WASHINGTON — Often enough through history, while the international community focuses on the huge problems it faces, it’s easy to overlook important small places crying out, “Pay attention, pay attention!” My nominee for the country deserving attention this week is independent Montenegro, a place you may not even know.
It is a tiny place on the map — in fact, it is not even ON many maps — but it is intensely beautiful, with soaring mountains, gleaming lakes and sprawling natural ports on the Adriatic Sea that have made the little nation a target for others’ imperial desires for centuries. One port, the Bay of Kotor, is simply extraordinary.
Bordered by Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, Montenegro is home to a mere 600,000 citizens living within 5,000 square miles (”protected” by an army of only 2,000 men and a military “force” of four jets and two operational warships). It broke with Serbia just nine years ago and is now back in the news. Therein lies the story:
Last week, from May 11 to May 13, a fascinating meeting took place in Montenegro called the Western Balkans Conference, or the 2BS Forum 2017. Its topic was dealing with shifting alliances and security, which really says it all.
For small countries in southern Europe like this one, changes in the big countries — such as Britain leaving the European Union, and France barely voting to stay in it — are interesting, but faraway, exotic aberrations. Their passions are, first of all, to join regional organizations looking west.
Montenegro voted on April 28 to join NATO, which will give the U.S.-European military alliance 29 members upon accession in June. The United States — and even the Trump administration, especially Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — has abetted and applauded the move.
Montenegro still awaits joining the EU, but even that highly desired membership will almost surely come, as all of the Balkans are leaning in that direction.
There is at least one bright light bringing order out of chaos in Sarajevo. The American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina, led by President Denis Prcic, a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, is building an oasis of intellectual strength among the young people of the Balkans — and keeping many of them there, too, instead of emigrating. This intellectual horsepower is needed badly for the future.
Meanwhile, the Russians — who had a “special relationship” with Montenegro when it was part of Yugoslavia — are now howling in dismay at such insufferable American actions. Yes, those same good Russians who were sweet-talking President Trump in the Oval Office only days ago and creating a worldwide intelligence bungle of historic proportions.
Once again, as Churchill famously said, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.”
But if it ended with Russian dismay, that would be one thing. Instead, Montenegro and its equally vulnerable neighbors are the targets of brutish Russian attempts to “persuade” them, Moscow Mafia-style, to stay within the new “Putinesque” sphere of influence.
Last October, Moscow, it has now been confirmed by U.S./European/Balkan intelligence, was behind the assassination attempt on the prime minister of Montenegro; it is constantly working to poison relations between Serbia and independent Kosovo (including sending a train to Kosovo gussied up with darkly threatening signs reading, “Kosovo is Serbia” in 20 languages); and it is generally using every tool in the “Russkii-Mafioskii” arsenal to destabilize the western Balkans.
All to keep the Balkan nations from joining the EU and NATO — and thus, in Russian minds, deprive Moscow of its old territories of domination and its historical obsession with “warm seas” ports.
In short, if anyone, whether in an office in Des Moines or the Oval Office in Washington, thinks that the Russians are walking the same track as the United States, they should study the Balkan region and its sad, historical ability to cause chaos all around. (Always keep in mind that it was an angry Serbian boy, a member of the underground “Black Hand,” who, in killing the Austro-Hungarian prince in Sarajevo, started World War I.)
Historically, until the First World War, Russia saw itself as the “Third Rome” — the descendant of Rome and Constantinople, made to rule the world. When communism came next, Russia believed it was made to spread its “internationalist” ideology everywhere — and to rule the world.
Now, ruling the world has gotten a little tougher, but instead of using the Soviet methods of war, torture and fear, Putin has hit upon destabilizing Western nations (and many others). Thus, note Montenegro.
Yet, as these recent events show, there is also hope. Even as Europe stews over the unbearable imperfections in the EU, these small countries want to become part of Europe, want to face west, want to be rid of the Russian meddling once and for all. Some of the larger and more stable countries, like Hungary and Poland, are tottering. They are already EU members, but they are ruled by authoritarian right-wing leaders who are difficult to characterize.
Whatever happens in the Oval Office or in the Russian Embassy in Washington, the yearnings of these small countries will deepen. Would that we will have the good sense and the good courage to continue to help them.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.