By Vladimir Vučković
Considering the post-Yugoslav context in its broadest sense, current political relations between Serbia and Montenegro can be best described as poor and underdeveloped. The existence of common historical, cultural, and religious features between the two states has not resulted in improving state relations during the post-Yugoslav period. Rather, further antagonism in the relationship prevailed. There were a few occasions and events that have dramatically worsened relations between Serbia and Montenegro during the post-referendum period such as the statements of Serbian high-ranking political officials and dignitaries of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) about the absence of Montenegrin identity, decisions of the Montenegrin government to recognize Kosovo’s independence (2008) and to join NATO membership (2017), the issue of dual citizenship, official participation of the Montenegrin state delegation to the ‘Operation Storm’ celebration in Croatia (2018), etc.
Arguably, the very same matrix of deterioration relations was also noticeable between post-Yugoslav countries after the breakup of Yugoslavia. However, a novelty remains the fact that the worsening of relationships between two ‘brotherly’ states has occurred after the peaceful restoration of Montenegrin statehood and further actualization of the existence of separate Montenegrin national identity in recent years. Currently, strained relationships between Belgrade and Podgorica have been taking characteristics of political rivalry in a wider regional arena that has continued to play an important role in the consolidation of power of the political elites capitalizing on national identity struggles and ethnic polarization. Following the identitarian complexities in Montenegro, this can be explained through the ‘situational nationalism’ featured by high exposure to external influences i.e. alternative identity, that correspondents with changed geopolitical circumstances since the early 1990s. That period was characterized by the collapse of socialism, but also a forceful national composition of former Yugoslavia (Jenne & Bieber 2014).
This sort of alternative identity being promoted by Serbia’s ruling elites has sought to challenge or even dispute Montenegrin national self-awareness in recent years by using various anti-state and often retrograde political instruments. This being claimed, the Serbian political leadership has not directly interfered in Montenegro’s political affairs, as the DPS-led government has continuously pointed out. Typical of DPS as a populist party, it has used various populist mechanisms to ensure a dominant position in society by capitalizing on ethnic polarization in the country and pushing a foreign policy that strongly distinguishes Montenegro from Serbia (Vučković 2021). Instead, the Serbian elite was hiding behind the so-called indirect levers of influence largely promoted by the SOC, right-wing coalition block Democratic Front, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and pro-government media (that mostly used propaganda and ‘fake news’), aiming to reduce national sentiments among the ethnic Montenegrins (Pobjeda 2021).
The politics of strengthening Serbian national identity in Montenegro was a part of the generally accepted view among both Serbian politicians and academia about the necessity of the Serbian state to spread its political influences outside of its borders. It implies a nationalist narrative about the endangerment of Serbs outside of the Serbian borders, therefore, to homogenize them, there is an intention towards challenging the national identity of certain nations in the neighborhood countries with a clear expression of nationalist discourse that all issues concerning Serbs living abroad should be decided in Belgrade (Medija Centar 2020).
On the other hand, protagonists of titular identity led by elites and national institutions have tried to strengthen Montenegrin self-awareness under very controversial circumstances. The position of the SOC, the adoption of the new state symbols and Montenegrin language, and the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state all remained suitable soil for new ethnic divisions between the two states. Consequently, the statements of the Serbian political leadership that Serbians and Montenegrins are part of the wider Serbian national corpus have only triggered a political revolt by the DPS-led government party to strengthen the Montenegrin national identity even in some cases quite artificially (Morrison 2018).
Having this claimed, three main political outcomes arose from such complex identity relationships.
First, the issue of national identity still burdens complex Serbo-Montenegrin relationships even today. While the results from Montenegro’s referendum has permanently resolved its state-legal status, the issue of nationhood and national identity still play an important role in internal political life, whereas different interpretation of these categories between Serbs and Montenegrin consequently affect the development of the political situation. The clear division between referendum winners and losers has made even stronger ethnic and political divisions not just between parties but between citizens themselves. The state found itself in a new political phase where the Serbs as a national minority refuse to identify themselves as Montenegrins and consequently refuse to recognize the referendum results.
