MORINA, MONTENEGRO, July 2010
One of the most divisive issues between Russia and the United States in recent years has been the expansion of NATO – a Western military alliance seen largely by Moscow as a mechanism to keep Russian power in check. Many of the governments from the former Cold War Eastern Bloc have or are planning to join. One is the tiny country of Montenegro, wedged between Croatia and Albanie, where the prospect of NATO membership fills many of its citizens with horror, as Humphrey Hawksley reports:-
The village of Morina is a scattering of houses on either side of a fast-running mountain river. A country road runs through. A newly-built bridge with bright blue railings links both sides. On one is a hotel and cafe. On the other, a small shop, also newly built, then a little further on a library, and down in a clearing towards the river bank are two war memorials.
One points skywards, a huge concrete needle paying tribute to partisans who fought Hitler. The other is more personal, a small monument of dark marble for those killed by NATO.
In April 1999, NATO planes bombed the village because it was regarded as a supply route to Kosovo. NATO was trying to free it from Serbian rule at the time. They flew down through the valley in the middle of the afternoon killing six people, including three children.
Two were school girls, Julijar Brudar, who was ten, and 12-year-old Olivera Makzomovic.
They were buying sweets at the time from the shop at the end of the bridge.
“They never stood a chance,” said Milan Mikovic, the shop’s owner, standing in the middle of the new bridge in the summer drizzle. “Why bomb just as children are going home from school. It’s wrong.”
Mr Mikovic was then a citizen of the disintegrating Yugoslavia. He’s now one of independent Montenegro but is furious that his government plans to become a member of the military alliance that attacked the village.
He gathers Morina’s men in the library to show the depth of opposition.
“NATO is an aggressor,” said Ljubomir Komatina who lost his elderly father in the air raid. “Wherever it goes, whatever small country it invades, you see to blood of children.”
Mirko Kenovic was still quivering with fury over the death of his 13-year-old son, Miroslav. “We never want to join,” he shouted. “It is nothing more than an American terrorist organisation.”
Photographs of the bombing are displayed on a wall in the library. They show villagers running in desperation, body parts, the ruins of buildings and burnt out cars. One of the library books is embedded with a piece of shrapnel.
But there’s is also a photograph of shopkeeper Mikovic hinting at how contradictory emotions grow out of such tragedies. He’s smiling as if in a holiday snap next to the American ambassador to Montenegro Roderick Moore – who was brave enough to meet the families in an attempt towards conciliation.
I travelled back from Morina to meet the ambassador in his compact embassy office in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica. "Montenegro is the first serious aspirant for NATO that’s been on the receiving end of our interventions,” he explained, "and that weighs very heavily on the people of this country. As a human being, I completely understand that. But at the end of the day it should not be about emotions but about rational calculations.”
For the past twenty years, the rationale for Montenegro – and a swathe of other European countries – has been to use the dual membership of the European Union and NATO as a beacon to guide it towards modern democracy.
Some of it’s worked.
Montenegro’s coastal resorts with their cafes, jewellery shops and shimmering Adriatic Sea are drawing in film stars, billionaires and jet-setters. The clink of champagne glasses on yachts mingles with music from beach bars – with prices and fashion that would not be out of place in St Tropez or Cannes.
But drive inland and north you slide backwards. This is the old Balkans, grinding and poor, where the beacon of modern Europe has barely penetrated.
As recently as 2006, a referendum for independence from Serbia scraped through only by a narrow margin. If NATO was put to the vote there’s chance it would be rejected.
So the government’s pushing ahead regardless. Montenegrin troops are in Afghanistan and its aging Soviet patrol ships are already linked to military intelligence databases tracking suspect vessels in the Mediterranean.
On the wall of the Department of Defence are portraits of previous defence ministers showing off an array of exotic Balkan dress, mostaches and uniforms.
The current minister, Boro Vucinic, ramrod straight and immaculately dressed, explained the conundrum.
In the 19th Century Montenegro fought off the Ottomans. Then, allied to Russia, it strangely found itself at war with Japan. The Austro Hungarians occupied it during the First World War and the Italians during the Second. For the break up of Yugoslavia roughly one half supported Serbia, the other half the West.
It’s story of how the shadows fall in Europe’s ebb and flow of war – of conflicting ideas of what represents good and evil. Some views might be hostile to our conventional thinking, but – as in the case of Morina’s two war memorials – that doesn’t mean to say they are wrong.
“There’s been too much conflict,” said Defence Minister Vucinic. “We know in this region that a small country cannot find permanent peace and stability by remaining neutral. Joining NATO will stop us from fighting each other.”