President Donald Trump is no fan of Europe, a point which he made clear during his recent hurricane-like sweep of Northern Europe, where he left a wake of diplomatic destruction culminating in his comic soft-shoe with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. In addition to criticizing the two largest European treaty organizations, the European Union and NATO, Trump managed to spritz the leaders of Germany and Britain, Angela Merkel and Theresa May, respectively, before turning his guns on his own government.
Still, if any of our European allies could be said to have received the bum’s rush from Trump during the course of his tempestuous presidency it is the young Western Balkan republic, and newly christened NATO member, Montenegro.
At a conference of NATO leaders in May of last year, the elbow-happy president brusquely shoved aside Dusko Markovic, the Montenegrin prime minister. Then last week, Trump added insult and calumny to injury in an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson. While discussing NATO’s common defense policy, Carlson asked Trump, “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?”
The president’s head-scratching response was as follows: “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War Three.”
Predictably, Montenegrin authorities were flummoxed—and outraged—at the smear, as were many if not most of the 642,000 odd inhabitants of this hitherto relatively obscure southeastern European nation. “Today as a new NATO member and candidate for EU membership Montenegro contributes to peace and stability not only on the European continent but worldwide,” the Montenegrin foreign ministry fired back.
“We build friendships, and we have not lost a single one,” sniffed the government, clearly uncomfortable with being forced to play the role of The Mouse That Roared in Trump’s global floor show. “In today’s world, it does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy.”
Daliborka Uljarevic, executive director of the Center for Civics Education, a prominent Montenegrin nongovernmental organization, was less diplomatic. Uljarevic describes her reaction, as well as that of many of her friends to Trump’s remarks as “disbelief.”
“I really could not believe that the person I was watching was actually the president of the United States and that he could make such an absurd statement,” says Uljarevic.
What on earth did Trump have against “tiny” Montenegro? Where did he get the idea that Montenegrins were “very aggressive,” no less that they might start World War III? Clearly Trump needs to learn a thing or two about the geography and history of this stalwart U.S. friend.
Toward that end, with the aid of several prominent Montenegrins, including the ambassador to the United States, Nebojsa Kaluderovic, we have compiled the following corrective Montenegrin primer.
1. Montenegro is not tiny
Trump called Montenegro, with its land mass of 5,333 square miles, “tiny.” In point of fact, there are nine European countries that are smaller than Montenegro, including several which legitimately can be called tiny—Vatican City (0.17 sq. miles), Monaco (0.78), San Marino (24), Liechtenstein (62) Malta (122) and Andorra (181)—and three, Luxembourg (998), Cyprus (3,572) and Kosovo (4,212), which could accurately be described as “small.”
2. Montenegrins aren’t “very aggressive people”
Trump was partly right: Montenegrins are a strong and proud people, but they are no more inherently aggressive or war-like than any other European nation.
The president’s description might have been more accurate during the fratricidal period of Montenegrin history extending from the 15th to the 19th centuries, when the mountainous territory was controlled by a congeries of warlike clans. However, even though they proved to be excellent mountain fighters, most of the wars they fought, including the ones they fought with their historic adversary, the Turks, were defensive ones rather than wars of conquest.
Montenegrins—or at least most Montenegrins—could be said to have gotten the war out of their system at the Battle of Grahovac, where Grand Duke Marko Petrovic and his troops defeated an Ottoman force twice their size on May 1, 1858, a victory which continues to be celebrated today.
That watershed induced the Great Powers to demarcate the border between Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire, granting it de facto independence. Montenegro was later recognized as the world’s 27th independent state by the Ottomans at the Treaty of Berlin on July, 13 1878, the day which Montenegro would henceforth commemorate as the Date of Statehood, or independence day.
If Montenegrins have been fighting for anything since then, Kaluderovic points out, it has been to restore the pride of that 40-year interval of Montenegrin history when it was an independent entity. That four-decade passage came to an end after World War I, when the then-Kingdom of Montenegro was forced to become part of the new, larger Kingdom of Yugoslavia at the post-World War I settlement at Versailles.
As the ambassador points out, the United States unsuccessfully fought for Montenegro to remain independent after World War I—a fact that makes Trump’s misrepresentation particularly painful. “The USA was the greatest supporter of Montenegro retaining its independence at Versailles, and the people of Montenegro still appreciate this. The friendship between Montenegro and the U.S. is enshrined in our history.”
World War II brought more trouble, when the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was occupied by the Axis powers. Then, on July 13, 1941, the Montenegrin people rose up against Nazi Germany and its fascist Italian ally in the first armed uprising in occupied Europe, liberating most of their imprisoned part of the occupied Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Ultimately, though, the rebellion was crushed and the country was reoccupied.
After the war, Montenegro changed hands again when it became one of the six constituent republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), and the capital was renamed Titograd in honor Yugoslav President Josip Tito. Forty years later, after the dissolution of the SFRY, Montenegro remained part of a smaller Federal Republic of Yugoslavia along with Serbia.
Then, in the mid-90s, came the horrific Bosnian and Croatian Wars. However, as Kaluderovic points out, Montenegro’s principal role during those wars was an asylum and a haven of peace, when Montenegro took in over 120,000 refugees from the other warring states.
Finally, the resilient spark of Montenegrin freedom rose again on May 21, 2006, by which time the long-suppressed nation was one half of the bifurcated state of Serbia and Montenegro. On that day, Kaluderovic points out, in an arch take on Trump’s slander, “we regained our independence in a pretty ‘aggressive’ way—in a peaceful, democratic referendum supported by the international community” and Montenegro re-emerged into the bright light of freedom.
