Across the Balkans: Diplomatic Fault Lines in the Sandžak of Novi Pazar

by Matthew Stevenson

An account of a journey from Croatia to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, and with a detour into Montenegro. This is part VIII of a series.

Novi Pazar: The main town in what is called the Sandžak, the sliver of land that once connected Bosnia-Hercegovina to the Ottoman Empire and the scene of great power rivalries prior to World War I. Now in southern Serbia.

My traveling luck ran out in Kraljevo, a small city in central Serbia. There I had hoped to catch the train south to Raška, not far from Novi Pazar (the administrative center of the Sandžak). But I was too late for the morning train and too early for the evening train.

As much as I wanted to follow the route of the Novibazar Railway, in the end I decided to catch a bus heading from Užice to the coast that would drop me in Novi Pazar. That still meant waiting several hours in Kraljevo, the center of which was about a kilometer from the station.

At least I would get a good luck at the fateful lands in the Sandžak, which in the last two hundred years has been occupied or overrun by the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany, Italy, Albania, and Serbia, while Austria, Montenegro, and Bulgaria have claimed parts or all of it. It’s the equivalent of the Polish Corridor in the Balkans.

I walked around Kraljevo to kill time, beginning in the railroad station, which has been rebuilt since allied bombers destroyed it during the 1999 NATO blitz of Serbia.

How destroying a waiting room in a remote Serbian town helped the cause of the Kosovars, I cannot say. The only people hanging around the station that morning were older women with shopping bags and small dogs—not exactly Gavrilo Princip’s Black Hand.

According to TripAdvisor, I had the option of visiting a monastery, climbing up to a castle, or joining in on  some white-water rafting. But those were summer dreams. My only winter option was to sit in a café with Turkish coffee, and my books and maps. Think of Bismarck on vacation.

* * *

While I was idling in Kraljevo, I did think about a recent weekend trip I had made to Dubrovnik, in Croatia, and Kotor, in Montenegro. The trip had come up at the last minute when friends said they were heading to Dalmatia on a cruise ship and urged me to join them for two nights in the old city.

I had waffled on the invitation until I found a direct flight to Dubrovnik and figured out that, for $40, I could drive my friends in a rental car along the Montenegrin coast. It might not be the stuff of Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (in 1937 she explored Yugoslavia in an open touring car), but at least I would see Dubrovnik, a city of my dreams that I first visited in 1970, on a grand tour with my parents.

My most recent visit to Dubrovnik had come in summer 2003, when the Venetian old town was struggling to get over the war years. The physical damage to city had been repaired, but the psychological toll had yet to be amortized, and as I walked around the old town in 2003 I felt sorry that the world was still giving Dubrovnik a miss.

Sixteen years later, the Dubrovnik of my childhood and the immediate post-war years is gone. In its place are daily hordes of cruise-ship passengers (several thousand, if not more) and, for me, the deadening feeling that comes when a place that I love has been turned into a strip mall.

In the early years of the war, Serbian artillery did damage to the Dubrovnik skyline, but that was patched over to make way for the cruisers.

The only place that felt like the Dubrovnik I had known was the local history museum, where few tourists following flags and umbrellas around the ramparts care to tread.

I do not believe that Dubrovnik should be belong to Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, or any one nation-state. Instead, I prefer to think of it as a free city, as it was for much of its history, a republic unto itself, governed only by the aspirations of its citizens.

It was only in the history museum that such a Dubrovnik still exists, even if its leading citizens, thinkers, and artisans are now consigned to portraiture and murals.

In particular, I warm to the Dubrovnik of the 17th century, when it was known as Ragusa and when the likes of Stjepan Gradić were among its leading citizens. Professionally, he was a painter, but more accurately he would simply have had the title of “citizen”, and what he did for his republic is worth noting. His biography, recorded in the museum next to his portrait, reads as follows:

