May 2023 marked an added occasion: the inauguration of newly-elected President Yakov Milatović, ending the three-decades-long rule of Milo Djukanović.
It was a longer than usual but somewhat subdued celebration, with inauguration and independence celebrations blurring over a weekend and public holidays extending well into the following week. Shops and businesses closed for four days, and those who could head for the coast, the mountains or surrounding villages.
The inauguration, previously held in the country’s royal capital, Cetinje, took place in the administrative capital Podgorica. Milatović had received a hostile reception on his last campaign visit to the country’s bastion of antifascism and seemingly didn’t want to risk a repeat.
Instead, the president’s official Cetinje residence was vacated by the incumbent, and citizens of Cetinje made a public show of empty chairing their no-show new president. Not an encouraging start for a politician who promises to unite and represent all citizens.
Cetinje celebrated Independence Day nonetheless, with national flags, May Days festival signs adorning its tree-lined streets, and a stage set in the historical centre for the ongoing festivities.
A fly-past by an Italian NATO jet and a volley of fireworks uncomfortably reminiscent of artillery fire kicked off the celebrations in Podgorica on Friday evening. There was apparently a concert in the main square, but no one seemed to know or hear much about it.
Saturday’s inauguration in the parliament passed off without incident, witnessed by a selection of invited leaders, most notably Serbia’s President Vucić. President Milatović spent the first night of his tenure with his family in the official government guest house on Gorica Hill overlooking the city.
A few late-night revellers disturbed the city’s unusually quiet, traffic-free streets.
The next morning, families with children walked around the hill to the cafe and tree-climbing playground as usual. There were barely any signs of Independence Day celebrations on the day itself, except for modest Montenegrin flags attached to the cities’ lampposts.
Slowly the city that had emptied came back to life.
Just in time for the kickoff of a ten-day NATO exercise, dubbed ‘Immediate Response’, in the northern mountains.
Led by US troops working with Montenegrin and other NATO members, alliance forces were here to practice mountaineering skills in the canyons and peaks made famous by the Partisan resistance and support naval colleagues in the Adriatic port of Bar.
The significance of such an exercise will not have been lost on Serbia and Russia, though artillery practice was apparently not allowed due to local protest.
Despite a well-timed social media campaign extolling the security of NATO membership, the latest survey data shows just under half of the population (47%) support Montenegro’s presence in the alliance, with 17% having no opinion and 36% against. Not all are convinced.
Meanwhile, on Montenegro’s tourist coast, a different kind of inauguration was taking place.
A co-living “pop-up city” was being hosted for several weeks by a Russian cryptocurrency trader, Ethereum founder Vitalik (nee Vitaly) Butarin, in the exclusive Lustica Bay resort.
Given a golden passport and citizenship by the government in 2021, Butarin looks to be attracting assorted cryptocurrency traders and ‘longevity’ research gurus to the economically fragile state.
Despite the venue being publicly undisclosed, it was the worst kept secret when Prime Minister Dritan Abazović and former Finance Minister Milojko Spajić (a currency trader himself) tweeted whilst visiting the event.
Sessions with titles such as “The Union of Crypto, Longevity & Network States” or “Reproductive Technologies for Network States” indicate a nexus of blockchain and biotech evangelists.
Dig a little deeper and you find research financed by a well-known tech billionaire in search of extending human life.
A few days later, during the long May holiday, Butarin organised his latest Ethereum conference, EDCON 2023, at the University of Donja Goritsa.
The private school has links with libertarian foundations in the United States and has incubated a number of Montenegro’s free market politicians over the years.
A particular conference highlight was Butarin appearing onstage in full Montenegrin national dress. The concept of cultural appropriation seems to have been lost on his followers, who revered the twenty-something trader as an icon on Twitter.
How the new politicians of Montenegro think they can rebuild the nation’s economy on the back of cryptocurrency is anyone’s guess. But we might be about to find out.
Political campaigning has started for the upcoming parliamentary elections on 11 June, with the Europe Now movement favourite to form the next government and Spajić the most likely candidate for prime minister.
But one campaign, in particular, caught my eye: The Together! coalition, led by the Democratic Party of Socialists, chose not to plaster the faces of their candidates on their billboards, but instead, the colours and stars of the EU flag and a promised deadline for EU membership – 21 May 2026 – Independence Day.
Photographs courtesy of Natalie Sarkic-Todd. All rights reserved.