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feature 01 Jun 17

Montenegro’s Boka Region Seeks More Autonomy

Politicians in the beautiful Boka Bay area on the Montenegrin coast want to take more matters into their own hands.

Dusica Tomovic
 Kotor Bay: Photo Wikimedia Commons/Ggia.

Undeniably one of the most beautiful parts of the tiny Adriatic country of Montenegro, some politicians in the Boka area - also known as the Bay of Kotor - say it is time they were granted autonomy from the rest of the country.

The autonomy movement has gained momentum since opposition parties recently took power in the region, which includes the coastal towns of Kotor, Herceg Novi, Tivat and Budva.

Sone locals in the deeply divided country say they are confused by the idea - and are not quite sure who is behind it.

Zoran Mustur, a retired sailor from Kotor, said he could not support anything “that might have a hidden nationalist background - because some of these parties are openly pro-Serbian.

“But if I knew that was not the point, I would support with all my heart,“ he said.

Others say autonomy would re-boot the development of the region and revive an ailing economy in what was once the richest area in the country.

"I do not care whether Serbs, Croats or Montenegrins stand behind the initiative. It is time that we people from Boka took matters into our own hands and stopped being an ATM for Podgorica and the rest of the country,“ Sonja Gudelj, a teacher from Herceg Novi, said.

The politicians and activists behind the autonomy movement want more power in deciding on infrastructure projects, budget spending and managing the coastal area.

Currently, all major decisions about the bay area are taken by the national government in Podgorica.

The initiative was first mooted on May 24 by the pro-Serbian party NOVA party in Budva, which called on other parties to help it prevent the bay’s “economic and cultural destruction”.

The party claimed that Boka had been put in an inferior economic, cultural and historical position because “centralization took everything from it and did nothing in return.”

“That is why Boka needs its autonomy, within Montenegro,” a party official in Budva, Marko Carevic, said in a statement.

The new local governments in Kotor and Herceg Novi immediately reacted in support of the initiative.

Part of the strength of the call for more autonomy lies in ancient history.

The Bay of Boka was never part of the historic Kingdom of Montenegro.

Over the course of many centuries, it was part of the Roman Empire, the Venetian Republic and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Moreover, even under the rule of Venice and Austria-Hungary, it had substantial autonomy, its own identity and a highly multicultural society, now reflected in the fact that it is home to many Serbs, Croats and Italians as well as Montengrins.

It only become part of Montenegro in 1945, after World War II, as part of the Communist reorganisation of Yugoslavia.

Budva and Kotor officials claim the idea of the autonomy reflects the fact that “throughout history it always had a special status in the region, which was economically independent”.

The most prominent local cultural organisation, Matica Boke, has been calling for autonomy for years.

In 2015, it also launched an initiative to form a community of three municipalities Kotor, Budva and Herceg Novi, which it says form the “true Boka area.“

Matica Boke claims that throughout history the area acquired its own peculiarities and, as such, does not belong only to Montenegro but to the wider community in the former Yugoslavia and beyond.

If the Boka area won autonomy, “Montenegro would have made significant progress towards decentralising an extremely centralist system and a significant contribution to democratisation in society,” it said.

But the autonomy initiative also reflects fears that Kotor and the Boka area could lose their UNESCO status, gained in 1979, due to the mass tourism that is damaging both historic sites and the environment.

The government of Montengro took measures in April to ensure that Kotor keeps its place on the UNESCO list, including a ban on construction in the old centre, but these have also caused controversy.

Local authorities in the towns claim the construction ban is a form of political pressure on the new, opposition–run local governments.

They say the national authorities did nothing to stop illegal construction in Kotor over the past two decades.

“The status of Kotor on the UNESCO list is compromised by the action and construction activities of powerful individuals and by families interacting with the national administration,” Kotor Mayor Vladimir Jokic claimed on April 6.

Mayors of Kotor and Herceg Novi Mayor Stevan Katic, who comes from another opposition party, the Democrats, said the campaign for autonomous status is not separatist but is based on history and Montenegro’s own laws.

“Accusations of separatism are nonsense, nobody would support that. Whoever intends to cut off part of the country should be tried immediately,” Mayor Katic said on May 26.

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