliance on foreign funding to keep Montenegro afloat. Of Nikola, Rebecca West wrote “he lived and lived well, on subsidies from Turkey, Austria, Italy and Russia”[6] and, at the Peace Conference, Arthur Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, mordantly remarked “we pay for him”.[7]
Andrija Racković, editor-in-chief of the leading pro-government newspaper Pobeda was the only real enthusiast for Montenegro’s regal past encountered by BHHRG. However, he also said that he would like to return to the old Yugoslavia. In fact, there is much Yugo-nostalgia in Montenegro (as in other ex-Yugoslav republics). For him, Tito’s version of Communism is the next best thing to a monarchy without even passing through Social Democracy; the authorities appear content to let appreciation for the two apparently dissonant systems co-exist in people’s minds. What is taboo is any favourable reference to the Milosevic years. In fact, a historical void exists between 1990 and 1997 even though Mr. Djukanovic was prime minister during this period – or, perhaps because of it.
Ordinary people fear being associated in any way with the Milosevic era. Montenegrins had displayed the most enthusiasm for the former president and his policies when he came to power in the early 1990s in the midst of industrial unrest in the republic. They have seen all manner of people transferred to the Hague over the past ten years for alleged complicity in war crimes. This, perhaps, explains the apprehension that greets questions about life in the republic during the Milosevic years. However, even under sanctions and international isolation people were probably better off then than they are now, even though they are unlikely to admit it – particularly to a Westerner. The need to disassociate Montenegro from Serbia, a country suspected of harbouring indicted war criminals, like Ratko Mladic, was one of the independence campaign’s main themes. The fact that the Montenegrins were regularly accused of protecting the other major Hague indictee on the run, Radovan Karadzic, seems to have been forgotten - for now.
It was difficult to find enthusiasts for independence during several days of researching the Montenegrin vox pop. Resignation rather than optimism about the outcome of the poll seemed commonplace. People living on the coast were supposed to be in favour of independence whereas the diehard ‘unionists’ live in the north of the republic, on the Serbian border. But in reality it seemed that coastal dwellers are likely to be involved in the tourist trade (if they have jobs at all) and that 80% of all tourism comes from Serbia. The fear was that Serbs will no longer vacation on the Montenegrin coast if border controls (which already exist) are intensified - or other obstacles are put in their way. Although Djukanovic is accused of all sorts of dubious privatization deals with hotels and other leisure centres, in fact there has been little development along the Adriatic since Tito’s time. No doubt, the prime minister has always found more profitable ways of earning a living than tourism – an often overestimated money spinner.
There is every reason for locals to worry. Low grade tourists from Serbia are likely to be pushed out by Western property developers and estate agents – the British seem to be the most active with several UK agencies opening branches in Montenegro that offer properties for sale as ‘second homes’ on the coast , many still ‘off-line’ i.e. un–built: one journalist writes that “a vanguard of European bargain hunters led by the British and Irish have been buying up property in idyllic towns such as Kotor, Perast and Sveti Stefan causing seaside real estate prices to leap 50% in 12 months”.[8] The glut of empty property waiting for British buyers raises serious questions about the official figures for the population of the country and therefore the number of eligible voters on 21st May. If Montenegro’s population has (supposedly) grown recently, why is so much property available for sale to foreign buyers?
All manner of deals seem to have been entered into and there are even allegations that the navy has sold land to developers, presumably in anticipation of independence. It is all too possible that the relatively unspoilt Adriatic coast will be covered with villa complexes of the kind that have sprouted up in Bulgaria and neighbouring Croatia despite promises to respect the environment. As such developments are designed to be self-catering, so they are unlikely to employ many locals.
