Black mountain nation

May 24, 2006

The Balkans, as a region, is continuing to fracture. This week, the people of Montenegro voted to split from Serbia; by the end of this year, Kosovo, too, may have achieved some form of independence. The Serbs have driven them all away, just as they provoked ruptures with the Slovenians and Macedonians and - with considerably more violence - the Croatians and Bosnians in the 1990s. Montenegrins want the respectability of membership in the European Union and even in NATO, but that respectability was going to continue to elude them as long as they remained hitched to a government in Serbia that has refused to cooperate with the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

Montenegro is a small country, with a population that rivals that of the city of Baltimore. It's really not seeking national sovereignty in the absolute sense but merely swapping the not-so-protective umbrella of the Yugoslav federation for the much spiffier ones of the various European structures. Montenegrins already use the euro as a currency, and if the bureaucrats of Brussels will someday be making most of the important decisions, well, they've got to be better than the bureaucrats of Belgrade.

There was a time, around 1990, when it was thought that the European Union might make some of the big old nation-states obsolete. Why, it was asked, shouldn't Scotland be a member of Europe, rather than a member of the United Kingdom? Same for the Basque region in Spain, and perhaps Catalonia and Northern Italy, too. It didn't happen, in the end - or at least it hasn't happened yet. Yugoslavia, standing outside the European gate, collapsed instead, and it has been left to Europe to try to gather up the pieces. Balkanization has always had a negative connotation, and the last 15 years have been a reminder of why that is.

But what of Serbia itself, the heart of Balkan woe? Resentful Serbs might make it difficult for the Montenegrins to fully free themselves, with all the many details of the separation still to be worked out. At least Serbia won't go to war again, but support for extreme nationalist politicians is building and they could make trouble for many years to come. Serbia is like a tear in the European fabric; it can't be left unattended or the tear will only grow. Someday it will have to be mended, but that can't happen until the Serbs themselves have been convinced it's what their own interest demands.

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