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Matthew Parris

I don’t think it’s over in the Balkans

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

I returned last week from a short break in the Balkans; travelling by train in Serbia, walking from village to village over the mountains of northern Albania, an evening in a big Albanian town, a couple of journeys in Montenegro and a very short time in Croatia… so only a taste; nothing that makes me a Balkan expert; just a sniff of how things are. On that flimsy evidence, here’s a guess. I don’t think it’s over in the Balkans. Things don’t feel settled, don’t feel real.

There’s an amazing railway from the Serbian capital of Belgrade to Podgorica, formerly Titograd and now the capital of Montenegro. In nearly 12 hours you pass through wildly beautiful country: lush farmland, little towns, high hills and forests, and finally magnificent mountains. This railway was one of Marshal Tito’s great unifying works of national infrastructure, passing through Serbia and a corner of what is now Bosnia on its way to the Montenegrin coast: a statement in steel, welding together (as he hoped) his ultimately doomed concept of what was once Yugoslavia. The train crosses breathtaking viaducts and plunges through hundreds of tunnels. On the hot August day when we travelled, it was packed with Serbs and Montenegrins. Over a beer in the dining car I got into an argument with a few of them. The trigger was my own insensitivity. It was stifling in the carriage but a group of young Serbs, smoking despite the no-smoking signs, and to stop their ash being blown about, kept closing the windows that foreign tourists had opened. I protested — as one surely would anywhere.

Or perhaps not. I had forgotten. It isn’t that long since we were bombing Serbia: bombing, indeed, this very railway line. For a British visitor to try to lay down the law in a Serbian dining car was rather like a German tourist doing the same in (say) Coventry after the second world war. ‘We hate English,’ said one of the young men to me. I did not respond. ‘We hate Tony Blair,’ he said, prodding, ‘and we hate Queen Elizabeth.’ I said I could go halfway with him there. After that the tension lowered and we began a real conversation. They were all going to Montenegro; some said they were Serbian, some Montenegrin, and some that it was the same thing. They all said the two countries’ loose union should never have been ended, robbing Serbia of coastal access and making Montenegro (said one) ‘a joke country’. I mentioned the 2006 referendum in which more than half (if barely) of Montenegrins voted to separate. My interlocutors said Nato and America had bribed Montenegro with promises of money, just to kick Serbia.

I would not have been surprised to encounter among the older generation the attitudes these Serbs expressed, but had not expected to find them passionately shared by young people. Nobody mentioned Slobodan Milosevic; it was Serbia rather than its leadership they felt had been targeted. When I said I was on my way to Albania, they said I would be cheated, robbed and possibly murdered there, or die of starvation. I avoided the subject of Kosovo. We parted amicably.


I was not cheated, robbed or murdered in Albania, and ate very well indeed. Whatever else Albania may be, this is a country with a ferocious sense of its own national identity, one which Albanians told me must include Kosovo, any other destiny being unthinkable. When (to an Albanian) I mentioned Serbian rights in Kosovo, he shrugged. ‘They’ll go. We won’t attack them, but they go.’

None of these claims or sentiments, all expressed with great intensity and certitude, were new to me, nor will they be to you. For me the unexpected impression from my Balkan odyssey came later and involved neither certitude or passion, but a distinct lack of either. Such was my impression of Montenegrin nationhood.

Montenegro does not feel like a country. Size needn’t matter, of course: being smaller than Yorkshire wouldn’t mean you couldn’t be a country, and nor would a tiny population: at 630,000 about one eighth of Yorkshire’s. And Montenegrins, though they share a language with Serbs, do have historic claims to an identity of their own. But really! My Serb informants were right. As a country, this is a joke. Montenegro is just a big traffic jam on a strip of road along the Adriatic coast. The drains and infrastructure are being paid for by the European Union, and the real estate is being grabbed by the Russians. There’s huge Russian money going in, and some of the roadside advertising is now in Russian only.

If Moscow money hasn’t already bought the country’s politics, it surely will — unless Brussels’s bribes get there first. Somebody is going to get Montenegro and it won’t be the Montenegrins. Maybe it will be a tug-o’-war between Russia and the EU, as over Cyprus. I asked a young Montenegrin what he felt about his country’s new-minted independence. He seemed uninterested. I asked if he would prefer the old union with Serbia. He hesitated, then replied that things cost more now his country has (uninvited) adopted the euro. These were his thoughts on the subject of independence: a realistic speculation about whom it was best to be dominated by.

In the history of this constantly-fought-over stretch of sultry Adriatic coast, I think I discern a wider truth about the future of the Balkans, of a Europe des régions, and — perhaps more generally — of the sovereignties of the world’s small nations. Montenegro has been Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Italian and Serbian, but never for long has it just been Montenegro. Nor will it be now.

Scotland — sans army, sans currency, sans diplomatic service — may opt for ‘independence’. Malta did and so did Ireland. So did Cyprus. So may Catalonia. Or Corsica. Or Wallonia, Flanders, the Basque country… the potential list is long. The Baltic states have theirs already, effectively from Moscow. But what is really happening here? Most of these places will in the end just be switching from one imperium to another: sovereignty will never for long be within their grasp. We British, albeit with more firepower, dither between Europe and America.

Perhaps the Euro-federalists are right and the EU is either an empire or it is nothing. Perhaps there are finally only empires, and movement between empires as balances shift, and it’s just a matter of which. Perhaps empires are the gravity fields, and the rest is friction. Expect more friction in the Balkans.


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