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Wednesday 26 April 2017

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Russians traditionally make up around one-third of all summer-holiday visitors to Montenegro. (file photo)

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, made the dramatic claim last week that Montenegro was responsible for inflaming "anti-Russian hysteria" and for the "unacceptable treatment of Russians, who may expect provocations and detentions" while visiting that southern Balkan state. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

The accusation came out of the blue.

Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, made the dramatic claim last week that Montenegro was responsible for inflaming "anti-Russian hysteria" and for the "unacceptable treatment of Russians, who may expect provocations and detentions" while visiting that southern Balkan state.

The Montenegrin Foreign Ministry promptly responded by pointing to the absence of any reported incidents of Russian businessmen or tourists being harassed in Montenegro or experiencing any hostility from local residents.

"This is therefore nothing but manipulation and the continuation of a media war that Moscow has been waging against Montenegro, aimed at blocking its accession to NATO," the ministry said.

Moscow's warning to Russians follows reports in Russian state media that cast Montenegro as a country of "crime, minefields, and dirty beaches."

This marks a distinct change of tone toward a country long regarded by Russian authorities as an unobjectionable tourist destination, and many have been quick to link the shift to Montenegro's determination to join NATO.

Montenegro is indeed set this spring to become NATO's 29th member, marking the end of a long and often arduous road to accession. The government in Podgorica has had to face down a steady stream of rhetoric against NATO expansion from opponents both domestic and foreign, and an alleged coup attempt in October was seen by some as yet another attempt to change the political landscape and keep Montenegro away from Euro-Atlantic integration.

Muddled Affair

The court case surrounding that muddled affair is expected to be resolved by September, and the suspects include Montenegrin, Serbian, and Russian nationals.

But the warning to Russian citizens by their government made waves because the tourism season is approaching in Montenegro. Tourism is a major source of revenues, and former Foreign Minister Branko Lukovac told RFE/RL in Podgorica that interest in vacationing there remains high among Russians despite the media campaign in Russia.

Asked about the security of Russian citizens in Montenegro, a Podgorica correspondent for the Russian daily Kommersant told RFE/RL that he was unaware of any problem.

"If any Russian citizens in Montenegro had experienced some unpleasantness, it would have become public knowledge immediately, at least through social media," Gennady Sysoyev said.

Montenegrins Bewildered

Russian fans of Montenegro reacted with bewilderment on social media to Zakharova's comments, he added. "Hundreds were simply incredulous. Those who have spent time in Montenegro have never experienced any such treatment."

An "I was in Montenegro" Twitter hashtag (#ябылвчерногории) campaign has commenced on social media and attracted pics of some of the country's most scenic places...

...as well as videos, this one pretty polished:

Travel agencies are meanwhile busily booking vacations for Russians, who traditionally make up around one-third of all summer-holiday visitors to Montenegro.

A Montenegrin tourism-industry insider, Zarko Radulovic, predicts that the coming season will be Montenegro's best since it declared independence from Serbia 11 years ago, due in part to Russian customers.

"As long as they are not forbidden from doing so, Russians will keep returning to Montenegro. Since they are footing the bill for their own vacations, they -- and not the government -- will choose their destination, and many of them will choose to come here," he says. "It's not [Russian President Vladimir] Putin who pays for them, and he can't decide where they spend their leisure time."

Talking to RFE/RL in Podgorica, Radulovic -- who manages one of the most popular hotels on Montenegro's roughly 70 kilometers of Adriatic beachfront -- says he is optimistic that bad publicity in Russia won't have major adverse effects because so many Russians live in Montenegro and spread the good word among their compatriots.

"I can only welcome both in Montenegro," he adds, "NATO and Russian tourists."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

The Russian state news agency Sputnik has proposed a monument to the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

Mijat Lakicevic, a Belgrade-based journalist, writing recently on the independent web portal Pescanik, put forward a provocative proposal.

Mijat Lakicevic, a Belgrade-based journalist, writing recently on the independent web portal Pescanik, put forward a provocative proposal.

“We should build a monument to the victims of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences,” he wrote.

