The factories of Obod and Kosuta used to provide the Montenegrin people with everyday comfort and convenience during the Yugoslavian era. Every family in the country had an Obod fridge in the kitchen. Shoes manufactured at Kosuta were popular for their high quality and international style.
Cetinje is a small city with a great history. This once-prosperous Old Royal Capital of Montenegro and its surrounding mountains boast some of the most important museums, art galleries, monuments, churches and monasteries in the whole country. What most visitors are not aware of, however, is its strong industrial heritage.
Paul and I arrived in Cetinje on a bus after two enjoyable but utterly exhausting days in Podgorica, where the temperatures never seemed to drop below 40 °C. As usual, we planned to see a few standard tourist attractions – Paul was especially keen on checking out the atelier museum of Cetinje-born avantgarde artist Dado, if you can call that standard – and spend the rest of our time simply drifting about and enjoying the somewhat cooler climate. It was these drifts that brought us to Obod and Kosuta.
The city of dreams
In Cetinje, one can never wander too far. The city comfortably sits on a small karst plain surrounded by limestone mountains, which effectively prevent one from getting lost. And yet, between the quiant historical center of the city and the rugged mountains, there is a kind of a liminal zone that manages to give off the appearance of being infinite and unknowable: the derelict industrial properties of Obod and Kosuta, manufacturers of home appliances and shoes respectively, which once formed the basis for Cetinje’s economy.
Cetinje’s industrial history is intimately tied with the its status as the Old Royal Capital of Montenegro. Following the country’s independence in 1910, significant investments in the city’s infrastructure were made – for example, the Government House was built as a symbol of the young state’s power – which in turn prompted rapid population growth. Many renowned intellectuals and cultural figures from all over the Balkans settled in Cetinje, thus reinforcing its traditional identity as the cultural center of Montenegro.
Birth of manufacture
It’s not clear when Obod and Kosuta were built, but based on everything we learned about local history from our incredibly knowledgeable Airbnb hosts Gabriella and Vladko as well as the two factories’ architectural style, I would guess they date back to the post-WW2 period. What we do know for certain is that they quickly became the country’s main sources of home appliances and shoes.
Gabriella, a school teacher armed with enough local knowledge and pride to put any ordinary tourist guide to shame, told to us how Obod and Kosuta would provide the Montenegrin people with everyday comfort and convenience during the Yugoslavian era. Every family in the country had an Obod fridge or freezer in the kitchen. Shoes manufactured at Kosuta were popular for their high quality and international, especially Italian, style.
For the people of Cetinje, the factories brought one extra thing: jobs. Obod alone employed over 5000 people, which accounted for 50 to 70 percent of the town’s population in the latter half of the 20th century. The figures for Kosuta are harder to come by, but the sheer size of its area, which rivals Obod’s 14,000 square feet, indicates a work force of additional several thousands.
Death of manufacture
Unfortunately, Cetinje’s economic troubles had already began by the time the factories are mostly likely to have opened. Following Montenegro’s emancipation from Italian occupation in 1943, Cetinje had lost its capital status to Podgorica and gone into steady social and political decline.
That new industries would spring up during such hardship might seem like a paradox, but it’s in fact precisely the state’s top-down efforts to elevate manufacture at the expense of other sectors of the society that are believed to have destabilized the local economy and brought about the demise of Cetinje’s previously strong cultural and tourism industries.
Ultimately, Obod and Kosuta, too, fell victim to history. As waves of privatization and social unrest swept through a rapidly disintegrating Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, many factory workers suddenly found themselves either without work or unpaid for the work they still had. The Yugoslav wars, though never actually reaching Montenegrin soil, were the final nail in the coffin of Cetinje’s economy: it simply could not survive the collapse of the state around it.
Our host Gabriella still remembers the devastation of these years: ”Half of our population lost their income all of a sudden. Men and women who’d been factory workers for all their lives were suddenly left with nothing. They went from door to door asking for any kind of work. Of course, nobody had anything to offer. There were simply no jobs left for anybody in the city.”
The palace of dogs
After the economic collapse of the early 1990s, the two factories appear to have taken two different courses. While there is an initiative to revive the Obod area – I return to this wildly fascinating turn of events in a bit – the future of Kosuta remains as uncertain and controversial as ever. 20 years after the closing of the shoe factory, its former workers are still involved in an on-going legal battle to receive compensation for their years of unpaid work during the company’s exceedingly long and shady bankruptcy proceedings.
Meanwhile, the property has fallen into despair. Though we saw virtually no graffiti or empty beer cans while we were there – the place was a mess for sure, but that doesn’t necessarily require human interference to happen, just time – we did find the North end of the complex to be squatted by a large pack of wild dogs. This presented us with an entirely new and unfamiliar concern: by going in, would we risk being attacked by rabid canines? Back home the thought would have been laughable, but elsewhere in the world wild dogs have been known to kill and seriously injure people.
In the end, we managed to explore most of the area while simply avoiding the part where the dogs seemed to dwell. Wisened by our recent encounter with unusually aggressive cows in the Kosovo mountains (why yes, our trip was just one neverending episode in the eternal struggle between man and nature!) we carried long pointy sticks for self-defense. The only dog we did encounter was a lone sad-looking puppy quietly observing us from the shadows. Poor thing.
A new hope
Just across the street from Kosuta, a different story is being written – and this one has the potential to turn things around for the whole city of Cetinje. The relatively well-preserved Obod factory area has found an unlikely saviour in none other than the world-famous performance artist Marina Abramović. Don’t care for performance art? You might still know Abramović from her collaborations with Lady Gaga, Jay Z and James Franco.
In 2012, the Serbian-born artist with family ties to Cetinje was invited by the City to herald the former factory’s transformation into a modern arts and culture hub aimed at local and international audiences alike. Once officially open, the Marina Abramović Community Center Obod Cetinje is expected to host exhibitions, festivals, concerts, artist’s residencies and other cultural events and activities.
Although there is no official word on the current status of the MACCOC project, it appears that progress is being made. Construction workers are laboring in the area protected by solid fences and some of the buildings have advertisement stickers with Abramović’s name on them. With the workers’ kind permission, we were able to take a walk around and snap some pictures of the premises, which do indeed seem to hold great promise.
Cetinje locals want the project to succeed for obvious reasons. First, the new community center would create up to thousands of new jobs in the area and bolster the economy by generating new local and international tourism. Second, it would be a great symbolic triumph and new beginning for the traditional cultural capital still dealing with the fallout of its troubled last century.
So what’s in store for Cetinje? Nobody knows at this point, but I like to think that in a few years Paul and I will return to Obod, only this time to attend Paul’s exhibition opening in one of the factory’s newly repurposed industrial halls. Perhaps we’ll say hi to the dogs of Kosuta, too, if they haven’t moved on by then. Now that would be a future.
Cetinje History, Visit Montenegro
Marina Abramović Community Center Obod Cetinje, Fleka
Radnici Košute najavili radikalizaciju protesta, Vijesti (11/03/2015)
Rick Steves’ Snapshot Dubrovnik, Rick Steves, Cameron Hewitt (2014)