He was a diplomat and polymath, born to a distinguished Dubrovnik patrician family. He studied in Italy and spent most of his life in Rome, where from 1653 to his death [1683] he was the official representative of the Dubrovnik Republic to the Holy See, and accordingly carried out many diplomatic activities for both states. In 1682, he as appointed governor of the Vatican Library. He was a distinguished member of the Royal Literary and Scientific Academy of Queen Christina of Sweden in Rome and a member of the literary academy Dei Ricovrati in Padua. He collaborated and kept up contacts with many European writers and scientists. He was particularly meritorious for his services to his homeland. Mostly thanks to Gradić, in 1658 a Jesuit college was founded in Dubrovnik. He put a great deal of effort and no small diplomatic skill into the defense of the Dubrovnik commerce and the preservation of the territorial integrity of the Republic, using important personal acquaintanceships for the protection of its interests. He was of great service after the disastrous earthquake in 1667, organizing over the whole of Europe material, professional and military assistance for the ravaged city, mediating in a dispute with Turkey, and making a plan for the renovation of the city architects from Rome. For this reason in our Dubrovnik history, he has gone as the renovator of the city and freedom, and is called the Father of the Homeland. He was engaged in literary work, wrote scholarly treatises, translated from Greek into Latin and showed an interest in theology, philosophy, law, history, mathematics, physics and meteorology. He applied his theoretical knowledge practically in optics, the shipping trade, seafaring and hydromechanics. He studied the history of Dubrovnik and wrote biographies of the better-known contemporaries. He left behind him some ninety printed or manuscript works.

Any city-state that can produce such a man deserves to remain independent.

* * *

While in Dubrovnik, I rented a car and drove my friends south along the coast to the Bay of Kotor, which is across the border from Croatia in Montenegro. It had been more than ten years since I had been in Montenegro, and I was eager to see what changes had come with the tourists flocking to its Adriatic shores.

I first saw Montenegro in autumn 1989, when I rode a succession of dilapidated buses from Dubrovnik to Niksic and Podgorica, then known as Titograd.

What I remember most about the journey is that the only bus from Dubrovnik to Niksic left at 5:30 a.m., which meant a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and a ride across town in a taxi.

In Podgorica, a capital city of few charms, I caught the Beograd-Bar Railway express train to Belgrade, and rode all morning amidst the peaks and valleys of Montenegro and in the afternoon across the flatlands of Serbia, arriving in the capital in early evening. It was my first glimpse of Montenegro, a country that many compare to Switzerland, although at the time it was just another republic of Yugoslavia.

On this occasion, I saw a less spectacular side of Montenegro, which was its border crossing with Croatia. First we had to leave the European Union in Croatia, and then, down the road, enter Montenegro. The crossing took two hours, and I despaired that Tito’s internal borders had become what felt like Cold War frontiers. (The collapse of Yugoslavia has been a gift to the international amalgamated union of border guards.)

My goal was to show my friends the Bay of Kotor, which is as stunning as a Norwegian fjord, and the towns of Perast and Kotor, which I remembered from earlier visits as jewels beside the sea. But because of all the traffic, I had to give up on my idea of a visit to the ancient capital of Cetinje, where in the 19th century King Nikola had lived with his many children (most were married off into royal families, earning him the nickname of the “Father-in-law of Europe”).

King Nikola was also a wily diplomat, who negotiated Montenegro’s independence at the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, and he maintained excellent relations with many royal houses around Europe. He got along famously with the Turks, yet when the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912 to drive the Ottoman Empire out of Europe, he was at the head of his armies when they attacked the key city of Scutari, now the Albanian city of Shkodra.

Nikola even achieved lasting literary fame, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. Gatsby says to his neighbor Nick Carraway, who is also the book’s narrator:

“Then came the war, old sport. It was a great relief, and I tried very hard to die, but I seemed to bear an enchanted life. I accepted a commission as first lieutenant when it began. In the Argonne Forest I took two machine-gun detachments so far forward that there was a half mile gap on either side of us where the infantry couldn’t advance…. I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!” Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart….

He reached in his pocket, and a piece of metal, slung on a ribbon, fell into my palm.

“That’s the one from Montenegro.” To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look.

“Orderi di Danilo,” ran the circular legend, “Montenegro, Nicolas Rex.”

“Turn it.”

“Major Jay Gatsby,” I read, “For Valour Extraordinary.”

Little Montenegro, in the ten years since I had seen it, has become Russian Warm Water Port Montenegro. Around such ports as Herceg Novi and Tivat (where the airport is located), all I could see was rows of moored Russian yachts—oligarchy has its rewards—and garish seaside condominiums, which have turned the Bay of Kotor in something resembling a slavic Coral Gables.

* * *

That evening, after I had returned the rental car and vowed never to hire another one, we had a dinner with Ambassador William Montgomery and his wife Lynne in Cavtat, a coastal resort near Dubrovnik.

