By Eric Jansson
Published by the Financial Times Magazine, 20 May 2006
It was a crystal clear day last summer in Montenegro when the Church of the Holy Trinity descended from on high. It appeared first as a dark speck in a blue sky. Then, as it turned and caught the sun, there was a blinding white light. The silvery church rocked gently, its three bells chiming at random, sending strange music to onlookers below. Ropes dangled, and a dozen men scrambled to grab them. Straining, they pulled the church toward the earth and secured it to the mountaintop.
To many Serbian Orthodox believers, the Church of the Holy Trinity’s spectacular arrival on the peak of Mount Rumija was nothing short of a miracle. Never mind the mechanics of its journey: the lightweight tin structure topped by a Slavonic cross was welded together on a football pitch in the seaside town of Bar, then airlifted by a noisy Soviet-built Mi-8 helicopter, part of the Serbian army’s rickety fleet. The real miracle, as religious Serbs see it, is the fulfilment of a mythic "promise" chronicled by Serafim of Prizren, a 19th-Century monk, that God would help rebuild the holy shrine on Rumija’s summit that was razed by Turks in 1571.
But, as ever in the Balkans, there is another side to the story. Indeed there was once a Christian shrine on Rumija, which was destroyed by invaders. Yet for longer than a millennium, Mount Rumija has been known primarily as a place of peace. Following a tradition that predates the cataclysmic Great Schism of 1054 - when Christendom divided into the Catholic west and the Orthodox east - local people have climbed together to the barren summit on the feast day of the Holy Trinity, carrying a cross. Neither the schism, nor Islamic conversions under Ottoman rule, nor communist atheism in the 20th Century, nor Yugoslavia’s wars of secession deterred the faithful Serbs and Montenegrins who made this annual trek - among them Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims.
The flimsy metal sanctuary has shattered this happy ecumenical tradition. By laying claim to the mountaintop, the Serbian Orthodox Church and its partner in national yearning, the army, have chased away Montenegrins of other faiths who regard Rumija as a holy site, provoking a political uproar. Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Djukanovic flirted with the idea of knocking down the church, which many see as a Trojan horse. He backed off only after Patriarch Pavle, Serbia’s leading bishop, published an exquisitely dainty open letter that placed God on his side. "I hope that no one will dare to burden his own conscience by such a crime and by such sacrilege," he wrote. So the church continues to stand, an emblem of the mounting tensions as the 650,000 citizens of Montenegro prepare to vote tomorrow (May 21) on whether to break away from Serbia, its partner republic, and seek recognition as a sovereign state.
The "Union of Serbia and Montenegro" was founded upon the final dissolution of Yugoslavia in 2003, the unwanted orphans of a splintering Balkan family. On the night of its founding, women working in parliament offices in Belgrade hung their heads and wept. When that evening I met Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian prime minister (who was assassinated soon thereafter), I offered my congratulations. "For what?" he snapped. "Who wants this?" To be divested of federal powers and yoked, as an equal partner, to a tiny country producing just 5 per cent of the new union’s GDP was for Serbia a scarcely bearable humiliation. But that doesn’t mean that Serbia’s current prime minister Vojislav Kostunica is eager to sever the tie. To do so would strip Serbia of its last vestige of regional supremacy, its access to the sea and its say in Montenegro’s military affairs. As the vote nears, he has noted scornfully that Montenegro is "too small to be independent, smaller even than Belgrade".
In truth, tiny Montenegro has a lot going for it. By breaking with former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic strategically and morally in 1997 and casting their lot with the US and the European Union, Montenegro’s political leaders succeeded in keeping war off their home turf - a feat not even serene, bucolic Slovenia managed when breaking away from Serbia’s stifling embrace. Montenegro now uses the euro as its official currency - again something not even Slovenia, now an EU member, can claim. It holds democratic elections, generally treats its ethnic minorities well and is rapidly privatising its heavy industry, scrapping a rotten socialist legacy.