And so she remains today.
3. Montenegro mostly likely won’t start World War III
Over the past decade, the Montenegrin government has tried to steer the newly independent country toward the West. Montenegro was formally invited to join NATO in December 2015. It officially became a member in June 2017, much to the distress of Russia, which saw in Montenegrin accession the loss of its traditional access to the Adriatic Sea and onetime Balkan ally.
“We worked hard to fulfill the criteria for joining NATO,” Kaluderovic declares. “As the newest member we are committed to fight, together with our allies, the threats that all of us share.” He adds, “We also have our national plan for increasing defense spending by the prescribed deadline.”
That does not mean that Montenegrins are spoiling for a fight.
As Sinisa Vukovic, a native Montenegrin and professor of international relations and conflict management at Johns Hopkins University, points out, Trump’s response to Carlson’s query was as absurd as it was ignorant.
“First of all,” Vukovic says, “Article 5 is a defensive clause and does not stipulate support for aggressive actions of any NATO member state. Just as important, Montenegro is a small country with a population of 640,000 and a standing armed force of approximately 2,000 active personnel. As such, it is in no position to threaten anyone.”
Indeed, he continues, Montenegro, which has lately become a tourist hot spot, is trying to avoid conflict on its soil, or anywhere in the vicinity. “With its long Adriatic coastline and rugged mountain ranges, Montenegro has come to increasingly rely on tourism for revenue,” says Vukovic, “as such any instability in the neighborhood would cause serious problems for us.”
“The last thing we need,” he emphasizes, “is war.”
4. Montenegrin democracy is a work in progress
Like most of the Balkan states, it would be a stretch to call Montenegro a model democracy. On the upside it does hold free elections, and boasts a relatively vibrant and free press. However, it basically has been ruled by one man, Milo Dukanovoic, for nearly 30 years.
Montenegro also has a serious organized crime problem, which, his critics say, Dukanovic has deliberately overlooked. His admirers in the West, while not dismissing these concerns, prefer to focus on the deft way the strongman has steered his young country away from Serbian influence and out of the shadow of the Russia, and toward the West.
Here is how Vukovic, who has few illusions about his homeland, puts it: “Montenegro experienced a great deal of turbulence during the 1990s. With raging wars nearby, the detrimental spillover of these conflicts on its own economy, coupled with international isolation, the country struggled to maintain its statehood and national essence. For the entire Western Balkan region, including Montenegro, the main residue has beenorganized crime and corruption.”
Mihailo Jovovic, editor of Vijesti, one of Podjorica’s leading dailies, paints an even more downbeat picture of the state of the Montenegrin commonweal. The most accurate way to describe Montenegrin democracy he says, is “democratura—democracy on the surface, but mostly subtle and sometimes open dictatorship,” with rife cronyism, clientelism and corruption, much if not most of it the legacy of Dukanovic’s longtime rule.
For his part, Vukovic, while not denying the problems Jovovic cites, says he is “cautiously optimistic” about his country’s future. “There has been some modest progress” in dealing with Montenegro’s seemingly endemic crime and corruption, the expatriate professor says, with new laws passed as well as a number of indictments against high-profile politicians. Montenegrin democracy is “a work in progress,” he declares, and as such will continue to require the support and advice of other Western liberal democracies—as well as that of NATO.
Indeed, as he and other Montenegrins point out, Montenegro’s NATO membership and its prospective EU membership are the guarantors of the future of Montenegrin democracy.
5. If anything, Russia has been “very aggressive” toward Montenegro
During the run-up to NATO membership, Vukovic points out, Montenegro was “the target of excessively aggressive Russian rhetoric, which deemed Montenegrin membership as ‘an openly confrontational step’ and ‘a prelude to the new Cold War,’ and openly threatened retaliation.”
Vukovic sees a “stark and shocking” resemblance between Russia’s rhetoric at the time, and Trump’s recent anti-Montenegrin—and anti-NATO—rhetoric.
Russia’s less than friendly intentions toward Montenegro were further manifested in November 2016, when a group of Russian nationalists attempted to stage a coup in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, on the day of the parliamentary election. According the country’s chief special prosecutor, who investigated the coup attempt, which was thwarted with the aid of Serbian authorities, the plotters planned to assassinate the prime minister, bring a pro-Russian coalition to power, and thereby block the government’s drive to join NATO and the EU. (The government is in negotiations with Brussels to join the latter organization by 2025.) Among the 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens arrested in the failed plot were a number who fought for pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Predictably, Russia denied involvement in the coup. Still, it was fairly clear who was the aggressor.
Was Trump aware of the coup, which took place the month before his election? One doubts it. Was he aware of it when he articulated his uninformed, ill-advised response to Carlson? One wonders.
In any case, as Wesley Clark, the retired U.S. general and former NATO supreme commander, points out, the president’s stunning, destabilizing jeremiad must have been music to Moscow’s ears. “Worrying to hear Trump use Russian talking points with Tucker Carlson about Montenegro,” Clark tweeted. “Montenegro has been under continuous pressure by Russia for more than a decade. Trump’s comments weaken NATO, give a license to cause trouble and thereby actually increase the risk of renewed conflict in the Balkans.”
Uljarevic was more philosophical about the president’s remarks about her country, pointing out that it led to “abundant jokes on the Montenegrin social media, led to a lot of people who had never heard of Montenegro to Google it, and provided lots of material for comedy sketches worldwide.”
If anything, she says, the joke of the matter—insofar as one could joke about it—was on the American people “who had the misfortune to elect Donald Trump as president.”