Montgomery and I were at the same undergraduate college, although at different times, and he later became the American ambassador in Croatia and Yugoslavia. He speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian and Russian (plus other languages), and after retiring from the State Department in 2004 he decided to make his home on the Dalmatian coast. His wife Lynne is still active in a number of charities that she organizes in the countries of former Yugoslavia.

Because Bill Montgomery was meeting my friends for the first time, he talked some about his career, which was remarkable in many ways. He served as a decorated combat officer in Vietnam, and after entering the foreign service in the mid-1970s he had diplomat posts in Africa, Eastern Europe, Washington, and Russia. His first ambassadorship was Bulgaria in 1993.

In the 1980s, as a junior diplomat assigned as an economic counsellor in Belgrade, he had frequent dealings with a young Yugoslav apparatchik by the name of Slobodan Milošević, who was the cabinet officer in charge of the banking sector.

At Dayton in 1995, when negotiating what became the peace accord, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke decided he did not need the help of experienced American diplomats including Montgomery, who had known Milošević for more than ten years and spoke his language.

After the dinner, Montgomery gave me a copy of his memoirs, Struggling with Democratic Transition: After the Cheering Stops: A Memoir by the Last American Ambassador to Yugoslavia, which describes how he was able to reopen the American embassy in Belgrade within days of the war’s end in 1999.

The book includes this sentence: “The best description of Milošević during the 1991-95 period that I read was that he was both ‘arsonist and fireman.””

* * *

The saddest part of the memoir is Montgomery’s description of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who came to power in 2001 and was, briefly, the great hope for moderate government in Yugoslavia and later Serbia. A criminal gang killed him in 2003.

As described by Montgomery, Djindjic’s dilemma was that in order for Yugoslavia (by that point a loose federation of Serbia and Montenegro) to improve its relations with the European Union and NATO it had to deliver Slobodan Milošević to the Hague tribunal. Needless to say, it was, for Djindjic, a Faustian bargain, and one that gnawed at him daily.

Montgomery writes:

Djindjic then asked if it would be possible for the West to hold off on pressing Serbia on ICTY [the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] and Kosovo issues for two years. If he had that time to get positive accomplishments done in reintegrating Serbia with Europe; in bringing foreign investment to the country; in reinvigorating the existing industrial base and increasing employment, he could then take on the two emotional issues of ICTY and Kosovo.

Kosovo was another no-win proposition for a Serbian prime minister. For Serbia to improve its relations with the EU, it needed to renounce its claims in Kosovo, and Djindjic knew that would alienate much of Serbia’s population which believed that Kosovo belonged in Yugoslavia or Serbia.

Montgomery writes: “Perhaps the most important point is that to this day 99% of the Serbian people believe that they are the victims in Kosovo…. Deep down, however, Serbs feel deeply that Kosovo was their possession and that it had been unfairly and brutally taken from them.”

In Montgomery’s memoirs, Djindjic, whom he knew well, comes across as a tragic Shakespearean figure who realized that the right thing to do was to turn Milošević and others over to the Hague, while at the same time fearing that, in so doing, he would be signing his own death warrant.

Montgomery writes: “Actions he took at our encouragement against indicted War Criminals hurt his popularity considerably.” It’s an understatement.

I got the feeling from the memoir that Montgomery, in American planning sessions, had tried to argue for leeway for Djindjic but that Bush administration officials in Washington had other ideas how to use the American imperium. For his “service” to the West, Djindjic was assassinated while getting out of his car at government headquarters.

After the 1999 bombing of Belgrade and the arrest of Milošević and other war criminals, the United States could impose its will across the Balkans, even if the results were harmful to some American friends.

Nor was Montgomery a big fan of Carla Del Ponte, the lead prosecutor in the Hague, of whom he writes: “The trial of Slobodan Milošević was her signature event and it is a case study in mismanagement and misjudgment.” But war crimes trials in the Hague salved the Western conscience and played well in re-election storyboards.

In the book Montgomery argues the point that making peace work is a lot harder than declaring war or tracking down suspects, although it is the latter that generates headlines.

Of his inability to give American policy in the Balkans a dose of realism, he writes wistfully toward the end of the book: “I was considered too sympathetic to the Serbian side.”

