Dispatches From the War Zone

Notes from different corners of the world.
April 16 1999 10:00 PM

Dispatches From the War Zone

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Podgorica is the kind of town where, when you ask someone for a certain street, you are asked in return, "Who are you looking for?" It's a small town. A small capital of a small republic, in fact--population just over 600,000. But this small republic also happens to be the only Yugoslav republic left besides Serbia, the only reason Yugoslavia can still call itself Yugoslavia, though that name was actually once thought up by Serbs together with the Croats, who are not, of course, a part of Yugoslavia anymore. But Montenegro is.

Montenegrin politicians seem a little embarrassed about still being a part of Yugoslavia, what with its regime and the war and everything. Ranko Krivokapic (pronounced kree-vo-KAH-pich), vice president of the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro and head of the largest group in the Montenegrin Parliament, says, "You see, Macedonia seceded without a war--and look what happened." It is more than a little difficult to detect a connection between Macedonia's unique (among former Yugoslav republics) peaceful secession, and its current predicament, and it's hard to imagine that it makes Krivokapic feel better, but other explanations may seem less appealing to him.

One reason Montenegro continued to be a part of Yugoslavia is that Montenegrins can be a little unsure of their ethnic identity. Montenegrins generally know they are superior beings. For one thing, they claim that The Guinness Book of Records lists them as the tallest population in Europe. "It is selection with the sword," Krivokapic, who is two meters tall, says.

"Excuse me?"

"You know, the sword, the knife. Because we were always against the Turks. Only the tall can win."

"I see." Something else Montenegrins remember--and will mention, apropos of anything at all, like the current political situation, for example--is that while the Serbs lived under Turkish occupation, the Montenegrins remained gloriously unoccupied. But still, what are Montenegrins? In the 1991 census, only 10 percent of Montenegrins said they considered themselves Serbs. Another 64 percent said they were Montenegrins. But some of them said they were also Serbs. Tall Serbs. Super-Serbs. Krivokapic, for one, used to say he was Yugoslav, when that meant something. Now he is 100 percent Montenegrin.

Aside from their refreshingly muddled ethnic identity, another reason Montenegrins continued to be a part of Yugoslavia is that they voted for Slobodan Milosevic's party of ex-communists. But in 1997, the Montenegrin part of the party split, producing a leader named Milo Djukanovic, who beat his former party colleague Bulatovic in the Montenegrin presidential election. Milosevic compensated by appointing Bulatovic federal prime minister. The Montenegrins consider the appointment illegitimate because by this time Milosevic had also denied newly elected Montenegrin representatives seats in the upper chamber of the federal parliament, in which Montenegro holds 20 out of 40 seats. Milosevic kept the seats reserved for old Montenegrin representatives, which leads Montenegro to claim that Bulatovic was never legitimately confirmed by the parliament.

I met with Krivokapic in the offices of his party, located in the back of a drugstore. In Podgorica, when you tell the cab driver an address, he stares at you blankly, but when you tell him the name of the drugstore, he takes you straight there. Actually, Podgorica is a town where you quickly discover that moving by foot is faster than going by cab. There was a goat trying to devour a cypress tree in front of the drugstore. A very, very large goat, clearly Montenegrin. The tree, by contrast, was pretty small, probably a transplant, perhaps Cypriot. Podgorica is a town of green streets and lovely hills, where even the inevitable Eastern European concrete-block apartment buildings don't spoil the landscape, because someone apparently had the wise idea of keeping even these buildings white and their roofs red. The town is surrounded by green mountains, probably called black just because, for the most part, they are not snow-topped. I had time to survey the scenery while my cab waited for the President Djukanovic's cortege to pass: an Audi, two VW Golfs, and a Grand Cherokee. Not much for a president, but then, this is a small republic.

Since taking the oath of office in January 1998, Milo Djukanovic, with the aid of many eager Western experts and NGOs, tried to fashion his republic into a tiny model democracy that would become a giant thorn in Milosevic's side. For those who are skeptical about old party apparatchiks' ability to become model democrats, the jury may still be out, but Djukanovic's recent stance regarding journalists working in Yugoslavia demonstrates a clear democratic impulse (unless, of course, Djukanovic is hoping that international attention may save his government from Milosevic, in which case it demonstrates unequaled naivete).

After Milosevic's government threw out Western journalists, Djukanovic started welcoming them in, ignoring, according to some reports, even visa regulations. His government has set up a media center where I am writing this, and Podgorica's biggest hotel is giving journalists a discount. Naturally, the place is teeming with reporters. Milosevic's government considers the journalists' presence illegal--and declares this with such venom and persistence that, coming here, I was sure I would have to hide even better than I did in Belgrade. Instead, I was accredited in about five minutes, no questions asked, and offered assistance of every sort. Today the Montenegrin secretary for information, Bozidar Jaredic, issued a statement asserting that the journalists are here in accordance with Montenegrin law. (Jaredic's first name translates as "God's gift.") This is just one of the ways in which Djukanovic has succeeded in becoming a major thorn in Milosevic's side.

Consequently, Montenegro has become a layer cake. At the very top, in the sky, we have NATO with its planes, which have dropped bombs on the environs of Podgorica on at least three different days. One local theory has it that the bombings are intentionally provoked by the Yugoslav army, which employs anti-aircraft fire specifically to draw fire on Montenegro. This may well be true, and Montenegrin officials generally claim that the local people understand that the bombs are not meant for them. Judging from my conversations with the cab drivers and hotel staff, this is certainly not true of all Montenegrins, many of whom seem to be feeling very much attacked and very much in solidarity with Serbia. Which does not bode well for Djukanovic's efforts to stem local nationalism and consequent support for Milosevic.

So just below the airspace claimed by NATO, we have the Yugoslav army with its anti-aircraft fire and its increasingly apparent presence in Podgorica. A river runs through the city, pure green water from the mountains, and the Yugoslav army camps alongside it as well as in a school building just across the street. As I was walking around trying to find the office of the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (I ultimately found a guide, a 15-year-old boy a head and a half taller than I am), a soldier crossing over from the schoolyard to the camp shouted to his comrades, "What's doing? How's the occupation coming along?"

Two weeks ago, Milosevic changed the leadership of the Second Army, which is stationed in Montenegro, replacing the top brass with people especially loyal to him. Montenegro braced for a military coup, for Milosevic installing Bulatovic in Djukanovic's place.

To protect itself, Montenegro put forth another layer: The police, who now stand on every street corner, by day cheerfully giving incorrect directions to foreign journalists, and by night checking virtually all passing cars for illegal arms. The Montenegrin police uniform is uncomfortably similar to the Yugoslav army's, indistinguishable at night, which makes for a rather tense atmosphere.

And then, at the bottom of the heap, mostly literally down at the bottom of the map of Montenegro, on the Adriatic coast, are the displaced persons from Kosovo (since Kosovo and Montenegro are legally part of the same country, the Kosovars here are not considered refugees). Some 65,000 of them, on top of another 25,000 who fled here before the bombing and the cleansing, on top of another 30,000 or so refugees from Bosnia and Croatia who came during the wars there. Which makes the displaced-person population in Montenegro equal to over 20 percent of the local population, which may also make The Guinness Book of Records. In any case, it makes for a very jittery layer cake.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist who is the author of Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and co-editor of Gay Propaganda: Russian Love Stories.