Montenegrin city debates the future, struggles with past

Youths' loyalty divided in former capital Cetinje, the area's beating heart

War In Yugoslavia

April 12, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CETINJE, Yugoslavia -- In a city of shuttered palaces, old embassies and frayed dreams, a place remains for young men to toss a Frisbee and talk politics in a soft spring rain.

Neno Lopicic and Nikola Bogdanovic are 19-year-olds united by friendship yet increasingly divided by politics. As they play and talk in the main square near the rust-colored royal palace of Montenegro's old capital, they symbolize a fractured generation coming to grips with war.

Neno is for a united Yugoslavia, a powerful Slobodan Milosevic and a NATO defeat.

"Why does NATO hesitate sending troops to Kosovo?" he says. "Because it would be worse than Vietnam."

Nikola yearns to live in an independent Montenegro and pulls for the allies to quickly resolve the Kosovo conflict.

"I love America," Nikola says. "America is the future."

The war between NATO and Yugoslavia has triggered an internal struggle, as young Slavs like Neno and Nikola, who share the same ethnicity as Serbs, struggle with the past and debate the future.

Montenegro, Yugoslavia's second republic, stands on the edge of the conflict, officially neutral yet increasingly drawn into hostilities that rage in Serbia and its province of Kosovo.

Neno is angry at the West for interfering in Yugoslavia's domestic affairs.

`We will never agree'

"Your mistake is you don't know the mentality of our people," the man with a wide smile, bright eyes and a quick sense of humor tells a visitor from America. "You don't know Serbian people. You thought that after two or three days of bombing, Milosevic would say, `Enough.' But it is just the opposite. We will never agree with you."

But Nikola, who pulls a baseball cap over his blond hair, sides with the West. "The obstacle is Milosevic," he says.

Ask these friends if they could ever imagine a civil war in Montenegro, and they say, yes, of course it's possible. But ask them if they might one day be forced to fight one another, for Montenegro's soul and future, well, they smile, and give one another a hug.

To them, it's inconceivable that politics could turn to bloodshed.

Yet in this rocky Balkan corner, topography, history and religion pour through the stream of current events.

Cetinje may no longer be Montenegro's capital, but it remains the area's beating heart, perched on a craggy, slate-gray plateau, 30 minutes' drive from the modern capital city of Podgorica.

Songs and epic poems have been written of a place and time when Montenegro stood alone, a Christian outpost amid an Ottoman Muslim forest. Before Columbus discovered America, an independent principality, ruled by warrior bishops, was anchored in Cetinje (pronounced Seh-tin-ya). In one form or another, Montenegro struggled to remain independent until it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia after World War I.

On the drive out from Podgorica, a 22-year-old named Maja Donovic tells a visitor to look up at Mount Lovcen, the Black Mountain. There, in the distance, is a mausoleum for Montenegro's revered poet and ruler, Petar II Petrovic Njegos.

"The wisest man," she calls him. "He is respected here like Shakespeare. He predicted Montenegro's future."

But few could have predicted Montenegro's present quandary, caught between Serbia and NATO in the latest war to ravage the region.

"This rain was sent by God to prevent NATO from bombing," Donovic says as clouds roll in during the Orthodox Eastern Sunday.

As the car lurches up the mountains, onto the plateau and into the city, reminders of past greatness abound. There are wide boulevards, tree-lined drives and imposing old embassies flecked with peeling paint and age. In the years before World War I, Cetinje drew ambassadors from world powers searching for advantage in Europe.

The Italian embassy, with its imposing hallways and rococo ceilings, has been turned into a national library. Kids kick a soccer ball in the back yard of the old Austro-Hungarian embassy, a mini-palace with columns and a rusted tin roof.

"Banque du Montenegro," reads the sign etched into stone at a bank that wouldn't look out of place in Paris.

`There are no heroes left'

"This is a city of heroes, but there are no heroes left," says a 20-year-old student who gives his name only as Ivan.

Ivan sits on the steps of a stone-gray residence that tells the city's history over the past century. The stately building that once housed royal retainers and communist apparatchiks is now filled with families scraping by in a country virtually closed to the outside world. A once-imposing wooden front door has been ripped in half.

"NATO did it," one resident jokes of the ill-repaired building.

There is a seedy quality beneath the city's grandeur. A dead cat and bits of garbage lie on one street. A man tosses a plastic bottle onto a sidewalk. Balconies that were once filled with blooming flowers are empty.

"People lead a hard life here," says Marko Pejovic, a 23-year-old seaman who can't find work. "It is full of sacrifice."

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