Introduction / Definiton: 

Montenegro was the last of the six republics that once made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) to seek independence. Following the initial disintegration of the SFRY 15 years earlier, Montenegro had remained in the Yugoslav rump-state together with the Republic of Serbia. After years of controversy and tight political fights, the issue was decided through a referendum on 21 May 2006, with 55 percent of Montenegrin citizens voting for independence, paving the way for international recognition. Montenegro left the federal state following a democratic process that included consensus of the remaining republic and therefore unequivocally does not represent a case of secession but agreed disintegration as in Czechoslovakia or the USSR. Mediation by the European Union assisted this process.

Rivalries between unionists and independentists within Montenegro itself go back more than a century when Montenegro was an independent, internationally recognized state, although most of its population considered itself Serb. The statehood question resolutely resurfaced in the 1990s and although Montenegro has gained independence now, its society remains divided on the issue. Those who support independence argued that Montenegro had a right to self-determination like all other former Yugoslav republics, even more so as it was already an independent state until 1918 when Montenegro was incorporated into Serbia, an event whose legitimacy many independentists contest to this day. Independence supporters consider Montenegrins as close to Serbs, but emphasize Montenegro’s separate identity, drawing on the long tradition of Montenegrin quasi statehood when all other Balkan territories were under Ottoman (or Habsburg) rule. They argued that through political and economic self-determination Montenegro would develop better and quicker than in a federation with two units of so different size (Serbia’s population of 7.5 million far outnumbers Montenegro’s population of 620,000).

In contrast, most unionists either consider themselves exclusively Serb or think that Serbs and Montenegrins belong to the same nation and therefore should live in one state. They maintained that an independent Montenegro would be unviable and vulnerable. Montenegro’s unionists were supported by the leadership of Serbia who resolutely called for a continuation of the joint state. While the loss of access to the Mediterranean might have played a role in certain circles, Serbian opponents to Montenegrin sovereignty mainly refer to long historical and social ties and strong ethnic links between Serbs and Montenegrins.

The case of Montenegro stands out among the former Yugoslav republics (and many other cases of self-determination movements) for at least two reasons. First, the resolution of the status question was achieved in a democratic manner and without any violence, although the population was strongly polarized on this issue. Second, divisions on the statehood question did not follow ethnic or religious lines. While a large majority of Montenegro’s Muslims/Bosniaks (12%) and Albanians (5%) supported independence, and Serbs (32%) largely opposed it, the biggest ethnic group, the Montenegrins (43%), was in itself sharply divided on this issue.[1] Sometimes ardent independence supporters and determined unionists could be found in the same family.

[1] The increase of declared Serbs from 9 percent in the 1991 census to 32 percent in 2003 and the respective decrease of Montenegrins from 62 to 43 percent suggest that a considerable number of unionists that earlier declared themselves as Montenegrins now declared to be Serbs. However, given that only 32 percent declared as Serbs and the other minority groups were very strongly supportive of independence, a sigificant number of declared Montenegrins must have voted against independence.

Historical Evolution: 

The claim to separate Montenegrin statehood is deeply rooted in history. When the Ottomans conquered the medieval Balkan states in the 14th and 15th centuries, they made little effort to control the remote and poverty-stricken mountain lands of Montenegro to which parts of the local population had retreated. A small area around Cetinje was ruled by a prince-bishop, although effective power remained largely with the local tribes and central governance remained extremely weak until the second half of the 19th century. While Montenegrin rulers maintained that Montenegro was independent, the Ottomans firmly insisted that it was an integral part of their Empire. In any case, after Napoleon abolished the Republic of Dubrovnik in 1810, Montenegro was the only Balkan polity that continued to enjoy some sort of de facto independence.

Given its small size and extreme poverty, Montenegro gained a remarkable position in international politics and was finally recognized as an independent state in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin (as was Serbia).

Despite Montenegro’s statehood and its long tradition of resistance to Ottoman rule, the population had not developed a national consciousness in the modern sense. Like all his predecessors and most of his subjects, Nicholas I (1841–1921), Montenegro’s last ruler, considered himself Serb. He pursued Serbia-friendly policies and the two entities were never at war. Already before World War One, the idea of union with Serbia enjoyed considerable support, but due to Austro-Hungarian opposition it was not really an option. Also Nicholas himself was rather reluctant.