Topping it all, Montenegro has been named the world’s "fastest-growing travel and tourism economy" three years running by the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council. It is not hard to see why. "At the birth of our planet, the most beautiful encounter between the land and the sea must have happened at the coast of Montenegro," Lord Byron wrote after a visit there in the 19th Century. Along the Adriatic shore, dotted with lovely towns and intimate coves, turquoise waters lap upon white beaches beneath towering black mountains. Magnolia trees and wild orchids blossom through long summers. Venetian-built villages of white stone glimmer in the sun. A short drive takes vacationers from the seaside to the Dinaric Alps, a haven for skiers and river-runners, who go shooting on wooden rafts down the Tara valley, one of the world’s deepest canyons. So far, all of this is unspoiled by mass tourism - and yet it is closer to London by air than southern Italy. This is why a vanguard of European bargain hunters, led by the British and the Irish, have been buying up property in idyllic towns such as Kotor, Perast and Sveti Stefan, causing seaside real estate prices to leap 50 per cent in 12 months.
Enter the dead hand of politics and diplomacy. In February, Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, declared that, to earn European recognition, the independence measure must gain 55 per cent of the vote with at least 50 per cent turnout. This is a higher threshold than is normally imposed on EU members - and one, some point out, that closely matches the opinion poll predictions. It was Solana who first proposed the union of Serbia and Montenegro, nicknamed "Solania" by cynical citizens of both republics. When asked to defend the high referendum bar, Solana’s office said: "This is not a referendum on whether people can smoke in a pub. Independence is a question you ask only once. You have to ensure that the outcome is solid enough to guarantee stability."
Now that the US has taken a back seat in the Balkans, European fears and uncertainty once again steer international diplomacy in the region. Europe recognises - and is afraid of - those men who turned out on Mount Rumija, in camouflage and in track suits, to anchor the church, and of the larger crowd of Serb nationalists who trekked to the mountaintop one month later to celebrate its consecration. Slobodan Milosevic died in March, but the disastrous "greater Serbia" project he teased into a frenzy during the 1990s still claims hardline adherents such as these, who see Montenegro as the next battleground in a holy crusade against western influences. Srdja Trifkovic, a prolific Serb-nationalist pundit based in the US who attended the consecration on Mount Rumija, noted in an internet posting after the event: "A thousand of us up there on that mountain can deal with a million Oprah-watching Big Mac eaters any time."
Djukanovic therefore has a fight on his hands to try to persuade leaders in Europe that his country’s independence will help bring the stability the EU wants in the former Yugoslavia. This is his case: "Greater Serbian nationalism is still alive and it is influential in Serbia," he told me. "The fact that they still have Montenegro within the Union - under control as they see it - fuels their hope. Today Montenegro, tomorrow Republika Srpska [in Bosnia], Kosovo and then maybe the Krajina [the former Serb enclave in Croatia]. There is only one way to put an end to it. That is through Serbian independence." And in his view the only way to achieve Serbian independence today, since Serbia will not seek it on its own, is by letting Montenegro break away.
As hard-headed a politician as any in the Balkans, Djukanovic hardly fits the mould favoured in western capitals. Once a dazzling star of Yugoslavia’s communist youth organisations, he has transformed himself into a market-loving democrat, but is dogged to this day by rumours of corruption during the Milosevic era. He likes to talk straight and act boldly. Serbia harbours "hegemonic aspirations", he charges. EU policy in the Balkans remains "superficial" and "defective". For security, Djukanovic turns to Nato, not the EU. He has declared that he will seek Nato membership for Montenegro "immediately" upon independence, and to Serbia’s horror he is prepared to offer Adriatic ports in exchange.
The wild card in the referendum is those ethnic Serbs who constitute a majority in parts of Montenegro’s northern mountains, near the border. If the referendum succeeds, the hardliners among them may simply refuse to accept statehood, and that could tear apart Europe’s newest sovereign nation. Yet the northern hardliners may find themselves outflanked, despite all the tough talk on Mount Rumija. Deep in the Dinaric Alps, there is evidence of a new hybrid politics reconciling Serbian nationalism with Montenegrin independence. Its unlikely proponent is a cousin and bosom buddy of a Serb nationalist hero, Veselin Sljivancanin, a former Yugoslav Army major now facing trial in The Hague for allegedly ordering a mass killing in Croatia in 1991 as one of the "Vukovar Three".
When I sat down with Isailo Sljivancanin in a bleak, smoky hotel bar in Zabljak, the Montenegrin ski-town where he is mayor, he tossed back a slug of Turkish coffee and made a simple, straightforward declaration. "I’m against quarrelling with Serbia. I’m for a democratic split." And with a wave of his leathery hand, the rosy-cheeked Sljivancanin heaped scornful pity on those whose terminal allegiance to the disastrous Greater Serbia project blinds them to the humbler promise of this heavenly little land. "Some people, when they are in hell, don’t know what they are doing."