On Montenegro’s March to NATO

Many were surprised when NATO defied Moscow and invited Montenegro to join the military alliance. Some, like the New York Times went so far as to assert that the tiny Balkan state was of “no strategic significance.” What nonsense. The Sage of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, writing in the June 1934 issue of The Seven Seas after a visit to Montenegro, reminds his readers of just how strategic Montenegro has been over the centuries. “It has been, in its time, Roman, Venetian, Turkish, Spanish, Serbian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Russian, French, English and Austrian, and all the while it was really Montenegran.”

Members of the NYT editorial board, as well as many others in the press, clearly know little of Montenegro’s history — an oversight that can be corrected by a study of Elizabeth Roberts’ Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro (2007). A field trip to the Adriatic deep-water part of bar would be edifying for any strategist, too. Never mind.

As for me, Montenegro’s march to NATO was no surprise. Indeed, I was part of the march, when it started back in 1999. At that time, I was a State Counselor to Montenegro and advisor to President Milo Djukanovic, a position I held until 2003. Yes, he is the same Milo Djukanovic who has led the march since day one and is now Prime Minister of Montenegro.

Back in 1999, Montenegro was still part of the rump Yugoslavia. In that year, NATO actually bombed Yugoslav forces in Montenegro. But, there was trouble in paradise. Djukanovic was tired of laboring under Slobodan Milosevic’s yoke. And many Montenegrins were fed up with the economic madness that Milosevic was dishing out from Belgrade. Just recall Milosevic’s great hyperinflation, which started in January 1992. It peaked in January 1994, when the official monthly inflation rate was 313 million percent. For some color, consider that the worst month of Weimar Germany’s 1922-23 hyperinflation saw prices go up by only 32,400 percent. The Yugoslav hyperinflation was devastating. Long before NATO struck Belgrade in 1999, Milosevic’s monetary madness had destroyed the Yugoslav economy.

From the first time I met Djukanovic in 1999, it was clear that he envisioned Montenegro’s secession from the rump Yugoslavia and a march toward the European Union and NATO. But, how would he make the break and start the march? That’s where I came into the picture. The Yugoslav dinar was Milosevic’s Achilles’ heel, and Djukanovic knew it. For more on the history on Montenegro’s marches, Norman Davies’ Vanished Kingdom: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations (2013) is a most edifying read.

With Zeljko Bogetic, I wrote a book, Cronogroska Marka (1999). It laid out the modalities for Montenegro to dump the Yugoslav dinar, which would be the first step in the march. As soon as this book hit the streets and I was appointed as State Counselor and Djukanovic’s advisor, I became one of Milosevic’s marked men. The official accusations that swirled in Belgrade claimed that I was, among other things, the head of a group that was trying to destabilize Serbia by unloading counterfeit dinars into the economy.

The German mark was the unofficial coin of the realm throughout the rump Yugoslavia. We knew that the German mark was Djukanovic’s trump card. If Montenegro officially adopted the mark, it would not only stabilize the economy, but also pave the way for reestablishing Montenegro’s sovereignty. On November 2, 1999, Djukanovic boldly announced that Montenegro was officially adopting the German mark as its national currency. This was Montenegro’s first secession step — a step that was eventually supported by the United States and its allies. On November 4th, I, with the help of Senators Steve Symms and Trent Lott, arranged a meeting at the U.S. Capitol in which Djukanovic and I made a case for Montenegro’s currency reform and the start of the march. The members of congress in attendance — Trent Lott, Steve Symms, Richard Lugar, John Warner, Harry Reid, Larry Craig, Kay Bailey Hutchison, among others — warmly received our message.

It was the German mark then. Today, it’s NATO. No surprise. That’s where Djukanovic told the assembled, on November 4, 1999, he was headed.

Steve Hanke is a professor of applied economics at The Johns Hopkins University.