Second, the political situation in Montenegro has dramatically changed after the adoption of the Law on Religious Freedom (2019). The alternative identity managed to impose its values and ideological patterns on the local community mainly because they felt a strong identification with values coming from outside rather than from within. The SOC achieved not only positioned itself as a major political force in the Montenegrin society after the last parliamentary elections held in 2020 but also imposed conservative ideology, anti-Western patterns, and orthodox Slavdom as ideas that have unexpectedly found a strong foothold among the local population, regardless whether they identify as Montenegrins or Serbs. This has ultimately resulted in the degradation of the legitimacy of the single Montenegrin nation and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) promoted by the DPS-led government.
And finally, it might be reasonable to claim that Montenegrin political elites will not be successful in consolidating national identity in the future as the national self-identification was reduced by the high exposure and representatives to various external (Serbian) influences that have mobilized the public around this alternative national identity. The further consolidation of the Montenegrin national identity (attractively seen through the acquisition of autocephaly by the canonically unrecognized MOC) has faced much greater resistance, especially from the wider regional environment. The DPS policy of strengthening Montenegrin identity has failed due to the absence of strategic communication with the public on why it was important to legally regulate relations between the state and SOC, but also due to previously adopted artificial identity policies that did not resonate well among the population. This is the case with Montenegrin national identity as national sentiments gradually decreased from 91% in 1948 to 44% in 2011, while according to data from the last census in Serbia nationally determined Montenegrins were practically halved from 1.4% in 1991 to 0.54% in 2011 (MONSTAT; RZSS).
It might be reasonable to conclude that both governments of Serbia and Montenegro still use an increasingly populist policy mechanism based on ethnic antagonism and growing upheaval between Serbian and Montenegrin societies at hand. Even more, interstate political divisions and national polarizations play a significant role in the SPP and DPS strategy aiming to strengthen a dominant position in the society and therefore affecting internal socio-political developments and processes in the societies. Consequently, both domestic political elites cause damage to inter-ethnic and other perspectives of cooperation by (ab)using the identarian aspects. They do so in order to present themselves as respective national guardians, which increases their patriotic potential and chances to retain power.
Jenne, K. Erin and Florian Bieber. 2014. “Situational Nationalism: Nation-building in the Balkans, Subversive Institutions and the Montenegrin Paradox.” Ethnopolitics (13) 5: 431–460.
Media Centar Beograd. 2020. “Položaj Srba u Crnoj Gori nakon pada režima Mila Đukanovića,” Accessed December 16, 2021. https://mc.rs/dogadjaji/polozaj-srba-u-crnoj-gori-nakon-pada-rezima-mila-dukanovica/160
Morrison, Kenneth. 2009. Montenegro: A Modern History. London, New York: I.B. Tauris.
Pobjeda 2021. “Srba da bude na popisu 50 odsto, a Crnogoraca 25.” Accessed December 13, 2021. https://www.pobjeda.me/clanak/antic-srba-da-bude-na-popisu-50-odsto-a-crnogoraca-25
Republički zavod za statistiku Srbije (RZSS). https://www.stat.gov.rs/sr-latn/
Uprava za statistiku Crne Gore (MONSTAT). https://www.monstat.org/cg/
Vučković, Vladimir. 2021. Europeanizing Montenegro: The European Union, The Rule of Law, and Regional Cooperation. Lanham, London, Lexington Books.
Vladimir Vučković is a visiting lecturer in the Department of International Relations and European Studies at the Masaryk University with a research interest focusing on the European Union, populism in Europe, and Western Balkan political and socioeconomic developments. He has held a visiting fellowship at the Department of Political Science at the University of Stockholm in 2017. He is the author of the monograph Europeanizing Montenegro: The European Union, the Rule of Law, and Regional Cooperation (2021) and editor of the volume Balkanizing Europeanization: Fight against Corruption and Regional Relations in the Western Balkans (2019). His publications have appeared in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies, Romanian Journal of European Affairs, and Europe-Asia Studies and Political Studies Review, among others.
Vučković, Vladimir: “Political divisions and ethnic tensions as dominant discourses between Serbia and Montenegro. So what?” (09.06.2022); URL: https://global-sees.org/political-divisions-and-ethnic-tensions-as-dominant-discourses-between-serbia-and-montenegro-so-what/