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Sun 28 May 2006
European wrong is put right at last
MONTENEGRO rejoins the community of nations: a great injustice has been righted after 88 years. Last Sunday's referendum on independence for the small Balkan state, resulting in a robust endorsement of sovereignty, had a significance disproportionate to the number of people involved.
At the Versailles peace conference after the First World War, the great powers acquiesced in the forcible incorporation of Montenegro into the new Serbian-dominated kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which later became Yugoslavia. So Montenegro was the only country on the Allied side to be annexed by another state - truly a Pyrrhic victory.
Montenegro had lost a higher proportion of its population fighting for the Allied cause than any other of the component states of Yugoslavia, but this was its reward. Absorption by the Serbs was fiercely resisted. The 'Christmas Uprising', after the union had been proclaimed on November 13, 1918, began an unsuccessful war of independence which was also a civil war between the Greens (the patriots) and the Whites (supporters of Serbia), in which the nationalists incurred around 3,000 dead and a further 3,000 wounded - heavy casualties for such a small country. Resistance was not fully suppressed until 1926.
The world ignored this conflict. It was a long time since Tennyson had penned his laudatory sonnet on the theme of Montenegro: "They rose to where their sovran eagle sails,/They kept their faith..." For the history of this small Adriatic country of mountains and fierce hill clans (giving it an affinity with Scotland) was one endless struggle against the Ottoman Turks.
Its rulers were Orthodox prince-bishops with the title of Vladika. From 1711 the office was hereditary in the ruling dynasty of Petrovic-Njegosh. When de facto independence was secured in 1852, Danilo I became the sovereign prince.
In 1910 his nephew and successor since 1860 was proclaimed King Nicholas I. The king contrived to give his country an international profile above its size, by negotiating dynastic marriages, in the style of Queen Victoria. Two of his daughters married Russian grand dukes; one became Queen of Italy; another came into the orbit of British royalty by marrying a Battenberg prince.
Montenegro fought fiercely in the Allied cause from 1914, but King Nicholas made the fatal mistake of placing his army under Serbian command. He was tricked by those who coveted his country, ending up in exile in France. After his death in 1921 his son briefly succeeded to his claims as Danilo II, but abdicated after six days in favour of his nephew Michael I. In the next year, 1922, the Conference of Ambassadors at Paris finally sold out Montenegro, recognising its incorporation into Serbia.
Prince Michael refused to return to Montenegro as puppet king during the German occupation and ended up in a Nazi concentration camp, which he survived, dying in 1986. From 1945, Montenegro was under Tito, followed by the chaotic collapse of Yugoslavia. In 1992 Montenegro and Serbia created a new federation, but this rump state was never really viable. The tragedy was that Serbs and Montenegrins had much in common, and the small coastal state had always looked to Serbia as its strongest ally; but the shotgun marriage of 1918 had soured the relationship.
Sometimes trivialities have real significance. This year, at the national finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, the Montenegrin boy band was pelted with missiles by Serbs: the writing was on the wall.
Last Sunday's referendum still had a resonance of the rivalry between the Greens (zelenasi) and the Whites (bjelasi). The European Union, which had brokered yet another Serbo-Montenegrin federal deal in 2003, tried to muddy the waters by making recognition conditional upon a minimum 55% vote in favour of independence. Even this trip-wire was surmounted. On an 86.5% turnout, 55.5% voted for independence, 44.5% for the status quo.
This new/old country of 620,000 people has an economic growth rate of 4.1% and inflation at 1.9%, with the euro as its currency. Its most promising industry is tourism. The population is divided among 40% Montenegrins and 30% Serbs, with 9% Bosnians and 7% Albanians most prominent among minorities.
The corollary is that Serbia, without desiring it, now finds itself independent too. The culture shock of isolation will be considerable. To cite just one example, Serbia, though possessing a navy, is now landlocked. The Greater Serbia so long canvassed is now a chimera. There are signs that Belgrade is feeling disoriented and rudderless. In this crisis of identity, Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, last week called for the restoration of the monarchy: "A constitutional parliamentary monarchy would be a sound foundation for Serbia to build on."
That is a constructive suggestion: it is important that Serbia, now a democracy, should be encouraged to see the glass as being half full, rather than half empty. His words should make Montenegrins think, too. The restoration of their own monarchy would raise their national profile and provide a focus of identity.
The great-grandson of Nicholas I, Crown Prince Nicholas, voted for independence in the referendum and enjoys good relations with the government. His family has an impeccably patriotic record and the old king did much to put his country on the map. A restored King of Montenegro could fulfil an invaluable role in helping his nation take its place once more in the world community after almost a century of subordination to a larger power.
This article: http://scotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/opinion.cfm?id=789092006
Last updated: 27-May-06 00:24 BST