Montenegro: No longer Serbia’s junior partner

Nick Dallas walks us through Montenegro and looks at why the country is now stepping into its own

On 28 June 2006, the UN admitted its 192nd member state, Montenegro. Very little is well known about of one of Europe’s newest and smallest states. Paradoxically this remnant of the old Yugoslavia achieved UN admission on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an event of paramount importance in the conception of Serbian identity. Independence was officially proclaimed on 3 June 2006 after the referendum results on 21 May 2006 indicated a turnout of 86.5 per cent with 230,711 voters (55.5 per cent) casting their vote in favour of independence, while 184,954 (44.5 per cent) voted against. Not a convincing result but it fell marginally outside the grey zone, 50-55 per cent, which would have led to problems of acceptance.
I must admit the result caught me by surprise. Firstly there are the overlapping ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural characteristics that bind Montenegrins and Serbs. Secondly, Montenegro’s diminutive size has meant that historically it has always been a precarious entity in both an economic and sovereign sense. There were advantages in being part of a larger political conglomerate.
Maybe my opinions were also clouded by having read the works of one of Montenegro’s favourite sons and Yugoslavia’s best known dissidents, one time Partisan leader, Milovan Djilas. The following passage is from his novel Montenegro:
“I am Montenegrin because I am Serb, but Serb because I am Montenegrin. We Montenegrins are the salt of the Serbs. All the strength of the Serbs is not here [in Montenegro] but their soul is.”
Djilas was once perceived as Tito’s obvious successor before their falling out. He was a firm believer in the Yugoslav idea and perceived Montenegro’s future prosperity lay in the success of this republican federation. He also very astutely predicted Yugoslavia’s demise.
“With Tito gone their will be a natural tendency towards centralisation…this centralisation will not succeed because it will run up against the ethnic-political power bases in the republics. This is not classical nationalism but a more dangerous, bureaucratic nationalism built on economic self-interest. This is how the Yugoslav system will collapse.”
Montenegro like its Balkan neighbours has a history steeped in blood and violence. Its story is one of a complex and shifting cultural and political identity shaped by domestic and international events. The following passage truly encapsulates its complexity and tumultuous history.
A person who was born in Montenegro’s town of Cetinje (old capital) in 1908, who had lived and eventually died there in 2008, would have lived through several wars, witnessed huge social upheavals and lived in six different states without leaving his or her place of birth. Yet, that individual would still have been born and died in independent Montenegro. That so many transitions can happen within one lifespan is testament to Montenegro’s tumultuous modern history. It also helps to explain the historical ambiguities surrounding its identity and the (still ongoing) debates over nation and state in Montenegro (Montenegro: A Modern History-Morrison).
Montenegro was first formally recognised as an independent state at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. For several centuries prior to this, large parts of what constitutes modern-day Montenegro were principally under Ottoman but also Venetian suzerainty. Its mountainous terrain and the fierce warrior and tribal culture of its people ensured that parts of it never succumbed to Ottoman rule. From 1515 to 1851 Montenegro was ruled by prince-bishops (vladikas) who were assisted by civil governors. The most famous of these was Petar II Petrovic-Njegos, a gifted poet and ardent reformer who fostered a revival in learning and culture. His enduring legacy is enshrined in ‘The Mountain Wreath’ , an epic poem that is considered a masterpiece of Montenegrin and Serbian literature. This magnum opus is compulsory reading for all Montenegrin schoolchildren who spend hours memorising its verses and discussing its passages which are the source of popular wisdom and wise sayings.
The Kingdom of Montenegro made some territorial gains during the Balkan Wars. With the outbreak of WWI it was eventually overrun by Austro-Hungarian forces in 1915. During the occupation King Nicholas was forced to flee to France. Meanwhile forces opposed to King Nicholas’s rule (known as The Whites) who also espoused union with Serbia had orchestrated the Podgorica Assembly in November 1918. National elections saw The Whites dominate representation in this governing body. The Assembly’s immediate decisions were to depose King Nicholas and his dynasty and to initiate the union of Montenegro with Serbia.
This was a controversial period in Montenegrin history. It must be remembered that it was also a time of competing national ideas. During this national reawakening, many were advocating the concept of Yugoslavism, an idea emphasizing the common ethnic and linguistic ties between South Slavic peoples as the basis for their cooperation and eventual political unification. Even King Nicholas wasn’t opposed to the idea of union with Serbia that would form the basis of a future Yugoslav state. The issue was more the nature of the union. The opponents (The Greens) of the decisions made at the Podgorica Assembly believed what occurred in principle was annexation whereas their preference was for a confederation that recognised Montenegro’s distinct character. On 1 December 1918 the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was proclaimed, formed from territories from the defunct Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdom of Serbia. Serbia ensured that Montenegrins were absorbed as Serbs and hence didn’t appear in the title of the first Yugoslav state.
After Axis occupation during WWII, a new Yugoslavia emerged where Montenegro was given republic status in a socialist federation. Its new leader was Josip Broz Tito whose communist Partisans spearheaded the Resistance. Montenegrins were well-represented in Partisan ranks and were keen supporters of post-WWII arrangements. They were overrepresented in the Party and armed forces, and being one of the less developed regions received disproportionate investment funds.
Things started to unravel with the departure of Tito from the scene, the deterioration of the economy and spiralling debt levels. The desire of republics to break away, the military conflicts that emerged and the dismemberment of Yugoslavia driven by a myriad of vested interests had serious repercussions for Montenegro. One by one, the Yugoslav republics started seeking independence in the early 1990s, Montenegro remained a staunch supporter of what remained of the Slobodan Milosevic-led Yugoslav federation, itself and Serbia. The Bosnian War that triggered UN trade sanctions on Serbia plus the later on Kosovo crisis caused severe transitional traumas and social strains for Montenegro. With its economy in tatters, its tourism industry decimated, the rise of the shadow economy, the influx of refugees and the dislocations caused by the privatisation of numerous businesses, Montenegro’s political elite started distancing itself from the Yugoslav federation and started adopting a stance that favoured greater sovereignty and eventual independence. Relations with Serbia became quite strained as Montenegro sought a looser federation. It started detaching itself from federal institutions and even adopted the Deutschemark as legal tender alongside the dinar in 1999. This was later supplanted by the Euro. Soon even its foreign policy began to diverge. It sought out Western aid and made overtures towards obtaining NATO and EU membership. The momentum accumulated by all these changes led to eventual independence after the referendum in 2006.
With a population of less than 700,000, a struggling economy and a population divided on the issue of independence and identity, the road ahead is an arduous one. Like all newly inaugurated states, the present government is trying to foster a separate Montenegrin identity in opposition to Serbness by promoting a separate Montenegrin language through alphabet modification and supporting an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church, unaligned to its Serbian counterpart. With independence entering its sixth year even those that opposed it are starting to concede that this is now a near irreversible pathway. The main challenge remains on how to turn this once prosperous country into a thriving entity.
Although much progress has been made, there are still serious problems concerning corruption, organised crime, political patronage and institutional reform that need to be addressed. Montenegro needs to reinvent itself economically where the spoils are shared by many. It cannot rely too much on tourism that is subject to economic and political volatility. Tenacity and endurance have been the hallmark qualities of Montenegrins throughout their history.
Finding themselves once again independent in a complex, volatile and interdependent modern era means that they must rediscover their inner strength to address the challenges that lie ahead.