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Hard Times In Yugoslavia's Fierce Backwater

by Terence Sheridan

How the IMF Dismantled Yugoslavia
(PNS) PODGORICA, Montenegro -- Yugoslavia has agreed to change its name to "Serbia and Montenegro," but it can't agree when. Maybe next month. Maybe early next year. Or, as one Serbian legislator recently suggested, maybe there will no union at all between the bickering republics, the last two of six that once precariously composed the former Yugoslavia.

With a population of only 650,000, Montenegro is dwarfed by its sister republic, which has 10 million people (counting the nearly 2 million separatist Albanians in Serbia's troubled province of Kosovo). But don't cry for Montenegro. Montenegrins are tested survivors with a keen sense of self-esteem.

My Montenegrin friend Nikola, an unemployed mechanical engineer, says: "A Serb might use a chainsaw to bisect the desk of a pompous bureaucrat; a Montenegrin would bisect the bureaucrat."

We come off the high plateau of Serbia on a shining day and begin the climb into the wild heart of Old Montenegro -- where limestone crags, thick forests, narrow valleys and deep gorges sweep westward to the Adriatic Sea -- when I spot the sign. It's nailed to the front of a roadside stand selling October pears and apples. It reads "Fcuk USA," black letters on white cardboard. Oh well, I think, someday they'll get it right.

Nikola is driving. The fourth-hand VW Bug with a cracked windshield belongs to him. I point to the sign; he looks, looks again, grins, and pulls the car over. The teenager behind the stand is his cousin. All Montenegrins seem to be related. If not of the same family, then the same clan; and if not of the same clan, then descendants of a handful of mountain tribes.

Nikola and Cousin Danilo hug and kiss and dance around the rickety wooden stall. Cousin Danilo, it turns out, is not anti-American. Cousin Danilo is pro-business. The misspelled sign gets attention and laughs. Danilo is 17 years old, 6-foot-3 and still growing. I give him the Cleveland Indians cap I'm wearing and he gives me the cardboard sign.

But when he tries to sell me a Russian pistol, a vintage Makarov semiautomatic, I know for sure that I'm in Montenegro, where brigand entrepreneurship is highly regarded and an adolescent at a backwoods fruit stand can obliterate five out of eight small apples at 20 paces as fast as he can pull the trigger -- Montenegrin show and tell.

There's no way of visiting Montenegro without being told two things incessantly: that Montenegrins are the tallest people in Europe, and that they are a warrior nation that's never been conquered. Occasionally called "hillbilly Serbs," Montenegrins are princes and princesses in the Kingdom of Swagger.

Not surprisingly, neighbors tend to view them as impossible blowhards with an unendearing history of grabbing everything not nailed down. During the brutal wars of secession, Montenegrins raced into Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo and back again with car- and truckloads of other people's property.

Hard-bitten farmers and leathery herdsmen shrug their shoulders and retort that life has always been tough in Montenegro, dirt-poor and surrounded by enemies. By the way, they ask, did you know that our 19th-century prince-bishop, Petar Petrovic Njegos, was a celebrated poet -- the "Shakespeare" of the Balkans? Njegos, they happily add, was 6-foot-6 and a terrific shot.

All the same, some inhabitants of Montenegro, tucked between rugged highlands and a seaboard of lemon trees and bougainvillea, have done well in the smuggling game.

Last June, the tall president himself, Milo Djukanovic -- a former basketball player whose administration has received $241 million in aid from the United States since 1996 -- vowed to clear his name after it was reported that he was a target in an ongoing investigation by Italian authorities into international smuggling of contraband cigarettes.

Political fallout was somewhere between negligible and none, and on Oct. 20, President Djukanovic's party won overwhelmingly a majority of the seats in parliamentary elections. Just six days later, more bad news: a Montenegrin freighter, loaded with Yugoslav rocket fuel allegedly bound for Iraq, was seized in the Adriatic by Croatia, after being alerted by U.S. officials.

Two summers ago, Montenegrins, laughing despite 30 percent unemployment, had a joke slogan for tourists: "Spend your holidays with us; your car is already here."

Smuggling cars, cigarettes, guns, liquor, and haute couture is a state and cottage industry in a small place with 20,000 policemen, a cop for every 32 citizens. When an American woman walked into an upscale store here, the capital of the republic, eyed racks of bargain Armani and injudiciously pronounced them "fake," the indignant store owner replied, "Madam, they are not fake; they are smuggled."

Cousin Danilo is still at his stand when we head back to Belgrade, the capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia. He has a new sign, still spelled incorrectly. He has chestnuts roasting on a charcoal-fired brazier, and a deal for me: if I buy a slightly used AK-47 from him he'll toss in the Makarov for free.

I decline and he laughs. He fills two newspaper cones with roasted chestnuts and hands them to us. Then, in the trunk of his cousin's beat-up Bug, he heaps apples and pears, a huge chunk of goat's cheese, a two-liter bottle of home-brewed grape brandy, six cartons of Marlboro, and, lastly, the new sign.

"Keep it for the road to Belgrade," he says. "I can always make another one. But the Serbs wouldn't dare."

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Albion Monitor November 12 2002 (

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