The Russian Tsar Remembers the Montenegrins
by Miodrag Perovic
V.V. Putin, president of the Russian Federation, has sent a verbal message to Montenegrin prime minister Đukanović. It was delivered to him personally on 17 March by Russian deputy foreign minister S.S. Razov. The leader of the Russian state thus addressed directly the leader of Montenegro almost a century after the suspension of Russian-Montenegrin state relations, following Montenegro’s incorporation into Serbia in 1918. The gesture is even more intriguing given that the Russian president sent the message not to the Montenegrin president, but to the prime minister, formally ranked third in the official hierarchy. Moscow knows the actual situation and communicates with the person who can produce effective solutions.
In days gone by, the Russian head of state’s missive to the Montenegrins would have led to popular rallies at which resolutions would have been adopted giving support to his positions and demands. It was not so this time. Judging by the television report, Đukanović did not even thank the Russian diplomat for the message from Putin. This can be explained only by reference to its contents. We have learned that, in addition to recalling the ‘spiritual and cultural affinity between our two countries’, the Russian president also expressed his conviction that ‘strengthening the unity of Serbia and Montenegro and preserving their state union express the aspirations of the two brotherly nations’. It would seem that people in Russia are convinced that they know better than the Montenegrins what Montenegrin aspirations are. The Russians know this even without conducting a referendum on Montenegrin independence. Russian diplomats in Belgrade apparently feel nostalgia for the old Soviet anthem, in which the Soviet nations were ‘brought together in perpetuity by Great Russia’, and are now singing its Serbian variant.
One’s impression is that the Russian ministry of foreign affairs (RMFA) is unaware that the Soviet Union is gone, that SFRY no longer exists and neither does the Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia, that Eastern Germany has united with Western Germany, and that over twenty new states have appeared on the European map. RMFA was against the independence of first Slovenia, then Croatia, despite its inevitability. Once Western governments recognised the two new states, Moscow quickly did the same. Now, however, the Western states are seeking to make Montenegro a hostage of the Kosovo issue, ignoring the fact that relations between Belgrade and Prishtina do not depend on Podgorica. Russia loyally follows them in this, come what may.
Russian-Montenegrin political relations began three hundred years ago, in 1711, when Tsar Peter the Great sent a note to the Montenegrin prince-bishop Danilo Petrović Njegoš inviting him to join him in a war against the Ottomans. At that time, and for a hundred years longer, the Russian tsars were unable to communicate in this way with the Serbs, since Serbia was a fully integrated part of the Ottoman empire. When in the middle of the 19th century Montenegro tried to persuade the Great Powers to recognize its independence, the Russian government openly and honestly informed the Montenegrins that it found itself in a difficult position because of the defeat in the Crimean War, and was hence unable to recognize the Montenegrin government. The Russian government told the participants in the negotiations held in Paris, however, that it considered Montenegro to be effectively independent, and would continue to do so ‘regardless of the position or action of the other Great Powers’. At that time the Russian diplomats understood the Balkans better than the other Great Powers did.
Contemporary Russia, however, appears unaware of the fact that Montenegro’s desire for independence has nothing to do with separatism: i.e. that the problem does not lie in the ‘fragmentation’ of the Balkans and the appearance of new states, but rather in the nationalist extremism of certain of the Balkan peoples and the international community’s inability to regulate the Balkan conflicts in an objective and unbiased manner. Montenegro’s independence is supported by all its national minorities (Albanians, Bosniaks/Muslims, Croats), because they all believe that they have a better future in an independent Montenegro, where national relations would be built in accordance with the country’s own tradition, than in a union with Serbia, which spent the entire 20th century in conflict with its minorities. The Great Powers gave Serbia three opportunities to unite the South Slavs, but it never had any idea other than to demand their subordination and assimilation. It is high time that Serbia seeks an association with its neighbours of a nature quite different from that to which it has grown accustomed. Russia and the other great powers should understand that this would be better for both Serbia and its neighbours, and that herein lies the formula for solution of the Balkan question.
The issue of Montenegro’s independence will soon be placed once again on the agenda. It is important for Montenegro that Russia should not play a passive role within the Contact Group. By denying the right to liberty to friends it gained in the past by supporting their centuries-old efforts to be free, Russia is surrendering its natural influence in the Balkans.
Translated from Monitor, Podgorica, 26 March 2004.