They Say, They Say, That the Russians Are Leaving

A firsthand account of Montenegro’s first summer in NATO.


Not since Fredo Corleone’s fishing trip has the world seen a severing of fraternal ties as brutal as when, earlier this year, Montenegro broke away from their historical alliance with Russia to officially join NATO as a member state. Despite demands made by pro-Russian opposition parties, a referendum was never called on the subject, with the October 2016 parliamentary election results, where the ruling, pro-NATO, Democratic Party of Socialists received 41 percent of the vote, hailed as a de facto plebiscite. Though democratic decision making in Montenegro often takes paths that could be described as non-Euclidean, it would have been interesting to see how a referendum vote might have turned out had the many Montenegrins who depend on tourism revenue for a living been given a more direct say in the matter.

Back in spring, while the formalities of the accession process weren’t yet complete and there was still a slim chance that Montenegro could turn away from the West and run back into the warm, familiar embrace of their Slavic brethren, Russian media began a no-holds-barred propaganda assault specifically intended to curtail the ever-rising number of tourists from the Federation who’ve come to routinely summer on the Montenegrin coast. On March 25th, days before the US Senate was set to vote on whether to ratify Montenegro’s membership, TV Zvezda, the television arm of the Russian Ministry of Defence, published an article unsubtly titled “Crime, Minefields and Tetanus: Why Montenegro Has Become Dangerous for Tourists”.

Among other alarmist claims, the piece echoed Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s allegations that Montenegro is caught up in a wave of “anti-Russia hysteria” that’s left those who choose it as a vacation destination vulnerable to violence from civilians and state actors alike. Having spent time there in this fateful summer of 2017, warned of by Russian politicos as Year Zero of a pro-Western revolutionary order, I can share that the Adriatic seaside is as welcoming as ever. Not much has changed, save for, maybe, there being just a few more empty lounge chairs and closed beach umbrellas than there were this time last year. Some of the bars are maybe just a little less crowded come night time, and there is a slight air of tension and uncertainty that can only really be felt after 1 AM, once the city goes completely quiet.

Montenegro, summer 2017 (Photo credit: author)

A picturesque coastal town standing at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor, Herceg Novi is located in the far south-west corner of Montenegro. Despite being geographically much closer to Bosnia and Croatia, the city has maintained a strong emotional and political bond with Serbia ever since a wave of Bosnian Serb refugees drastically changed its demographic makeup in the aftermath of the bloody ‘90s. As of 2011, when the last country-wide census was conducted, 48 percent of some 30,000 inhabitants in the wider Herceg Novi municipality self-identify as Serbian. A solid third of the population proclaim a discrete Montenegrin identity, and their number has been steadily rising ever since Serbia and Montenegro parted ways in 2006. Another demographic, though still comparatively a minority, has practically exploded in number since the census before last – Russians. Along with Serbs, they have long been the city’s most faithful tourist visitors, and now a number of them have taken up permanent residence.

This large Serbian (and developing Russian) community and their enduring allegiance to Moscow may have been a contributing factor to the ruling party’s disappointing performance in this year’s local elections. Montenegro’s new Prime Minister, and recently publicized shoving victim, Duško Marković, agrees. He said as much in an interview for VOA Serbian: “I believe that this poor performance is, among other things, a result of our expedient integration into NATO.” Herceg Novi is the third important tourist city Marković’s Democratic Party of Socialists has lost to the opposition since 2016. Aleksa Bečić, founder of Democratic Montenegro, the party leading the opposition coalition newly in charge of the city, had this to say on the night of the election: “We gave our word and we kept it. After Budva, after Kotor, from tonight on Herceg Novi is free.”

