By Giles Whittell
Montenegrins look set to choose independence from Serbia to advance their EU membership hopes
“ABSOLUTE 55 per cent”, declared Ivan Nedovic’s brand new T-shirt as he sat in the brand new airport at Podgorica, hoping to witness the birth of a brand new country.
The T-shirt was not advertising Balkan moonshine. It was a reminder of the victory margin needed in a referendum that could bury the dream of a greater Serbia that brought a decade of war to Yugoslavia. Yesterday it looked as if that dream would end, not with a bang but with a few thousand free air tickets.
In what history may yet call the Podgorica airlift, the local airline has scrapped its normal timetable to lay on more than 200 special flights for émigrés exercising their right to vote on Montenegro’s destiny. Some have proudly paid their own way but many, from as far away as New York and Chicago, have been given free tickets, paid for by unnamed benefactors.
Welcome to democracy on the Adriatic’s wilder eastern shore. By the time polls open tomorrow, 10,000 overseas voters will have returned, overwhelmingly in support of a plan by Milo Djukanovic, the Prime Minister, to break from Serbia to gain faster EU membership. In a land with a population the size of Nottingham’s, the influx is likely to be decisive.
“There are thousands of us and we are coming from everywhere,” said Nedovic, 22, an economics student just in from Rome on a flight that normally costs him €190 (£133).
There was no shortage of cheap beer in Podgorica either. It was fiesta time in the city that wants to be Europe’s newest capital, as tens of thousands flooded the main square for the final rally of the “yes” campaign. They waved scarlet banners emblazoned with the double-headed eagle of a short-lived Montenegrin monarchy and they sang something that sounded very like Those Were the Days, My Friends.
The only reminder of the genocidal violence that has scarred Montenegro’s neighbours, but miraculously not Montenegro, was a corridor of several hundred armed plainclothes police officers set up to usher Mr Djukanovic into the square.
Among those watching was a 61-year-old Parisian architect with only a halting command of the local language, the grandson of the last Montenegrin king. “I always thought this day would come, but never peacefully,” Prince Nikola told The Times after the rally, posing for photographs with the wellwishers who recognised him.
“When (Slobodan) Milosevic was provoking the violence, everyone at an event like this would have been armed and shooting their pistols in the air. I think if the result of the referendum is clear it could have the power to start a new era.”
This has been a campaign fought on a tiny canvas but with broad implications. Montenegrin independence, with the prospect of self-rule for Kosovo, would leave Serbia’s radicals humiliated and their country isolated, with no direct access to the sea and no prospect of EU membership until it surrenders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to The Hague. “Montenegro’s destiny is in the EU, but we are late already,” Dragan Djurovic, the D eputy Prime Minister and an architect of the “yes” campaign, said. “Serbia’s failure to hand over its war criminals has slowed everything. It’s not Montenegro’s fault, but Montenegro is paying.”
Publicly, Brussels opposes independence. Privately, it has assured Montenegro that it has a “plan B” that would save it from having to restart an accession process that it has so far pursued as the lesser partner in its troubled union with Serbia.
Along Montenegro’s spectacular coastline, where limestone cliffs plunge into emerald bays and developers salivate over the “next Croatia”, plan B may very well be for “bonanza”.
British buyers are among the thousands from richer countries refurbishing period villas in towns such as Kotor, an hour’s drive south of Dubrovnik airport. Both sides agree that tourism must take off if Montenegro is to have a legal economic future. Only the “no” campaign will own up to the country’s illegal past as a conduit for cars stolen across Europe and a haven for traffickers of drugs, prostitutes and, above all, cigarettes.
Smuggling accounted for half the country’s GDP as recently as 2001, according to Italian investigators. Though he denies all allegations, Mr Djukanovic has frequently been named in Italian prosecutors’ reports on cigarette smuggling, fuelling opposition claims that his drive for independence is a cover for the creation of “a private criminal state according to the Colombian system”, as a senior spokesman for the “no” campaign put it.
The Prime Minister has been helped by the EU’s suspension of accession talks with Serbia this month and he has skilfully ridden a wave of nostalgia for his country’s first experience of independence, even though King Nikola was a vain, dangerous adventurist whose attack on Albania in 1912 nearly started the First World War.
Montenegrins have been seduced by a dream of a Europe that is a peculiar mixture of the bourgeois prosperity that they hope the EU will deliver and the Europe of tinpot principalities that their brocaded flags recall.
They should be careful what they wish for. Prince Nikola is seeking restitution of his palaces. And how many are there? “They’re all over the place.”