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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  • Andrew Daws

    Another excellent peace Matthew. I will never look at Alec Salmond the same again. Mind you, I don’t see a lot of empires fighting over domination of Scotland. Montenegro’s selling point is not its oil or its service industry it’s the location. `Perhaps Gibraltar might be a better parallel. There is fragmentation in Europe because of the umbrella of the EU superstate, but also in the former USSR because of ….?

  • Toby Vogel

    Matthew, your fellow travellers didn’t close the train windows because of the ash but because fresh air is EVIL and gives you all sorts of NASTY DISEASES. The worst kind of air is a draft, the source of all ills in the Balkans. Only foreigners don’t know that and keep opening windows.

    • george

      Fresh air is evil? Are you sure his fellow travellers weren’t Americans? (Well, even if it isn’t actually evil, they usually can’t be bothered. Keep your windows open at night in America: burglars will always assume they’re shut and bolted.)

  • kirkesque

    Although you are making an excellent point in this article, you are also falling in line with a century of narrow-minded critics who briefly visit the region, speak to a handful of people who all seem to confirm your assumptions, then mosey back to wherever you came from and write about how the Balkans are an uneasy place of tension, superstitions, and ancient ethic hatreds.

    The next war in the Balkans will be brought about in large part due to the phobias and prejudices directed upon the various people of the area by those from elsewhere.

    You probably should have stopped your serious commentary in the article right after “…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.” Yes. Flimsy evidence and a whole lot of pre-judged ideas about the place and its people. In that, your article is attempting to pass Facetious into the small joke of a country called Bigoted.

    I don’t entirely blame you. It’s difficult for anyone, especially a for-hire journalist, to actually break the cycle away from not doing your homework before starting to type opinions handed down to you by a canon of previous people who also didn’t do their homework.

    I’d suggest reading and examining the methodology of native-to-the-region Maria Todorova; Westerns, Tim Judah, Robert J. Donia, & Noel Malcolm; or the most heighty of tomes about the region, Rebecca West’s Black Lamb & Grey Falcon. As it stands, you’ll probably just kept to your Balkanizing the area until those unsavory Balkanoids all end up in Balkan frames.

    • roger

      Yes, Jugoslavia was destabilised from outside, before and during the time it tore itself apart.I notice you didn’t visit Bosnia (Bosna i Hercegovina), you really would have seen dysfunctional politics in action. The pretense that it’s a single state is laughable. At the street and village level people just want to live peaceful lives but politicians keep stirring and aiming for lofty positions , and a mercedes with black glass and a blue light.
      It will remain an EU protectorate for the indefinite future, at least they prop up the economy.
      I live in my Bosnian house (in the Federation, Central Bosna Kanton) for up to half a year, but pay tax in the UK.

  • Sasa Capunovic

    Oh poor Matthew, who did you hang out while you were in ex YU?! It`s hard for me to believe that this article was ever intended to be written without prejudices about people from Balkans. Yes, we did had wars, we did some nasty things, but you know what really got us? – your economic sanctions. They put us back 200 years, even our grandchildren will not be recovered from them. That is the reason for Montenegro selling everything to strangers… when you are broke, and without business and tools, you sell in order get back on your feet again.
    Regarding the point that my country “was never it`s own” (let me put it this way with my bad English), You seem to have done a lousy homework before going to my country. Montenegro has a proud history of resisting all kinds of invaders for a hundreds of years with no allies, just on it`s own. Allow me to compare that with your country, you ruled the word once, but than came America, and now you are nothing but their puppet who`s opinion is whatever USA`s says.
    Some things are for sure, we made our history best we could, try to Google something like: Montenegro Battles, you will be surprised. We made our history with a lot less blood on our hands than you did, and we are proud of it.
    Come back to Montenegro, our people enjoy talking to strangers, but try to hear from ones that love this country, and from ones that see this country in EU and not back in 90`s.

    • Proud to be Montenegrin

      Svaka cast, ni ja mu ne bi bolje rekao…
      It is a shame that the oldest British magazine hired some charlatans to write about such sensitive topics.

    • roger

      Crna Gora is a jewel, wasn’t it only about the twenty-something independent country in the world, decided at the Berlin Conference. I still don’t approve of the way Jugoslavia was torn apart,by external forces as well as internal ones.
      It will take a while to forgive your army units for the shelling of Dubrovnik though.

  • kiki

    Please come visit us again, this time with your eyes open. Thank you

  • Lannci

    Sasa beat me to the point I wanted to make. Dear Andrew, read a little more before making such statements. And I warmly recommend the book from Bato Tomasevic: Life and Death in the Balkans: A family saga in a century of conflict. Then come back an read your own text again…and tell us what you think.

  • Unite Unite

    I don’t think it’s over in the Europe. The most recent problem between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar remind us that there is not over Europe. Ah, yes, civilized Europeans do it with long rage missiles, not rude and cruel with knives, like barbaric Balcanoids.