Lakicevic is referring to the infamous Memorandum, a 1986 manifesto seen as promoting Serbian nationalism that was signed by a number of prominent Serbian academics. In the eyes of many, it marked the beginning of the drawing of ethnic lines in Yugoslav societies and served as a prologue to the wars of the 1990s.

His idea is in reaction to a serious initiative by Russia’s state-backed Sputnik media outlet to build a monument to the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

According to Lakicevic, it was the 1986 Memorandum that turned Serbs against their neighbors and, indeed, against the rest of the world.

“The harm done by that ideology [expressed in the Memorandum] is far greater than the damage caused by the war against NATO,” Lakicevic writes.

The wars that preceded the 1999 intervention led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of educated young people and incalculable economic loss -- “a national catastrophe,” according to Lakicevic. “And that is without even mentioning the evil wrought upon other [neighboring] peoples."

Lakicevic says he does not expect many public figures to back his proposal, which is what one might call an intellectual exercise rather than a serious proposal. He will certainly be unable to compete with the long list of prominent individuals, politicians, and celebrities supporting the Sputnik proposal, which is seen as an attempt by Moscow to further discourage Belgrade -- the Kremlin’s closest ally in the Balkans -- from pursuing closer ties with the West, including membership in NATO.

Apart from Prime Minister and now President-elect Aleksandar Vucic, who said that Serbia will “fulfill its duty toward innocent victims of aggression,” a number of public figures have pledged their support, including some signatories of the 1986 Memorandum. Serbian film director Emir Kusturica is one of the most outspoken supporters of the Sputnik initiative.

Kusturica said the proposed monument should “stand as a reminder that everything that befell the Serbian people in the last century was part of a project aimed at its destruction.”

Kusturica has been a vocal critic of the West and is a known cheerleader for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, he facetiously claimed that World War III would likely begin with the U.S. bombing of state-backed Russian TV channel RT, since it was “the only outlet challenging the spread of U.S. propaganda.”

It should be noted that there are already several monuments to victims of the NATO intervention in Belgrade and other Serbian cities, including the 30-meter-high Eternal Flame in Belgrade’s Friendship Park. Historian Ljubinka Trgovcevic fails to see the urgency behind erecting another one.

She also points out that no one involved in the Sputnik idea is mentioning the Albanian victims of the war.

“[Ethnic Albanian victims] are considered citizens of Serbia by the constitution, and yet they are excluded from outpourings of public empathy, which only shows this government’s hypocrisy,” Trgovcevic said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in Belgrade. “On the one hand, they continue to lay claim to Kosovo and its territory as part of Serbia, and on the other they do not count [ethnic Albanians], including those who died [as a result of NATO bombing] among the citizens who deserve to be honored. I see absolutely no reason for the monument, and I am decidedly against it.”

According to information gathered by the Humanitarian Law Center NGO, 758 people died during the NATO bombing campaign from March to June 1999. Of those, 453 were civilians, including 220 ethnic Albanians -- almost half of the total -- 202 Serbs, and 28 others. The majority of the victims (448), including military casualties, were killed on the territory of Kosovo.

The figures are based on almost 1,500 documents and more than 500 statements from witnesses and victims’ relatives.

The manipulation of historical memory for political gain is nothing new in the Balkans. What seems to have been forgotten in all public memorialization of the NATO intervention is the context of the confrontation with forces loyal to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO air strikes began on March 24, 1999, only after months of failed peace talks, broken promises by the Milosevic government, and, finally, a new wave of repression against ethnic Albanians by the Serbian military and police.

“No one can doubt the large-scale human rights violations, expulsions, and war crimes [perpetrated by the Serbian forces in Kosovo] -- all of which are ignored in this [Sputnik] initiative,”Jelena Krstic of the Humanitarian Law Center told RFE/RL.

Her response to Vucic’s statement that “Serbia is obliged to fulfill its duty” to the victims of the NATO bombing is that “we also have to show respect for the victims whose deaths we are responsible for.”

Trgovcevic sees the Sputnik initiative as a distraction from Serbia’s current problems.

“We have many other much more pressing problems, including high unemployment and the exodus of young people from this country, and yet we are dreaming up pharaonic monuments to serve the needs of those in power,” she laments.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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