Pro-independentists also sought to sow alarm by claiming that the Russian mafia is “taking over” and that Montenegro is a money laundering centre - Tim Judah alludes to “large (but unknown) amounts of Russian money” in the country.[9] Although a Moscow chain, the Montenegro Stars Hotel Group, bought three coastal hotels there is little sign of serious Russian money around Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. As people pointed out, Russian oligarchs can now afford to live (and launder their money) in places like Antibes or London compared with which Budva and Kotor have little to offer. However, over the past ten years a middle class that can afford reasonably priced foreign holidays has started to grow in Russia and it is these people rather than Boris Berezovsky who are coming in significant numbers to holiday on the Adriatic coast.
In the early days of his presidency Djukanovic was a regular visitor to Moscow and Montenegro did give shelter to the notorious aluminium baron Anatoli Bykov in the late 1990s. But the prime minister’s contacts with Moscow seem to have cooled since Putin came to power. Nevertheless, some journalists claim that there is a continuing symbiosis between Russia and Montenegro which will increase further with the latter’s independence. The anti-Kremlin newspaper, Kommersant, reported that “ Moscow has been a strong proponent of Montenegro’s independence for the last two years, which contributed to the positive outcome of the referendum. Long before the vote, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, declared Russia’s willingness to recognize the independence of Montenegro if it is the people’s will. It is of note that Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic appointed Milan Rocen, former ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to Russia, head of the referendum campaign. Rocen, often viewed as the key pro-Russian lobbyist in the republic, is now rumoured to become the foreign minister of the independent Montenegro.”[10] Perhaps this is yet another attempt to discredit Djukanovic in the eyes of his Western allies and further encourage them to seek a replacement to his regime.
Apart from people’s fears over losing their income from Serb tourism there were other nagging worries that locals say were never addressed by the independence lobby. While the TV regurgitated more old film of King Nikola and his ‘court’ Montenegrins wondered whether their children would still be able to study cheaply at universities in Serbia – there are 20,000 students there at the moment, including medical students for whom there are no comparable facilities in Montenegro. Will people still have access to the superior Serbian medical system. Will there be borders and passports?[11] The Montenegrins have already placed border and customs’ posts between themselves and Serbia. Although the government in Podgorica (as well as politicians in Belgrade) seeks to reassure people that little will change, what if the Serbian Radical Party comes to power? Might not the international community want to see a tight border with Montenegro to ‘stop the virus’ spreading. And, if Montenegro develops closer ties with the EU, might not Serbs use it as a launching pad to enter the union precipitating tighter border controls to staunch immigration.[12]


[1] Dan claims to have the highest circulation of any newspaper in Montenegro. It also publishes a weekly edition.
[2] For the Law on the Referendum, see:
http://www.infoizbor.org/index.php?base=data/english&sm5=on
[3] “Monténégro: impossible accord sure le référendum?” an interview with Miroslav Lajčak, Monitor 20th January, 2006, http://balkans.courriers.info/article6448.html
[4] See Margaret Macmillan “Peacemakers”, John Murray, London, 2001, p.129
[5] Rebecca West, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon” Macmillan, 1940, p.1052
[6] Ibid, p.1052
[7] See, “Peacemakers”, ibid, p.127
[8] Eric Jansson “Dividing loyalties” FT Magazine, 20/21st May, 2006. Numerous UK estate agents with property interests in Montenegro can be found on the web: e.g.
http://www.plutodevelopments.com/?gclid=COjAnrW4ooUCFSSHMAod11qvtA http://www.monteprop.com/index.html, http://www.montenegrorealestate.org/index.php
[9] See, Judah “Depressing independence for Montenegro”, ibid
[10] “Russia Recognizes Independent Montenegro”
http://www.kommersant.com/page.asp?idr=500&id=677255
[11] Nela Lazerevic “Public Trust in Focus” Transitions Online, 26th April, 2006
[12] Prospective EU member Romania, for instance, has granted citizenship rights and therefore visa-free travel to the EU to hundreds of thousands of economic migrants from neighbouring Moldova. Wouldn’t some of the 600,000 plus Montengrins resident in Serbia be tempted to “recover” their ancient identity if the EU offered Montenegro an association agreement, let alone membership?

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