Herceg Novi owes a lot of its charm to its eclectic architecture, attained over many centuries of successive occupations by empires of yore. From the Ottomans to the French, with Spain, Venice and Habsburg Austria in between, every one of the conquerors has left their mark on the city one way or another. This summer, like every summer before it, many of the storefronts lining Herceg Novi’s only promenade have put up signs that advertise their goods in Russian. These were likely acquired at some point in the last ten years, during which the look and feel of Montenegro’s premiere tourist spots was gradually molded by an influx of Russian investment, followed by a steady annual stream of Russian vacationers.

Anywhere you went along the Herceg Novi seafront, you would hardly be able to escape the dulcet tones of the same few famous Russian songs being played over and over again by a folk band in the employ of some seafood restaurant. On your way to the beach, you might also run into an ad for a salon run by and for Russian women, promising “real worldwide beauty trends” next to a photo of a model with acrylic French tips and chunky, ‘00s highlights. In a few years’ time, once the very last Russian family caves in to public pressure and books a package holiday to Marmaris instead, maybe one these signs will be kept around to serve as a reminder of another era of foreign rule that has come and gone, like the ruins of the Venetian Citadela fortress do today.

In keeping with the government’s “elite tourism strategy”, Herceg Novi and the area around it are now standing on the brink of swift and violent gentrification. At the moment, the city offers holiday-goers a peaceful, family friendly atmosphere, with a relatively modest tourist repertoire consisting of some dozen beaches, four and a half forts dating back to Renaissance times, roughly two nightclubs, and one roundabout. This repertoire is soon to be expanded with the addition of Portonovi, a luxury development the website copy describes as a “sophisticated nautical universe”. The state-of-the-art marina and resort complex should be opening in Kumbor, a small town six km outside Herceg Novi, as soon as 2018. It’s set to feature luxury resorts by the company One&Only, their first such project in Europe, as all their past properties have thus far been built in such far-flung, exotic destinations as Mauritius, Bahrain and the Maldives.

A great draw of Portonovi could be in the fact that it’s only a short drive from Dubrovnik airport. This means discerning deep-pocketed tourists will have a safe route to travel from one hot vacation spot to the next without having to engage with any of parts of Montenegro that have yet to be ‘revitalised’. This will be the second ‘full service superyacht marina’ various networks of foreign investors have just recently built in this tiny country, after the Rothschild-backed Porto Montenegro in Tivat. Curiously, even though Montenegro seems to be of interest to the heads of some of the world’s most recognisable brands—one of Porto Montenegro’s main backers is CEO of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE—it remains one of the handful of countries in the world without a single McDonald’s restaurant. (There is talk, however, of a possible Kolonat franchise opening in Podgorica.)

While I was in a taxi that was briefly idling at the only roundabout in the city, a frantic Russian beach-goer startled me when she ran, weaving in between moving cars, in defiance of all known traffic norms, to come knocking on the driver’s side window and ask for directions. When I heard the driver respond in Russian, I asked about whether he’d noticed a change in the number of Russian tourists soliciting his services compared to last summer. “Oh no, a lot of them are coming, still. You know why? ‘Cause there’s a lot of them who own property. They build houses in places you wouldn’t believe.” he said. Gesturing towards the hills above us, that, to my eyes, looked completely barren and uninhabited, he continued: “I drove an old woman all the way up there once. Those are her lights, do you see them? She comes down from Russia every year, with her Doberman in tow, just to spend her time up in the middle of nowhere, all by herself. Nobody else there, just her and the dog.”

This type of eccentricity seems to be common with Russians who move here, according to a story I heard from an architect acquaintance. A man hired her to plan a luxurious family home for him in Rose —a small, secluded village directly opposite Herceg Novi— and, despite her objections, is insisting that the whole sprawling compound be made entirely of stone.

