Maine’s ‘sister’ country, Montenegro, offers perspective on U.S. politics

CNN International was on the big screen TVs, flashing maps of red and blue, while reporters interviewed the prime minister and assorted experts. In the reception area, people in business dress picked from platters of soft feta cheese, figs, smoked meats and thin pancakes. Whatever language was spoken, the subject was American elections and what it all meant.

Dear readers, this was my morning two weeks ago, at the midpoint of a week spent in Montenegro, a part of the former Yugoslavia with a “sister” relationship with Maine.  Like Maine, Montenegro has skiing and seacoasts, along with forests, blueberries, potatoes and tourists.

Invited by the U.S. State Department, I was there to educate and interact, and the learning went both ways.

A beautiful country with white limestone mountains, a gorgeous coastline, ancient monasteries and mosques, and warm and friendly people, Montenegro has experienced periods of occupation and independence. Its current constitution was adopted just five years ago, a year after it separated from Serbia. Now this small country (the size of Connecticut, with half the population of Maine) in southeast Europe seeks to join international entities such as NATO and the European Union.

Montenegro, like the U.S., is a diverse country and, unlike some other Balkan locales, it did not carry out genocidal “ethnic cleansing.” To join the European Union, Montenegro must show it has stable democratic institutions, respects minority rights, supports human rights and the rule of law, and have a free market and foreign policy consistent with the EU.

Some of what I learned involved these large matters. I also saw the importance of honesty, respect and curiosity for building cross-national, cross-cultural relationships.

In one gathering, a Montenegrin asked me why there were such long lines for voting in the United States. CNN showed those in Florida and Ohio.  Real shock came after I explained that partisan officials, who sometimes place fewer voting machines in areas supported by their opponents, could make election administration decisions.

Mind you, since partisans don’t run elections (and, by the way, voters don’t need to register), this sort of chicanery is impossible in Montenegro. Some had thought American democracy was “perfect.” But my admission was invaluable, for guarded conversation opened up. Said one person, “Now that you have been honest with us, let us talk with you about some things we might not have said.” My directness then led to a frank discussion about whether belonging to the political party in power influenced if people could get certain jobs.

A class of my Maine students met with Montenegrin students through the Internet. Those conversations started with the U.S. elections, and then students found that our politics is not patterned the same.

For one, what Americans see as natural clusters of issues don’t work that way everywhere and don’t inspire the same passions. In Montenegro, legal abortion is fully supported, and the idea that some might not support birth control seems an absurdity, but few have even considered marriage equality for gay and lesbian people. As one Montenegrin student put it, “that kind of love” is not an important cause to them. And while there are patterns of ethnic support in the United States, American political parties are not explicitly built around those identities, as are some in Montenegro.

As Montenegro’s experience shows, building and maintaining political institutions, organizations and rules for political and economic life takes time and care. After having the same governing party configuration for 23 years, new parties won legislative seats in October 2012, and the ruling coalition had to be broadened.

Montenegro, like the United States, is grappling with a globalized economy, where jobs and capital shift. People care for their own communities but must deal with these economic realities.

As the American ambassador to Montenegro said three years ago, when opening one of the venues where I spoke, “We are here to learn something from you, as well. America, which was founded by immigrants, is well aware that many things could be learned from people all around the world.”

Whether our families have been in these lands for millennia, centuries, decades, months, week or days, this Thanksgiving, our well-being depends on deeper understandings of our place in this world.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.