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Getting Its Story Straight

Efforts to teach a national history in Montenegro lead to a familiar minefield. [Also in Russian.] by Andrea Gregory 3 March 2008 PODGORICA | Predrag Raznatovic quickly reads aloud through the part of the history book that states thousands of Montenegrins were killed by Serbs in 1918. He doesn’t believe what he is saying, but he reads it anyway. He is a history teacher.

Raznatovic, who has been teaching for 15 years in Podgorica, uses a relatively new textbook to teach the history of a relatively new country. Although he acknowledges that a history textbook is “a stamp of its time,” he argues that “the main agenda of education should be education.”

The history teacher and other critics of the new books say they sideline world figures in order to focus on Montenegro and that they distort the history of Serbia, with which Montenegro formed a federation for nearly a century.

The books’ defenders, however, say they are a good-faith attempt to shine a light on Montenegro’s long-overlooked national history.

‘ABOUT IDEOLOGY’

“These school books are not good for our situation,” Raznatovic said. “It’s not good for the future of the relationships between Montenegro and Serbia. … Nationalism is always a really big danger.”

History in the making.
Alen Abdomerovic disagrees. At 20, Abdomerovic grew up during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the history he learned changed along with the circumstances. Now a proud citizen of a newly independent Montenegro, he said a certain amount of nationalism is appropriate in a country trying to define itself.

Arguing that Serb nationalism swept through the region in the early 1990s, he said, “Now it is Montenegrin nationalism. I think it’s OK for now.”

Nor does he have a problem with that nationalism being promoted in textbooks. “I think it’s OK. I think every book you write, it’s good to write pro-something or anti-something to promote something,” he said

A recent poll suggests that many Montenegrins share Abdomerovic’s moderate nationalism. Conducted in September and October by the independent Center for Democracy and Human Rights, the poll showed that about 35 percent of respondents favored renaming the official language Montenegrin, edging out Serbian by about 5 percent. But many still see Serbia as an ally: about 34 percent said Montenegro could rely on Serbia’s help in foreign affairs. That’s below the 58 percent for the European Union, but well ahead of the other two choices, Russia and the United States.

Serbia and Montenegro went their separate ways in 2006, when a majority of Montenegrins approved an independence referendum. In October, Montenegro adopted a new constitution and national anthem. It has also designated the official language Montenegrin and created an official history.

Raznatovic said he favors an independent Montenegro but fears that changing the textbooks and the name of the language are a ham-handed way to get people to rally around the new flag. He called it “a dangerous way to build a new nation.”

A greater focus on Montenegro’s past in the new books has meant a significantly abbreviated survey of world history, the teacher said. He cites the deletion of lessons for second- and third-graders about Russia’s formation and its towering historical figures, such as Peter the Great.

Members of the Serbian People’s Party, whose website advocates a federation of Serbia and Montenegro, say the new books are part of a wave of anti-Serbian sentiment being fomented by the government. “It’s not a matter of science at all. It’s about ideology,” party spokesman Dobrilo Dedeic said, arguing that the changes are aimed at chipping away at young ethnic Serbs’ identification with Serbia.

He singled out the treatment of the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia during World War II. “Historical facts say that 600,000 Serbs were killed in Jasenovac. In history books in Montenegro the figures are different and copied from the Croatian books. The Croats strongly minimized the number of murdered Serbs.”

The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, states, “It is presently estimated that the Ustasa [fascist] regime murdered between 56,000 and 97,000 people in Jasenovac between 1941 and 1945.”

FINDING A BALANCE

Biljana Miranovic, an editor at Education Ministry who supervised the publication of the new textbooks, defended them. She said that before Montenegro established its own education bureaucracy in 2001, “Our students used to learn history from books written and published in Belgrade. The percentage of Montenegrin national history, in comparison to the rest, was not more than 8 percent.” The new books devote more than 40 percent of their content to national history.

Still, in shifting the focus, Miranovic said the ministry has been sensitive Montenegro’s patchwork of identities. “Our citizens have different national and political backgrounds and we were aware of that. We tried, and I think succeeded, to reach that balance. Our history books don’t glorify any of existing nationalities.”

