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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 1/3)
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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 1/3)

Within this platform of ours, we dedicate the majority of our efforts to reporting breaking news in the most neutral and ethically sound way that we can. Though this does enable us to disseminate the news in a way that allows the reader to effectively make up their mind, it does restrict the range of topics we get to cover. In an age where news works through populations like wildfire, it can be tough to keep up and devote an adequate amount of time to every event that catches the public eye. So, to combat that, I thought I would dive deeper into a specific example of what can happen when the media is biased (and perhaps irresponsible) when it comes to reporting on a delicate and loaded issue. In this instance, the events we’re going to look at take place in the rarely globally discussed country of Montenegro, nestled in under Croatia, in the Western Balkans.


Amid a flurry of pandemic reporting and conflicts erupting throughout the world, bloodshed and civil unrest were narrowly avoided in Montenegro in 2021 – a story that was picked up by very few Western media outlets, and one which got somewhat lost among more ‘local’ events. Why it is of particular interest to me is not solely that I happen to call this country home, but instead, it is the possibility that these events will shape political discourse in the country for years to come. There is also a geopolitical significance that we should address. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum. Because these events will be unfamiliar to most, I thought this piece may make an interesting example to employ to try and analyze media responses and bias. Given that you, the reader, are reasonably unlikely to have any loyalty toward any news outlet quoted herein, we have a unique chance here to approach and retell this story with unadulterated neutrality and objectivity. As such, the intention here is to bring this example to the fore in the hope that we can collectively strive toward making our own critically analyzed and independent conclusions on events resembling these as they arise (as inevitably, they will) in the future. By no means is it my intention to guide the reader toward ‘choosing a side.’ As most of these matters are, by nature, there is rarely a ‘black’ or ‘white’ – instead, there is a vast spectrum of ‘grey’ to wade through.


Differing Views, Irreconcilable Differences  

In the academic literature and press reports following the breakup of Yugoslavia – and indeed in the run-up to it – the tendency to regard this region as somewhat barbaric and ‘other’ to the West is apparent. Unfortunately, such discourse hasn’t done much to aid those seeking to understand and rationalize the history and indeed the probable future of the region. As a result, when there is a conversation regarding the factors that contributed to the most recent genocide in European history, the debate is quite often drawn to denoting which side was at fault – who were the ‘good guys’ and who were the ‘bad guys.’ There is little attention paid to studying the root causes behind any of the actions taken as a result. To add further complexity, there are also religious and ideological differences at play here that exist and stand at irreconcilable odds with each other. Thus, any resolution becomes near impossible to realize.


When you walk the streets and talk to the people of this region, you get the sense that the overwhelming majority would prefer to do everything in their power to move beyond the horrors experienced during the breakup of Yugoslavia. For some, it is not even a matter to be discussed; for others, who are keen to explain their perspective on the situation, this period is something to learn from – and never to repeat. Disturbingly, others (a small minority) will even deny that massacres such as that at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, wherein 8,000 lost their lives, ever happened. Another humongous crime that should not be omitted here is the siege of Sarajevo – which has since been referenced as a ‘Jerusalem in the Balkans’ – the longest siege of a capital in modern warfare at 1,425 days. From the latter, four Serb officials were convicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity – perhaps too small a penalty to pay, considering 5,434 civilians had lost their lives.


Despite the majority having no direct will to strive toward future violence, this does not necessarily mean that the old tensions have been resolved – or that, in many cases, it is even possible for this to happen. Further challenging this peace are certain factions and fringe groups that actively seek to deepen these extant divides to, assumedly, further their various political and social causes. And for an even smaller demographic, there are still scores to be settled. What is striking is how quickly tensions can then mount, what actors will become involved, and where the scene ends up being set. For this reason, I wanted to critically analyse the events over the weekend of September 5th, 2021, in Cetinje, Montenegro as neutrally and impartially as possible. To achieve this, I’ll be dissecting all that I can from what many news outlets deemed a ‘political protest’ and others referred to as an ‘attempted coup.’ The stark reality of it is that this ‘protest’ stands as one that could have quite easily led to the manifestation of civil war – with already extant divisions thus growing irreparably wider across political, religious, nationalist, and historical lines as a result.