Diana Johnstone in Fool’s Crusade is more blunt in her assessment of this period, writing:

To gain admittance to the world, Serbia’s new leaders would have to help NATO justify its bombing of their country by shipping their wartime president to The Hague for a show trial staged by NATO’s partner, the International Criminal Tribunal. It was not enough to bomb Serbia and detach part of its territory. The Serbian people must be made to believe – or to pretend to believe – that they deserved it. The crime must be made to fit the punishment in the New World Order.

The footnote to this diplomatic history is that Russia has stepped into the breach that American and European heavy-handedness has created in parts of the western Balkans.

Most recently it has supplied Serbia with military hardware and anti-aircraft missiles (to forestall a rerun of the NATO bombings that took place in 1999), and it has encouraged Serbia to keep its distance from NATO and the EU—much the way czarist Russia, in an earlier version of the great game, opposed Austrian expansion in the Balkans on the line of the Novibazar Railway.

* * *

Eventually my bus for Novi Pazar departed from the parking lot next to the train station. It took three hours, with some rest stops, to make the drive across the Sandžak to the once-Turkish city that sits on the fault line between Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo.

By taking the bus I would arrive in daylight, and that, I hoped, would give me time to figure out the best way to cross from Serbia into Kosovo. My hope for the next day was to ride the train south across the uneasy border toward Pristina, but I knew that the train had had problems on occasion (with violence committed against passengers) and that on some days it did not run.

In travel literature about southern Serbia, Novi Pazar, because of its Muslim population, is always described as “colorful,” and much is made of its markets and the winding streets in the old town.

I had thought it might resemble Prizren, now in Kosovo, which gets my vote as the most oriental town in the Balkans, but Novi Pazar is less unified in its architecture and a mishmash of shops, mosques, roundabouts, and central-planning Yugoslav high-rise buildings.

My hotel had once been a Turkish caravanserai, of sorts anyway, and my room had a single bed and a large window facing the main square. In the distance I could see a hillside park and the spires of several minarets, but I didn’t linger to unpack my bag as my room was unheated and through the drafty window sills I could feel the brisk winter wind.

Much of what I knew about the Sandžak came from Rebecca West’s voluminous travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, whose 1181 pages I had read during my 1990 travels, although she did not stop in Navi Pazar.

The book can be both rewarding and an ordeal. In 1937 she made a six-week drive around Yugoslavia with her husband, Henry Maxwell Andrews, and a guide, with whom she fell in love, and one of the challenges of the book is sorting out what parts are a love letter for Yugoslavia and what was intended for her paramour.

When the book was published in 1941, Yugoslavia was under the onslaught of the Nazi invasion, which began with the bombing of Belgrade on Easter Sunday. So another way to read Black Lamb is as a time capsule for a country erased from many maps and memories.

West died in 1983, but during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s she was often accused of being “pro-Serb,” as if maybe she had used her touring car to shift the likes of Karadžić and Mladić between their safe houses.

* * *

After walking around the center of Novi Pazar, I decided to hire a taxi and ride out to the ruins of the first Serbian capital at Stari Ras and then on to Sopoćani, an early Serbian monastery and a UNESCO heritage site.

Ras was little more than a collection of stones by the side of the road (the footprint of the early capital), but it spoke to Stevan K. Pavlowitch’s point that “Serbias have come and gone, and they have moved about.” Belgrade, the current capital, is 150 miles to the north.

Sopoćani is a work of medieval splendor, although as with Rača it was locked behind an Ottoman iron curtain for centuries and repeatedly burned.

Only in 1926, after the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes reclaimed parts of southern Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, was the monastery restored, and now the church is part of a larger complex with housing quarters for the monks and even a gift shop selling a monastery-branded slivovitz.

With the sun setting and a chilling frost settling on the scruffy hills, the taxi drove me back to Novi Pazar, and there I set my sights on dinner and finding the best way to get across the border (domestic or international?) into Kosovo.

I thought I might eat in the expansive hotel dining room, but a waiter said it was closed, exceptionally, and he steered me around the corner to a pizza café. It might have been the last thing I wanted to order in the Sandžak, but sometimes during travel hunger and local cooking come at different times, and all I could muster was the energy to order a slice and wait for morning.

While at dinner, I searched on my computer and found an early train going from Kraljevo and Raška to Kosovska Mitrovica (a Balkan Belfast), which is the Serb enclave in northern Kosovo and which gets my vote for the city in Europe most likely to touch off another war.


Next up: Kosovo. Read the earlier installments here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.