Our journey from Mostar to Dubrovnik can be best described as circuitous. Dubrovnik is a coastal exclave, isolated from the rest of Croatia by the city of Neum, which is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only coastline. In 1699, when Dubrovnik was its own nation-state, it voluntarily gave up control over Neum to the Ottomans, mostly in order to form a powerful buffer between themselves and the Republic of Venice which lay to the north. The anomaly has remained ever since.
The area around Dubrovnik is mountainous, so it is best to approach along the coast. To do this from Mostar, you take the road west into the main part of Croatia until you reach the coast. Then you head south, back into Neum and therefore Bosnia (for about 20 minutes) and then back into Croatia again. The route involves three border crossings, all of which were being rebuilt when we passed through them. The actual border formalities are currently processed at a small hut just beyond the official crossing. Because this road is the only serviceable one connecting Neum with the rest of Bosnia, as well as the only road link between Dubrovnik and the rest of Croatia, there is usually so much traffic that the officers just wave you through.
But all that will soon be gone. The Croatians are on the cusp of completing a magnificent transition. 14 years ago, the Croatian President, Franjo Tuđman, escaped Slobodan Milošević’s fate by cunningly dying while the International Tribunal was preparing to indict him. Yet now, these informal customs sheds are being converted into the outermost bastions of Europe: on the first of July of this year, Croatia will join the European Union.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rise to power of Franjo Tuđman, the government performed a vanishing act, behaving as if 1991 was the beginning of Croatian history. The word Yugoslavia was removed from school textbooks until Tuđman died in 1999. Even now, many Croatians regard the War they fought against Serbia as a war of liberation in the manner of the United States or Algeria. In Dubrovnik I saw police boxes bearing posters of Croatian generals who were indicted for war crimes with a text saying “Croats do not forget their heroes!”, and Tuđman’s legacy is unassailable. In this belief they are alone on the Balkan peninsula.
The new constitution of 2000 brought governmental power back to the Prime Minister and reduced the President to a figurehead. The next ten years have witnessed a remarkable ascent, and it is a genuine achievement to have taken a virtual pariah state and made it fit for the EU in such a short time. Certainly, it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe, and the prices reflect that.
But Tuđman’s Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ), which has been in charge for all but four years since independence, has been dogged by a series of problems. The Prime Minister Ivo Sanader resigned suddenly and without explanation in 2009; his chosen successor, Jadranka Kosor, became PM without much difficulty. She started a strict anti-corruption drive in the course of which charges against Sanader came to light, along with hundreds of cases of wrong-doing, mostly by supporters of her own HDZ, and the party began to tear itself apart. In 2010, after a total collapse in HDZ votes during the Presidential election, Sanader returned to attempt a party coup against Kosor. He was expelled, but their decline continued. After losing in 2011, another purge took place: Kosor was replaced as party head and expelled by the Party High Court.
If the Croats enjoy talking about the dark times of the early nineties when they forged their state, there is another dark period, worse even than the Wars, which they have collectively suppressed. During the Second World War, the nation which was then Yugoslavia was divided between the Italians and the Germans. The Germans set up a state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), run by the Ustaše fascist militia. At the head of both entities was Ante Pavelić, who took the title of Poglavnik (essentially a Croatian word for Führer). Although the NDH was supposed to be a puppet state in the manner of the Slovak Republic and countless other governments across Europe, the Ustaše had been in existence for more than a decade when it came to power and they began to implement their own ethnic cleansing policies against not only the Jews and the Roma, but also the Serbs.
The one disturbing fact which appears repeatedly when I read about the Ustaše is that their methods of ethnic cleansing were so thorough and so brutal that even the Nazis were shocked. A report to Himmler states that “The Ustaše committed their deeds in a bestial manner… the number of the Orthodox that the Croats have massacred and sadistically tortured to death is about 300,000.” When Tito came to power, nearly everyone associated with the Ustaše was executed (except Ante Pavelić, who fled to Argentina and was assassinated in Spain in 1957) and the organisation’s existence was purposefully forgotten in the interests of national harmony. Tuđman’s unquestionable nationalism never had any time for dredging up the violence of the 1940s, and since then Croatia has collectively got up and moved on without ever coming to terms with the Ustaše in the way forced upon the Germans and Italians.
The linguistic issue in Bosnia is a strange one. From a traveller’s perspective, you only need to learn one set of words in order to get around the core of former Yugoslavia. But giving a name to the language is tricky. On one level, it depends where you are: in Serbia, it’s Serbian; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s Bosnian; in Croatia, it’s Croatian. But Croats in Bosnia claim to speak Croatian rather than Bosnian, and Serbs in Bosnia claim to speak Serbian rather than Bosnian or Croatian, even though their dialects of Croatian or Serbian often sound closer to Bosnian than to what is spoken in Croatia or Serbia. Serbs in Croatia claim to speak Serbian too, and the same rule applies. Plus, in Serbia the language is written using Cyrillic. Attempts to install Cyrillic lettering in parts of Croatia and Bosnia which are Serb-majority are still proving controversial. All over those two countries, whenever you enter a town, you can see a sign with Roman lettering and a mass of red spray paint underneath it over the Serbian equivalent.
