The Magazine

Free at Last

Montenegro declares independence.

Jul 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 42 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Podgorica, Montenegro

IT WAS a Balkan love feast!" said James Lyon, regional expert for the International Crisis Group, about Montenegro's independence celebration beginning on July 12. In a notoriously fractious part of the world, the festivities drew Slovenes, Croats, Mace donians, Albanians, and even some Serb politicians, as the Montenegrins breathed an enormous sigh of relief at their divorce from the Belgrade regime.

Montenegro has fewer than 700,000 people, a tormented history, and plenty of challenges. But it also has magnificent assets: beautiful mountains and beaches, and basic amity between its Slav Orthodox majority and its Muslim Slav and Albanian minorities. Both of the latter voted overwhelmingly, in a May referendum, for the country's exit from its dysfunctional marriage with Serbia, which dated back to the end of the First World War.

If anything symbolized the unhappy relationship of Montenegro with the Serbian mafia state, it was the humiliation of the last team to represent a conjoined Serbia and Montenegro in the soccer World Cup. Argen tina rolled over the team like a tank, 6-0, on June 16, devastating the demoralized sportsmen from a country that had ceased to exist.

On the ground, Montenegro is prospering. New businesses are burgeoning, and the tourist trade is beginning to revive after years of stagnation caused by the fall of Titoite communism, the Balkan wars, and gross corruption. President Filip Vujanovic of the Democratic Party of Socialists has led the world's newest republic into the United Nations, which admitted Montenegro on June 28. The date was significant: the anniversary of the legendary defeat of Serbia at the battle of Kosovo in 1389--and the anniversary as well of the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by a Serb terrorist in Sarajevo in 1914, which touched off the First World War.

Montenegrin independence also has loud echoes in neighboring Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Kosovar Albanians joke that Serbia is like a Nokia cell phone: It keeps getting smaller and smaller. The proclamation of Montenegro's freedom means that the full political independence of Kosovo very likely cannot be prevented, notwithstanding bluster by extremist Serb politicos and noise from Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Chinese Communist bureaucrats, and other enemies of capitalism and freedom.

The main lesson to be learned from Montenegro's success in extricating itself from the Serbian swamp is that neither it nor the other success stories emerging from the former Yugo slavia--Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia--allowed their political pro cesses to fall under the control of the "nation-building" operatives of the United Nations. Slovenia and Croatia won their liberty by their own blood, and have run their countries rather well since then, without submitting to the oppressive assistance of the global "humanitarian" bureaucrats. Mace donia underwent a short war between its Slav majority and large Albanian minority in 2000-2001, but has also managed to rebuild its economy without international meddling.

By contrast, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains very far from economic rehabilitation, with unemployment at a steady 40 percent; and Kosovo, which formerly exported electrical power to its neighbors, still undergoes energy and water cuts for days at a time--seven years after the liberation of the province by NATO. Kosovar independence is necessary for the territory to accumulate state debt and attract foreign investment. But it is also important psychologically, because the international caste that now makes the final decisions in Kosovo (about such matters as maintenance of the energy grid) insists that reconciliation between the Albanians, who constitute 92 percent of the population, and the Serbs, who exploited and murdered them for 87 years, must come before privatization of major enterprises.

The pattern should sound familiar. Unfortunately, the Bosnia-Kosovo model of nation-building has now been exported to Iraq, where the demands of brutal Sunni extremists, representing a minority that also formerly ruled by abuse, are considered by many foreign officials more legitimate than the needs of the Shia and Kurdish majority. Bosnians have begun to turn away from their former affection for the United States, incited by bad news from Baghdad, but Kosovar Albanians proclaim their love for Americans to any who will listen.

Bosnians and Kosovars often allege that the fate inflicted on them by the U.N. and other international bodies reflects Western European anxiety about Islam in the Balkans, but it would be more accurate to attribute the failure of nation-building to the U.N.'s prejudice against free enterprise. All the international bodies responsible for the future of Bosnia and Kosovo--the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as well as the U.N.--are dominated by Russian, Scandinavian, and even British officials who evince a deep nostalgia for socialism and a profound suspicion of entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, the way forward for Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro is clearly marked by the enthusiasm of small business owners, hard-working peasants who own middle-sized parcels of land, and investors in new technology.

Montenegro and Macedonia have bigger problems with Serbian Christians than with Albanian or other Muslims. The Serbian Orthodox Church continues to control the properties of the Montenegrin and Macedonian Orthodox believers. Balkan Muslims express support for the autonomy of the non-Serb Orthodox, no less than for their own religious freedom. Feeble Serbian lobbyists in Washington and elsewhere try to portray Balkan Islam as jihadist, but the truth is obviously otherwise. Local Sufis, for example, express greater resentment of Saudi-backed Wahhabi infiltrators than of Serbs. The Wahhabis have duped young people into joining their death cult not only with the promise of religious education and self-improvement, but also with bribes to induce men to grow Wahhabi beards and women to cover themselves completely in the Saudi manner.

Montenegro still has its problems. A local Muslim figure noted to me that constitutional rights for the small minorities--Bosnians (13 percent of the population), Croats, and others--remain unsecured. This is a cause of anxiety for one in four Montenegrins, lest ethnic demagogy reappear.

But Montenegrin president Vujan ovic will hold the new country's first general election on September 10. So far, there is every indication that new borders, a new flag (red with a black eagle resembling that of Albania), and a new, clean ballot will lift Montenegro out of the black hole into which it was dragged by Serbia, and in which Belgrade seems stuck for at least another generation.

Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.