Porto Montenegro: the discrete charm of the Fully Automated Luxury Oligarchy

I arrived to Porto Montenegro’s swanky Regent hotel on the night of the first round of Montenegrin presidential elections which may, finally, end the decades-long reign of Milo Đukanović in the country.

The life of this luxury residential-commercial development made for super-yacht set, which replaced an old Austro-Hungarian, then Yugoslav naval yard, in a lot of ways captured Đukanović’s appeal, despite his party’s and personal corruption, alleged involvement in murders of journalists, and increasing nationalism which ultimately led to the failed nationalisation of the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church and weakening of his rule.

This stunningly well-designed and pleasant place in a lot of ways is the architectural monument to the promise of what can be described as “Fully Automated Luxury Oligarchy”. This post-ideology, or rather the technology of rule, was the promise for the region in the mid-2000s which Đukanović successfully pursued in his diminutive tourism-dependent state, and which later spread through the region.

As I was walking between the usual high-end yacht-set boutiques (Polo, Villebrequin, etc.), which were selling trinkets for several multiples of local monthly salary, I remembered how unfashionable Tivat was when I was growing up in the 1990s.

Ever since the Austrians built their arsenal there in 1890s, it was basically a military town. Although it later got its airport in 1957, but it was not a major tourist destination. It had none of the charm of Herceg-Novi or Kotor, nor the swagger of Budva. Since 1962, there was a Tiki-style Club Med on St Mark’s – a nearby island – but this ended in 1992 due to the Yugoslav wars and despite many attempts at redevelopment, the island remains abandoned (if you are interested follow these links – I might come around to writing about it at some point)

Still, Peter Munk, a Hungarian-Canadian billionaire, along with Nat Rothschild and Oleg Deripaska, decided to take a bet on Tivat and bought the old Arsenal for EUR 23 million in 2007, a year after Montenegro split from the state union with Serbia. The arsenal was especially attractive because it could handle superyachts of its backers and their friends and Montenegro promised to make them a good deal for the price of the mooring. Providing subsides and sweet deals made sense: as Munk noted the combined value of the yachts that were moored at Porto Montenegro outstripped Montenegro’s GDP. Of course, the move triggered protests from locals, who thought the arrangement absurd, especially among the general de-industrialisation of Montenegro which happened under Đukanović.

The deal was a crucial for Đukanović’s Montenegro, which was to become a future Monaco-style county: a playpen for the global rich unburdened from Serbia’s awkward place in the international system and oversight (especially important given the shady deals). The man who delivered some of the most passionate denouncements of former Yugoslav states and actively participated in the wars of 1990s became as ardent a defender of the current global system – where small countries trade their sovereignty for giveaways – as we was an ardent Socialist Yugoslav.

Although the global financial crisis slowed down the development, it still managed to host Nat Rothschild’s 40th birthday party – where Đukanović hob-nobbed with the global rich – and in 2014, Regent hotel was opened.

As noted by the FT journalist, who visited the development for the opening, the place seemed like typical globalist “no-where”: pastries were flown in from France and restaurants looked like they could be anywhere. Local references were acceptable as long as they were bland: the hotel’s Austro-Hungarian cream-yellow façade referencing the initial owners of the complex, faux-stone facades recalling Montenegro’s Venetian-built cities and technical drawings from the Arsenal’s archive decorating Regent’s walls and elevators.

Ironically this blandness was and is more attractive to Montenegrin and regional elites than to the super-yacht set. While the latter tend to like local twist in their jet setting lives and would probably enjoy being able to sample some haute-cuisine version of local staples such as raštan (local variety of kale), Njeguši prosciutto and cheese, the former tend to think that the highest praise of any place in their country is that it precisely does not feel like it is in the Balkans.

Porto Montenegro looks like what Balkan elites think their towns would look like were it not for their history and culture. Generally unaware of how things really work outside their parochial bubble, they think that their nefarious ancestors (and political opponents) robbed them of being able to gorge on overpriced truffle omelettes and French pastries in a bland, hyper-clean vaguely European setting. 

This approach extends beyond purely aesthetic. In 2000s Monetnegrin (as well as Serbian and other regional) elites believed that the best thing they can do is to pursue the development of their countries by following foreign suggestions (as long as they did not infringe too much on their oligarchic power base, of course) and that they themselves would breeze into the EU. This would, in turn, transform their countries into country-sized Porto Montenegros. This of course was easier to believe in a small country like Montenegro, but despite the obvious impossibility, it was (and still remains) the credo even in vastly more complicated places like Serbia.

This was not only an elite opinion, however: after years of major upheavals, people wanted to belive that they can escape history and politics. Tired of own difficult epic poetry they wanted a Disney-ish happy every after (Porto Montenegro is teeming with people taking selfies with yachts, of course).   

Making my way through a delicious truffle-infused dish, I understood the appeal.

Porto Montenegro was not a place where people would ask you about your troubled history, or poverty, or problems. While you were probably surrounded by a few mafiosi, they were sufficiently rich that they would eventually be remembered as benefactors and successful world-class businessmen, and not as oafish thugs you should be ashamed to be around.

It is no wonder that Porto Montenegro model grew in Montenegro and ultimately got exported around the region. It spawned the less charismatic Porto Novi (also in a former navy base in Boka Kotorska), Luštica bay and Dukley gardens, as well as a few luxury resorts such as the ill-fated ultra-luxurious  Aman Sveti Stefan. In the region this realisation that glitzy hotels and residences can buy you a lot of legitimacy spread to the projects such as Belgrade Waterfront and Durres Yachts and Marina project (both backed by the Emirati Eagle Hills Real estate company). Although different in intention scope and idea, it is not implausible that Porto Montenegro’s imagined historicism also influenced Skopje 2014 plan through which the then-ruling VMRO party wanted to bring some “European” glitz to the Macedonian capital marked by socialist-era modernist architecture after the disastrous 1963 earthquake.

Still, Porto Montenegro model of breezy globalism came under strain since 2014.

Montenegro sided with the NATO (which it joined in 2017) in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, despite the fact that Montenegro was not only hugely popular with wealthy Russians but also that its independence was very much encouraged by Vladimir Putin (Russia was the first country to recognize Montenegro in 2006). Peter Munk eventually sold his share of Porto Montenegro to Investment Corporation of Dubai in 2016 (at almost no profit)

Inside Montenegro, rather than pursuing his initial “live let live” credo, Đukanović took an increasingly nationalist path in his rule. This culminated in his intention to nationalise the assets of the largest religious organisation in the country, the Serbian Orthodox Church and started antagonising Serbian tourists through draconian COVID travel requirements during 2020 summer season. These moves not only tanked the country’s economy (tourism makes p about 22% of Montenegrin GDP) but also lost him an important parliamentary election.

All of these bets relied on unconditional Western political support as well as a boom of wealthy European and Middle Eastern tourists which never materialised (Serbian tourists still make up the largest chunk of stays in Montenegro).

Walking around Porto Montenegro in late March 2023, apart from Serbian the most common languages are Russian and Ukrainian. Many refugees from both countries decided to spend the conflict on Montenegro’s stunning coast. Still the atmosphere of escapism is broken: a poster in the nearby Donja Lastva village is advertising a play about the war.

Nevertheless, within Porto Montenegro, everything is nice, clean and peaceful. Even if Đukanović ends up being ousted by an Oxford-educated moderate Jakov Milatović on 2 April, a fragment of his vision will remain in the luxe of Porto Montenegro. If his successors do not understand the appeal of building and maintaining such places, they will be as deluded as Đukanović was in purely thinking he can rely on such Potemkin villages.

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