As if this weren’t all complicated enough, a few years after independence Montenegro decided that it too spoke a different language, Montenegrin, which can be written in either the Cyrillic or the Latin alphabets, although Latin is far more prevalent. The situation has become so involved that when schools in many parts of the region teach pupils to express themselves, their classes are called ‘Mother tongue’. At the Ethnographic Museum in Mostar, the guide asked us if we would like our tour to be “in English or in our language?”
Montenegro, like Croatia, has managed quite an impressive transition. Despite having been part of Yugoslavia during the Wars, Montenegro totally escaped the unfortunate associations heaped on its neighbour to the north and is generally treated as if not just the political entity but the very land it exists on first appeared in 2006. But from where else could the Yugoslav Army have launched their siege of Dubrovnik than Montenegro? Montenegrins, as well as Serbs, travelled to the battle lines around Sarajevo during the weekends to fire on civilians in the town for fun.
Uniquely for a country which was actually involved in the Wars, the whole nation of Montenegro barely thinks about the early 90s, and when they do it’s with a sense of immense superiority. “We also have Bosniaks, and Croats, and Albanians,” the owner of our hostel tells us. “But we never had a war!” It’s a popular opinion.
There are darker issues at work too. Montenegro is effectively a one-party state. Since 1991 each of their four Prime Ministers and five Presidents has been a member of the Democratic Party of Socialists, the DPS. Two people stand on top: Filip Vujanović (right), who has been President for nearly 11 years except for 4 days in May 2003, as well as Prime Minister from 1998 to 2003; and Milo Đukanović (left), President between 1998 and 2002, who has been Prime Minister for 16 of the last 22 years and effective head of the DPS since he ousted Bulatović in 1998.
Despite jumping in and out of positions, Đukanović has essentially been in control of Montenegro for at least 15 years. It was he who spearheaded the campaign for Montenegro to become independent. The main opposition party has suggested that it would like to revisit that decision. But Montenegro is doing well alone; the official DPS position is that Montenegro aims to achieve EU membership soon, and they already use the Euro. But many people aren’t so sure.
“Just look at Croatia,” our hostess continues, “They will join the EU. When they decided that, they had to get rid of all the Russian investment and now they are getting poorer again. They were doing so well. We will never behave like that to the Russians. They are too important.” They certainly are. Along Kotor bay is a line of Russian ships waiting for summer. One of them, named the ‘St. Peter’ is trying a bit too hard to look like a pirate ship.
On our guided transfer to Albania, we discover that Montenegro is suspiciously mountainous to function as an independent nation. The drive from Kotor to Njeguši, a distance less than the circumference of Hyde Park, takes 45 minutes because it’s basically straight up the side of a cliff. Most of the southern half of the country consists of harsh grey mountains suddenly ending and plummeting down to the sea.
Njeguši itself is minuscule, a tiny village nestled in a recess near the top of the highest mountain range in the country. It is notable for two things: tasty smoked cheese and ham, and the birthplace of the first Prince-Bishop of Montenegro, Petar II Petrović-Njegoš. On the other side of the mountains, Cetinje, the old political centre, is still designated as ‘honorary capital’ in the constitution.
Further south, in Ulcinj, Montenegro gives way to Albania some distance before the official border. There are about 30,000 Albanians living in the country – about 5% of the population – and there is no transition. Once you arrive in Ulcinj, everything is in Albanian. The streets all have at least three names: one official Montenegrin, one official Albanian, and one Albanian translation of the Montenegrin one. Sometimes a street will also have an old Montenegrin name. The unwillingness of people to refer to the streets by their official names is something that becomes more apparent later in our trip.
Our guides talk effusively about the mix of cultures in Montenegro, and point out that despite the presence of Croats and Albanians, there is no tension: “Montenegro is different.” On one level it’s true. In Serbia, the presence of Albanians in Kosovo caused a war, and continuing tensions. In Macedonia, there was a war. In Montenegro, nothing. If there is a movement to unite with Albania, it has very few followers. Although I didn’t notice at the time, the lack of Albanian flags in Ulcinj is really startling compared with other ethnic Albanian areas. At the same time, though, much of the talk of ethnic harmony strikes me as precisely the sort of thing people used to say about Yugoslavia.
Political life in Montenegro now seems to be one of quiet tolerance. Everyone accepts that Đukanović has a bit of a megalomania problem – the people in our hostel joke about him putting face on the national currency if Montenegro ever introduces one – but while the country lives in harmony with itself and its past, and while the economy is relatively healthy, few people are willing to jeopardise it by pushing him out. Still, there are tremors. Last week’s presidential election saw Filip Vujanović win a (slightly illegal) third term in office against a unified opposition candidate.
Back in Njeguši, our guides point out the second highest peak in Montenegro, where the royal Njegoš mausoleum sits, inaccessible in winter. “Petar II left the higher peak free in anticipation of someone even greater than himself,” they tell us. I’m sure that Milo Đukanović is already drawing up the plans.