Thursday, January 14, 2010

Montenegrins reflect on the fruits -- and costs -- of the transition from communism

By Brian Salmi for Southeast European Times in Podgorica -- 13/01/10

The collapse of communism brought Montenegrins a multi-party democracy and eventual independence. But for many, the transition has been bittersweet. Along with others in the former Yugoslavia, citizens of Montenegro lived in relative affluence at the time the Berlin Wall fell. They lost it once Yugoslavia broke apart.

"We believed that we had a better form of communism, soft socialism. In the 1980s Yugoslavia had a standard of living that was equal to that of Greece," Maja Kostic-Mandic remembers.

With a younger generation taking over from the old guard, many believed the country was poised to enter the EU.

Then it all went wrong. Yugoslavia descended into chaos as the state disintegrated and its republics engaged in a succession of brutal conflicts between 1991 and 2001, known as the Yugoslav wars.

Today, the average Montenegrin remains worse off than before, says Kostic-Mandic, 40, a law professor and former parliament member. Her father, Branko Kostic, was vice president of Yugoslavia at the time of the breakup.

"Most people had a better life then," she says, pointing to the growing income gap among citizens, one of Europe's widest. "There was no extreme poverty, no drugs, much less crime, more jobs. We were all, more or less equal, and it seemed that everybody had a chance."

The affluence of those days however, rested on shaky ground. Montenegro was plagued by economic inefficiencies and depended on the federal Yugoslav government to redirect revenue from more prosperous republics. Yugoslavia eventually amassed debt exceeding 14 billion euros.

Reformists, led by Ante Markovic, saw EU entry as the solution. Joining the bloc, they thought, would foster investment and create jobs and allow the debt to be paid off. It didn't happen.

Momcilo Filipovic, a 46-year-old father of two and a trained engineer, has had trouble plying his trade for two decades. Asked if Montenegrins are freer today, he laughed darkly and quoted an old proverb.

"All men, rich or poor are equally free to sleep under a bridge."

According to Mihailo Jovovic, editor of the daily Vijesti, many Montenegrins simply feel they do not yet have enough of a stake in the country's economy or political life.

"Twenty years later, the same party is in power, despite the fact the people have lived in four different countries," he said. "The [Berlin] Wall is still in many heads, because they still think -- as in the communist times -- that things cannot change, this is how it should somehow be."

Confidence in democracy, Jovovic says, will depend on the political system maturing.

"When these things change -- i.e. when the power changes hands peacefully for the first time in Montenegrin history, and I am not sure that is going to happen soon -- these Montenegrins will start thinking that it is worth being entrepreneurial," he explains.

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