Wild Beauty, Democracy and Reconciliation

by Kevin Cottrell

In the days leading up to my travel to Montenegro, I felt bombarded by the “Montenegro: Wild Beauty” ads that played repeatedly on both CNN International and EuroNews. The ads are clearly a major initiative for Montenegro as it moves forward as a new independent state of just two years old, coming out of the turbulent years of civil war through the former Yugoslavia. The ads are stunning, sexy, and perhaps at first glance seemingly too good to be true.Montenegro thus became a source of a bit of humor and teasing by me, my colleagues, and new friends we met during our travels.Upon reflection, I realize that I was not really prepared for what might be one of the most powerful travel experiences of my life. In short, “wild beauty” is perhaps the best way to easily describe the small and fascinating country of Montenegro.

Arriving in the capital of Podgorica (formerly known as Titograd), I was challenged by the city’s physical appearance: the 1950-60’s style of communist concrete block structures. The original city was mostly destroyed during WWII and had since become a victim of egalitarian central planning. I was a bit dismayed, especially after visiting such amazing, and yet traditional, cultural centers on this trip.

On our first night in town, however, a transformation had begun. We were greeted by our city coordinator Daliborka “Dali” Uljarevic, who is the executive director of the Centre for Civic Education. Upon first meeting her, my first impression was of a young, soft spoken, petite NGO professional. I have since come to see her as a powerful and dynamic civic leader in a transforming democracy. Dali was an instrumental student leader in Belgrade during the historic student protests that lead to the end of the Slodoban Milosevic-era in Serbia and Montenegro. Today, she is a respected leader in the civil society arena.

Our first full day in Montenegro was spent in the stunning mountainous region in the north, where our group of six went white water rafting in the Tara River that is also the shared border between Montenegro and Bosnia. The Tara River Canyon (pictured left) is one of the deepest and longest in Europe. Our guides proudly shared that it is second in depth to the Grand Canyon. It was spectacular. The experience was unconventional, exhilarating, and a perfect introduction to the country. It was our first experience in the geographic location of Montenegro which, in addition to Bosnia, also borders Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia, and Albania. Without question, the mere mention of these Balkan countries raises questions about the strife of previous years. This was an issue that was with us constantly and, over the days, our hosts began to offer some powerful insights. It did take some time and trust to develop. To help in this, Dali organized a special dinner with journalists, heads of NGOs, and academics focused on civil society and democracy-building efforts in Montenegro. The evening was wonderful. In addition to sharing mutual interests in building strong community leadership, I deepened my relationships with my MMF colleagues and made several new friends.

We had the unique opportunity to spend two days traveling the country, particularly the coastal region that stretches from Croatia to Albania and provides stunning frontage on the Adriatic. The coastline is striking, where lush mountain ranges steeply slope to meet the sea. Throughout the region, small villages- both ancient and new- are nestled in the hills surrounding the harbors and beaches. At stops along the way in places like Bar (pictured right), Ulcinj, Cetinje, Perast, Kotor, and Budva we met with business and political leaders to talk about the next stages of development of the democracy and the role of business. We stopped to visit many of the unique historical settings that give Montenegro its charm.

As tourism is booming, and all sights are set on the attraction of foreign investment to build the tourism infrastructure, we visited Porto Montenegro in Tivat on the Bay of Kotor (pictured below). The slated project is a massive redevelopment of a former Yugoslavian naval base in the deep port bay. The Bay was one of the most stunning areas in our visit. So it came as no surprise the deep and protected Porto Montenegro at Tivat will be developed as a new port for the growing mega yacht industry. Currently, ports are limited in their capacity to dock the massive private yachts that are a growing trend in the industry. A development partnership driven by Canadian billionaire businessman Peter Munk, with the Four Seasons Hotel, is now proceeding with the redevelopment of the 25-acre former base. The project is estimated to provide a net gain of 5,000 new jobs upon completion. The overall economic impact of the project is estimated to be 80 million Euros to Montenegro’s annual GDP. The transformation will be monumental. Our group joked about a reunion scheduled to coincide with the grand opening. Some of us were serious!

Our final day in Montenegro provided us with the opportunity to meet the president, Filip Vujanovic (pictured below, center). He was very cordial, a gracious host and after some brief comments he spent nearly an hour taking our questions. I know we surprised him with our newly adopted passion for his country and the range of the issues and geography we covered. We left the meeting with the strong sense that Montenegro’s independence in 2006 was a major milestone for the country and the president. Our visit was posted to the president’s website on the same day. The remainder of our meetings focused on perspective on the future agenda items for the country including the further development of political opposition parties, education and workforce issues, human rights, and dialogue and reconciliation over the civil war. According to our coordinator Dali, on the issues of the civil war, “these issues must be confronted and not buried. This is the only way to prevent them from happening again,” she said. I respected her strength and integrity.

I was touched at how connected I felt at the end of this visit. It was a little emotional and very transformative for me personally. I was sad to leave as I was just getting started. I will have to find a way to return one day.

Kevin Cottrell is Executive Director of the Southern California Leadership Network, blogging from his fellowship with the German Marshall Fund in Europe.