Montenegro, summer 2017 (Photo credit: author)

The neighborhood I stayed in isn’t quite so remote as to attract the attention of these Russian hermits who prefer to spend their holidays in complete solitude. It is, however, sufficiently removed from the beach and most accommodations for rent that the residents are all either locals or long time owners of a vacation home they keep empty in the off-season. All throughout it, the weathered concrete of overpasses and brutalist apartment blocks is marked with messages of support and loyalty to Serbia and its soccer teams. A local newspaper kiosk has also been vandalised (possibly by the same group of intensely slavophilic perpetrators) with the lyrics to a 1993 pop song by the band Zana: “They say, they say, that the Russians are coming”. Without knowing the context of the author’s political proclivities, it’s impossible to know for sure whether that’s meant as an expression of joy or a warning.

Are they still coming?

At the start of the summer, Montenegrin outlets triumphantly announced that Russian citizens are rushing to Montenegro in record numbers, despite the cues they were given by their state media. However, according to newly elected Herceg Novi mayor Stevan Katić, in an interview he gave Sputnik Serbia, that is due to the fact that the majority of the bookings were made before Montenegro’s final decision to join NATO, and Russia’s subsequent reprisals. “We assume, generally speaking, that this could influence next year’s turnout,” he says.

Serendipitous timing of their ‘betrayal’ may have saved Montenegro from a fate similar to Turkey’s after the downing of a Russian military plane by their forces in December 2015. The blowback from that was so immediate and severe that a personal apology from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Putin was needed to rectify the situation once the Russian media apparatus called on their citizens to start spending their holidays elsewhere. Even in the unlikely event that Marković, or his predecessor Milo Đukanović —whose claims that Russian-backed agents had plotted to assassinate him on the night of the parliamentary elections are a source of much of the ongoing tension between the two countries— were to offer an apology, at this stage it’s doubtful that the rift could be mended.

All throughout July, and well into August, Montenegro has had to reckon with a crisis more immediate than the precarity of its future tourism profits. Along with neighbouring Croatia, the country has been battling wildfires for the majority of the season. At one point in mid-July, the Luštica peninsula, split between the Herceg Novi and Tivat municipalities, was so badly affected that locals and tourists alike had to be evacuated by boat, as the roads had been rendered completely impassable by flames. Due in part to the particularities of the climate, summer fires aren’t rare in the region. This year, however, despite explicit pleas from local governments in Herceg Novi, Kotor and Tivat, the state chose not to seek aid from its immediate neighbors. Instead, they decided to wait for NATO to extend a helping hand.

After many days of Montenegrin media trustingly repeating that the Alliance cavalry is just around the corner, it finally arrived, in the form of a single Bulgarian helicopter. As a motley crew of Swiss, Ukrainian and Israeli aircraft joined forces with local emergency services to fight the raging blaze, an official at the very controversial Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, in southern Serbia, couldn’t wait to pour salt in the wound of their former allies. While the crisis was unfolding in Luštica, the director of the Centre, Viacheslav Vlasenko, gave an interview for Sputnik where he explained that Russia would not be helping in the firefighting efforts and lamented the “administrative obstacles” and “politicization” of the issue that kept them from doing so.

What does the future, then, hold for Herceg Novi, and by extension, Montenegro as a whole? Will the country descend into crisis, or manage to rise from the ashes, rebranded, as the former Eastern Bloc’s answer to Monte Carlo? What will become of the hilltop real estate around the city, erected en masse by Russians when times were good? As is common among countries in the #Balkans, Montenegro is forever being fought over by contesting forces —the civilizing West on one side and the barbaric, but familiar East on the other, all the while trapped in a three-decade long, stifling embrace by a party that hasn’t been out of power since the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since it appears that the tourism shoe isn’t going to fully drop until next year, we’ll have to wait until then to see which side prevails, and what kind of grandiose plans they have for Montenegro’s continued development. If this summer is anything to go by, they’ve shown they’re both perfectly content to just sit back and watch it burn to the ground.


Cover photo courtesy of the author

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Tara Petrović

Tara is an international law student in Belgrade with an abiding interest in media and politics both in and outside of the Balkans. You can find her on Twitter at @ptrvctr.