  • Montenegro

    Well hello from Montenegro dear Matthew Parris I would like to ask you few question regarding article that you published.
    1) how can you create any image of one city, country or entire region spending there only few days?
    2) how can you write this kind of article while traveling and talking with people that you meet on street even if you do not know from where they are?
    3) i can bet that you do not know a lot of regarding Balkan, especially countries that you mention Montenegro, Serbia or Albania.

    Stories like this we can read every day for different countries and regions, and every person can can travel, talk and write this “NOT TRUE” stories like yours.

    Please if you want to know something more about Montenegro regarding anything feel free to ask me, and we can reduce Snow white stories in future.

  • Montenegro

    I do not know why im writing this post, because simply you do not have enough in your had to understand Balkan, and even less to go on Google and to do some research regarding history of Montenegro and a lot of other things, so be smart and do not write articles that were made over the observation and on the first wrong look.

    PLEASE CONTACT ME I WANT TO HAVE CONVERSATION WITH YOU AND TO SEE IS IT POSSIBLE THAT YOU ARE SERIOUS REGARDING PUBLISHING THIS ARTICLE.

  • bannos

    it’s not over in balkans until albanians gets independent state, kosova, albania, east montenegro south serbia west macedonia and west greece, in 1913 Albani was dividen in 6 states, and were killed milion of albanians by serbs and greeks, we must have our independent state

    • Simon Ivezaj

      Long lasting Stability in the Balkans will only occur when the indigenous Albanian populated lands united under on state. Albania, Kosova, Malesia (Tuzi, Ulqin, Guci), Western Macedonia and the Presheva Valley will unite. Bosnia is a complete mess and Republican Srpska should join Serbia. I liked the article, nice wittiness. Although Montenegro does have a history of being a separate nation, they delegitimize their claims by switching ethnicities every couple years based on how the wind blows.

    • Sulejmani

      You talking about “greater albania”??? Are you dreaming my friend??? Or are you just stupid kids hoes parents just talked about albanian propaganda talk instead for getting in school and actually learn something!!!!!

  • Crna_Gora

    This article is a joke.
    Would need a rebuttal longer than itself.
    Come again, whose Montenegro is and whose it was throughout the history?

  • Vojvoda Stanko Ljubotinjanin

    If four centuries of resisting the Ottomans and being recognized by Europe as the only beacon of freedom in the Turk-swept Balkans isn’t enough evidence of Montenegro’s historic independence and struggle for freedom, then, my dear friend Matthew, it looks like you just skipped your history classes in school. It’s back to Grade 5 for you, I suppose. You’ve done a bad service to The Spectator, articles like these damage reputation. Ignorance destroys.

  • marimari

    It seems that you, my dear Matthew, don’t really know what you’re talking about. Montenegro has it own history and we are proud of it. It would be better that you’ve read something about Montenegro before you’ve visited it. This is a map that was printed in London Graphics in 1920..http://www.google.me/imgres?sa=X&rlz=1C1CHNQ_enME535ME536&biw=1366&bih=643&tbm=isch&tbnid=zc563s2bEW5q5M:&imgrefurl=http://www.montenegro-canada.com/articles/article/1998350/43617.htm&docid=cMCWMOSeFVIWPM&imgurl=http://www.montenegro.citymax.com/i//tn_unikat15.jpg&w=640&h=480&ei=1zUfUvzBDKao4ATz94GoCA&zoom=1&ved=1t:3588,r:0,s:0,i:77&iact=rc&page=1&tbnh=193&tbnw=258&start=0&ndsp=18&tx=151&ty=90

    And you shouln’t assume anything based on some chating with some random people, like in this case with some serbs, who are very narrow minded and see the things only as they want. We are proud of our independence! LONG LIVE MONTENEGRO!!!

  • Genc Trnavci

    I liked the article. It made two points in that: (a) it has always been that big powers determined the political destiny of the region and (b) the conflict in the Balkans is frozen–far from being resolved–with big players (the USA and and a few major countries from the EU) serving as catalysts–determining whether it will be kept under control or deteriorate into open hostilities. I was disappointed, though, by shallownes of the historical account–it’s obvious the the author has hardly read anything on the region’s lush history.

  • george

    I’m glad you weren’t murdered in the Balkans, Matthew. Apart from anything else, it would mean that the Undead are a reality, and of course we know they aren’t. (Did you like the Paul Barber book as much as I did?)

    I met someone from Montenegro, once. His hair was nearly black, he was friendly and had a big smile, his name was Dan, and he had a unibrow. That’s all I can tell you, as I was only 15 at the time.

    (Hey: as a commenter I’m unpaid.)

  • ogilicious

    what an awfully stupid article. a standard display of racist and classist arrogance – a scourge of british intellectualism. i could go into peculiarities about factual inaccuracies and a terrible ethonographic approach, but one thing stands out as a glaring error: montenegro was indeed independent for much of its history. it is a rare place in the balkans that was never conquered by the ottomans fully. again, what a terrible piece of writing. i’m surprised that it even got published.

  • Stephan Mistle

    Excellent written article. Just as it is now and nothing has changed. But i don’t believe we will have wars in Balkans. We need a push from behind to start a war. but a real one.

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