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Saturday, 25 January, 2003, 12:33 GMT
Balkan journey: Four countries or two?
Montenegrins rally in support of pro-independence Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic
Montenegrins have pushed for independence for years
Matthew Price

In the next few weeks - all things being equal - Yugoslavia will officially cease to exist after a lifetime of just 74 years.

Many, of course, will argue that the country is already dead, like the thousands killed in the wars which tore it apart in the 1990s.

Once made up of a total of six republics, Yugoslavia now consists of just two: Serbia and Montenegro.

And now those two republics are close to finalising a deal.

It will see them form a loose union, probably to be called - rather unimaginatively - Serbia and Montenegro.

Anti-Milosevic crowds gather in Belgrade
Yugoslavia's renaming follows the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic
Once and for all, it will consign the name Yugoslavia to the history books.

But the name change won't stop the people of the Balkans debating and arguing about the status of the places where they live

The Balkans are permanently confusing. I was posted to Belgrade seven months ago - when Belgrade was in Yugoslavia.

Soon I will need to send out change-of-address cards.

"Write to me in Europe's newest country - Serbia and Montenegro". Catchy.

The changes are wreaking havoc with maps too. Consult the one in my office and a recent trip to neighbouring Albania took me to just two countries.

But the people I met were adamant. It was more like four.

What remains of Yugoslavia

Country number one appears obvious. It's Yugoslavia itself. Belgrade airport. Six o'clock in the morning. Minus three. The snow coming down.

The good news is that the first leg of the journey is classed as a domestic flight.

No international check-in, so slightly longer asleep.

To get to Albania I'd decided to fly to Podgorica, the capital of the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro and head across the border by land.

It is a 40-minute plane ride south from Belgrade, over stunning scenery.

The plains of northern Serbia rise up to form snow-covered mountains.

Isolated farmhouses dot the slopes. The Adriatic Sea slides beneath as you turn for landing.

Serbia and Montenegro are what remain of Yugoslavia.

One country, Yugoslavs argue. Hence the domestic departure.

'Balkan balkanisation'

Touch-down in Montenegro though, and it is into international arrivals.

Perhaps that gives the wrong impression. All arrivals at Podgorica are to the same rather shambolic cattle-shed of a terminal.

Map of the Yugoslav Federation
It is just that many of the airport staff regard Belgrade flights as coming from a different country.

For years many Montenegrins have pressed for independence.

Worried about more "Balkan balkanisation", the EU succeeded in persuading them to stay wedded to Serbia.

But even before they have actually signed the final paperwork, Montenegro's prime minister has signalled he will go for independence in three years' time.

For many, Montenegro is country number two.

Independent spirit

Out of the airport, into a taxi to the Albanian border. Half an hour. Fifty euros.

Another sign of their independent spirit - they do not use the Yugoslav dinar here.

Kukes, Albania
Kukes is on the border between Albania and Kosovo
Albania will be country number three then.

I was heading across its north, bound for the town of Kukes.

The road snaked round mountain passes, with tarmac guaranteed only on the bends.

It seems there is just enough money to repair the most dangerous sections of the road.

Five hours later, I was in Kukes, a tidy little town, right on the border with the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo.

During the conflict there between Serb and ethnic Albanian forces in 1999 this was one of the places to which refugees fled.

It is quite a politicised place, to say the least.


I was sitting in the bright white light of the hotel restaurant when the bearded man arrived.

Now the bearded man is a little intimidating.

Probably only six feet tall, he seems a giant, with a huge black beard, wild black hair and a crazed look in his eyes.

Refugees arrive in Kukes
Many refugees fled to Kukes during the Kosovo war
On his fingers he has these two silver rings cast in the shape of the Albanian eagle.

Oh, and he is a gun smuggler wedded to the Albanian cause.

You should have seen his expression when I foolishly mentioned I live in Belgrade.

Belgrade, as the capital of Yugoslavia, is the source as he sees it of repression against Kosovo's Albanians.

I back-peddled for a while and he seemed to calm down.

But I still was not going to pick a fight with him on his nomination for country number four.

Officially Kosovo is still a part of Serbia and therefore Yugoslavia, but Belgrade does not run it.

After the Kosovo conflict the UN took over.

The way the bearded man sees it, Kosovo is nothing to do with Yugoslavia, independent in all but name.

Car confusion

A day later, all my interviews finished, I left Kukes, and crossed into Kosovo from northern Albania on the start of my journey back to Belgrade.

KLA soldier, northern Albania
The Kosovo Liberation Army trained in northern Albania
In theory I was back in Yugoslavia the moment I crossed the border, but in reality it felt nothing like it.

The signs were still written in Albanian, rather than Cyrillic script. Mosques outnumbered churches.

I did not need to change taxi drivers. We just sailed on through and up to the border with Serbia proper.

And there it was starting to snow again. Kneeling in front of his car, an old man was shivering, changing his number plate.

Off with the Kosovan one, on with a Serbian one - the only way to safely drive the same car in both places.

One country on paper perhaps, but that is not how it plays out on the ground.

Like I say - kind of confusing.

See also:

06 Sep 02 | Europe
31 May 02 | Europe
14 Mar 02 | Europe
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