Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Montenegrins Dodge Draft
Montenegrins have always been renowned for their love of weapons and their
twin ideals of "dignity and bravery". In the former Yugoslavia, they were
caricatured from Ljubljana to Skopje for their devotion to the army.
Montenegrins swelled the ranks of the officer corps; young man who
didn't serve would find it difficult to marry in a society which measured
character by military prowess.
But a decade of conflict across the former Yugoslavia has left its mark on
Montenegrins. The enthusiasm with which they besieged the Croatian city of
Dubrovnik in 1991 has long since ebbed away. Today they are reluctant to
be roped into any more military adventures by Yugoslav President Slobodan
Milosevic. Unease over events in Kosovo, fear of more needless loss of
life and uncertainty about Milosevic's intentions towards their republic
have sullied their once uncritical view of the army.
In Niksic, 23-year-old Predrag received his call-up papers a few days ago.
"I am not going anywhere until the situation is clearer," he says. "For
one thing, we are not sure we are in the same country as Serbia any more."
Predrag is convinced Montenegrin conscripts receive harsher treatment than their Serb counterparts and says most of his friends share that view.
His draft papers were delivered by a local postman. The Montenegrin police,
controlled by President Milo Djukanovic,no longer help the army track
down unwilling conscripts. This leaves postmen with an unenviable legal
obligation of delivering call-up orders by any means necessary. Some spend
long hours trying to locate and then ambush wayward recruits. On the other
hand, in a small town like Niksic, friendly relations with the postman can
result in draft papers getting "lost in the post".
There was a time when bribery got you out of army service, but nowadays only full-time
students are exempt - and then only temporarily. Even
recruits with bad medical reports are sent for exhaustive examinations at
military hospitals in Podgorica and Belgrade, with no guarantee of
exemption at the end. The only alternative is to evade the
draft. But those who have not yet served in the army cannot easily obtain
passports and Montenegro's size makes it difficult for draft-dodgers to lie
low, as they can in a city the size of Belgrade.
Many join-up in the end because they can't face a hermit-like existence hiding in some mountain village or being accused of cowardice "Bravery is an achilles' heel for
Montenegrins," says 22-year-old Pavle. "In time of war, the stigma of
cowardice may be stronger than concerns over what kind of army we might be
Yet during the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia, several young Montenegrin
recruits deserted as their units were sent to Kosovo. Predrag Calasan
from Niksic was among them. A military court sentenced him in absentia to seven year in jail. He is now in hiding.
Once revered among ordinary citizens as a guardian of revolutionary ideals,
the army is slowly losing respect. The military have even stopped tending
war memorials, leaving their upkeep to the Montenegrin Red Cross.
In Niksic, the antics of the Seventh Battalion, a paramilitary force fiercely
loyal to President Milosevic, has soured relations further.
Its members recently took up position in the centre of Niksic,
shouting political slogans and obsenities and "jokingly" pointing their
sub-machine guns at passers-by. In a separate incident, a drunken Seventh
Battallion sergeant attacked diners in a restaurant, cursing their "Turkish
Army units also recently blocked off the road from Niksic to Trebinje.
"They behave like an army of occupation" says 45-year-old Zorka, whose
previous unswerving loyalty to Belgrade has evaporated in recent years.
Yet whatever the provocation, police are under strict orders not to
respond, says a source close to the Montenegrin government. The army is
thought to be trying to provoke an incident as a pretext for taking over
the Montenegro's borders and closing the republic off altogether.
The military has already closed the Bozaj border crossing with Albania once,
demanding that Albanians show visas, even though the Montenegrin government
has lifted the visa requirement for foreign visitors. While the
constitution requires the army to secure the borders, it is not entitled to
control border crossings or block roads.
While US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, warned a few days ago that
NATO would not stand by while Yugoslav Second Army units and the Seventh
Battalion tighten their military grip over Montenegro, few analysts in
Podgorica believe the international community would really act to defend
Montenegro's integrity. In the meantime, President Djukanovic
continues to plod towards independence. "Montenegro will follow its own
political course," he said recently. "Nobody else will dictate what we
do, not even Milosevic's guards."
Dragana Nikolic is an IWPR contributor
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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