2: Disputed Territories, Weaponised Literature

When speaking to Montenegrins after September 4th/5th of last year, one sticking point that inevitably causes a huge amount of ire is just how often political events are reported on in a manner that doesn’t quite accurately represent the complexity of their situation. Balkans-based journalistic trends tend to show overt bias toward one ‘side’ or the other – the Serbs, or the Montenegrins. So, I have been corrected many times in my two years living here by various willing and educated parties after reading and internalising something that led me to lean one way or the other. In this sense, their distrust of the media is more than justified, seeing how easily opinion can be formed and swayed, even among the wary. In the lead-up to putting this down on paper, one Cetinje-based scholar wrote in correspondence when asked to share his knowledge on the topic, “these problems, to be completely honest, are extremely hard to explain to anyone who is not from the Balkan region.” If anything, this is an understatement. To try and understand the events of the weekend in question by attempting to superimpose some contextual analysis we’re more familiar with never quite hits the mark. Even to compare the situation to that in Northern Ireland during the troubles, (also organised along religious, territorial, and political lines) where we see a larger imperial force occupying a smaller territory against the will of some, but not all, is to misconstrue the dynamic of the region entirely.


In the same vein as many conflicts worldwide, a large part of the unrest in the region is due to the Serbs’ historical claim to the land now ‘occupied’ by the Montenegrins (as one side would describe it). This viewpoint asserts that by looking back far enough into history, most of the Balkan peninsula inherently becomes Serbian territory – with all the cultural and linguistic signifiers that go along with it. Cetinje, the old royal capital of Montenegro; a tiny city nestled into the mountains in the centre of the country, is no exception to this. In some ways, it can be acceptable to reason that the formation of Yugoslavia somewhat halted the development of a singular Serbian national identity, which would go some way to explaining any renewed desire to reunite their ‘lost’ nation under a single flag again. There are simply far fewer obstacles standing in the way of this goal now.


Naturally, those who tie their cultural identity to the Montenegrin flag feel entirely differently about this prospect, which makes the idea of compromise effectively redundant for nationalists on either end of the scale. This is especially pivotal considering the historical, religious, and cultural significance of Cetinje itself, to both Serb and Montenegrin national identities. History teaches us that “In some periods, when the Serbian state did not exist… certain cities played the role of cultural centres for the Serbian nation, as did Cetinje” (1). In stark contrast to this, for Montenegrins, Cetinje is the seat of royal power in the nation and was the capital for many decades after Montenegro’s independence was recognised at the Congress of Berlin, 1878. It is the centre of cultural production and has withstood invasion and occupation by various forces – often numbering far more in terms of manpower – throughout its history.


To cut straight to the point of this, both sides see the area as of great significance to them – whether for territorial, historical, or religious reasons. And that carries forward right up to the current day. For those that sympathise with the Serbian-nationalist mode of thought, Montenegro is but a young country (having declared its independence on May 21st, 2006), and depending on who you ask, it is but a province of Serbia itself – and one which has lost its way and is subsequently waiting to be ‘found’. On the other end, those on the Montenegrin side will flock to the province yearly to celebrate their independence in an atmosphere that can only be described as what would happen if Carnival took on a political element. It’s a peaceful protest, but it’s also one massive party, revellers passionately celebrating their long-sought-after self-determination. Such duality is prevalent throughout Montenegro, with overlapping religious, cultural, and ethnic identities interwoven into the tapestry of its society. But these identities can clash – if the appropriate scene has been set. And much as the authors of the SANU Memorandum, drafted in 85-86 (2), proved, the mobilization of a set group of people is quite possible if organised tactfully from the top down. And this form of literature itself has historical parallels. In 1844, the Serbian Minister for Internal Affairs had put forth a document, known as the “Nacertanije” (or Program), which called for the Serbian people to recount the glory of their medieval days and listed “potential territories for future Serbian rule. Of primary interest were Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, and northern Albania” (3).


Continued next week…

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