Slavko Burzanovic, one of the authors of the history textbooks, has little patience with the critics. “The most dissatisfied are those who don’t believe in the existence of the Montenegrin nation (or Macedonian, Albanian, and Bosnian) -- those for whom it is a painful and unacceptable fact that Montenegro exists,” he said. “The fact that the majority in Montenegro don`t share their ideology is something they will call anti-Serbian politics.”

But efforts to assert a Montenegrin identity necessarily require drawing distinctions between Montenegro and Serbia. It is a touchy business, considering that the breakup of their union was the most peaceful of all the ex-Yugoslav states. Their peoples share a common language, whether called Montenegrin or Serbian, and the Orthodox faith. Many families have relatives on either side of the border.

When in the fall the Education Ministry declared Montenegrin to be the official name of the language used in schools, 12 teachers in Niksic resigned. The ministry had tried to ease into the renaming of the language by referring to it as the native tongue, when independence was first on the horizon.

“Austria never said, ‘I don’t like Germany so my language is not German,’ ” history teacher Raznatovic said.

WANTED: COOLER HEADS

Igor Milosevic, executive director of the Podgorica-based Association for Democratic Prosperity, a nongovernmental organization with a strong focus on regional cooperation, complains that the region is far more interested in the past than the future.

“It is part of a political game. Winners write the history,” Milosevic said.

When he was in school in the 1980s, two years of national history lessons were dominated by Serbia’s history, with very little mention of Montenegro, he said. Now the tables have turned.

“Ten years ago, the government had one approach, and now they have a completely different approach,” he said.

History, language, and national songs are all components of a country’s identity, Milosevic concedes, but he worries that the Montenegrin government is rushing things.

“You cannot change identity under pressure. Our government doesn’t know how to approach without pressure,” he said.

The job of writing Balkan history may be best done by outside experts or independent think tanks, Milosevic said. And he believes it is possible for neighboring countries to accept one history text. It took France and Germany 60 years, but since last year students from both nations have had access to a Franco-German history of postwar Europe.

History books throughout the Balkans recount different versions of the region’s recent past. “Probably we need to decide what happened,” Milosevic said. “If we continue to work this way, we’ll probably have another war. We can’t speak of our own conflict from one point of view, while Croatia speaks about it from their point of view.”

Aleksandar Stamatovic, a pro-Serb historian who lives in Montenegro, said every student in the Balkans should learn one true history, difficult as that might be to reach. Stamatovic would like to take on the job but knows that some of his claims, including that the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated, if not made up, would scuttle any such opportunity.

He accuses others of obscuring the truth. For example, he said, Milos Obilic was once seen as a Serb military hero who fought in the Battle of Kosovo between the Serbian and the Ottoman empires in 1389. Montenegro’s new official history declares him a fairytale figure, Stamatovic said.

“By saying he is a legendary character, a mythological character, with these new history books, Montenegro’s regime is making its own grandfathers and ancestors imbeciles,” he said. “They are falsifying history or they are inventing a new one.”

Stamatovic teaches history at a Sarajevo university. He said he cannot find work in Montenegro because of his views.

“The anti-Serbian stance in Montenegro is kind of a job now. All those who want to tell anti-Serb stories in Montenegro can find a good job and they have a good life. Those who feel ethnically and nationally like Serbs are second-class citizens, and all the doors are shut for them,” Stamatovic said.

Blatant manipulation of textbooks for political aims, as practiced throughout the region, is not likely to meet much resistance in the classroom, even from savvy students.

“Our school system tries to just teach people not to think just learn,” Milosevic said.

Rastko Pajkovic, 17, said he knows better than to press his teachers for answers if something does not add up. He does not want to jeopardize his marks.

Pajkovic considers himself a Serb living in Montenegro. He said his history teacher is pro-Montenegrin but does a fair job of leaving her opinions out of the lessons. However, he is aware that his book was published in Montenegro and said it has a slant.

“I think this history was really part of creating this national identity. This is a way of de-Serbization,” he said.
Andrea Gregory is an American journalist writing a book about women’s rights in Serbia. Aida Ramusovic, TOL’s correspondent in Podgorica, contributed to this report.
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