His autocratic style, however, was not to the liking of the emerging educated elite who tended to view Serbia as a more promising state than small Montenegro. When Nicholas, who had declared himself king in 1910, fled to France during World War One, a former Montenegrin prime minister formed a Montenegrin Committee for National Unification with political and financial support from the Serbian government. After the war, when the Serbian army had driven Austro-Hungarian forces off Montenegrin territory, the Serbian government did not want King Nicholas back and regarded the Committee for National Unification as the virtual government. The committee organized elections for a Grand National Assembly to decide on the future status of Montenegro. Voting was public and direct. On 26 November 1918 the elected representatives met and proclaimed the deposition of the Petrović dynasty and the immediate unification of Montenegro with Serbia in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The victorious “Whites”, supporting union, however, met with strong resistance from the “Greens”, advocating continued Montenegrin sovereignty (names derived from the color of their respective ballots). The “greens” staged a rebellion on Orthodox Christmas day 1919 (7 January). It was crushed in a military campaign, but guerrilla resistance continued until the mid 1920s.

While most Montenegrins did not consider themselves as a different nation, many were dissatisfied with the loss of Montenegrin state tradition and self-rule and the failure of the new central authorities to address the economic and social ills of inter-war Montenegro.

In the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), established after World War Two, Montenegrins were recognized as one of five constituent nations (along with Croats, Macedonians, Serbs and Slovenes).[1] Communist policies fostered a separate Montenegrin identity (along a “Yugoslav” one). While Yugoslav communism brought development and a degree of prosperity that Montenegro had never known before, Montenegrins continued to migrate to richer regions. Many moved to Belgrade to occupy jobs in government and the army, where Montenegrins were overrepresented due to their strong support for Tito’s partisans during the war.

The question of statehood surfaced again with the disintegration of the SFRY. In a so-called “anti-bureaucratic” revolution orchestrated by Slobodan Milosević, the Montenegrin communist leadership had been purged and young Milosević-loyalists installed at the top positions. Among them was young Milo Đukanović who was later to lead Montenegro to independence. In a hurriedly organized referendum in 1992, 96 percent voted for remaining in a joint state with Serbia. Actual support was considerably lower as most Muslims/Bosniaks and Albanians of Montenegro and part of the independence camp had boycotted the vote and the referendum was hardly a showcase of free and fair voting. It is, however, safe to say that at that time the majority of the population supported continued union with Serbia.

As all other republics opted for independence, only Serbia and Montenegro remained in the joint state, renamed the “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” (FRY). With the demise of socialist Yugoslavia vanished also the Yugoslav identity that had to a certain extent bridged the divide between “Whites” and “Greens” over the preceding 45 years. It did not take long for some intellectuals and political groups, spearheaded by the “Liberal Alliance”, to start promoting independence.

In 1997 Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović broke ranks with his former mentor Milosević. Although initially politically isolated, he managed to gain the support of Montenegro’s ruling party (Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS) and to force Milosević’s supporters to establish their own party. In subsequent presidential and parliamentary elections Đukanović managed to emerge victorious, not least due to strong support from Montenegro’s Muslims/Bosniaks and Albanians.

During the Kosovo conflict in 1999 Montenegro declared neutrality and accommodated about 40,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees. In an effort to weaken Milosević, Montenegro was swamped by (largely unconditional) financial and diplomatic support by the United States and the EU. Already in 1998 the Montenegrin government had started to take over federal functions, establishing its own customs administration, a foreign ministry, and a Central Bank. It introduced the German Mark as Montenegro’s currency.[2]

When Milosević was ousted on 5 October 2000, international policy towards Montenegro shifted dramatically. Đukanović for the first time clearly committed himself to independence. But with Milosević removed, the international community, led by the EU, showed little sympathy for Montenegro’s independence aspirations, both because there was no clear majority for this option among Montenegro’s population and because it feared destabilizing effects in the region, particularly in Kosovo.

[1] Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were only accepted as a distinct nation in SFRY in 1968, under the somewhat odd term “Muslim, in the sense of a nation“ (Malcolm 1996, 199).

[2] It was later replaced by the Euro.

Resolution / Status: 

By 1998 the confused constitutional situation and Montenegro’s autonomous policies had reduced the federation to an empty shell. By 2000, the only effective federal institutions were the army and air traffic control.

In 1999, the Montenegrin government had presented a platform on new relations between the two republics, which was reformulated in December 2000. It offered a union of two independent states. Federal President Vojislav Koštunica responded in January 2001 with a proposal to restructure the existing federation.

Both proposals skirted around the more difficult issues, in particular how power would be shared at the federal level. When federal and republican political leaders met on 26 October 2001, it was only to conclude that the two proposals were irreconcilable and that a referendum remained as the only way forward.

When the Montenegrin government announced that a referendum would be held in spring 2002, the EU – worried by the implications for UN-ruled Kosovo – stepped in. Its High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, put enormous pressure on both sides, leading to the Belgrade Agreement of 14 March 2002, providing for the establishment of a “State Union of Serbia and Montenegro” and a three year moratorium during which no independence referendum could be conducted. By February 2003 both republican parliaments and the federal parliament had adopted a Constitutional Charter.

While the Belgrade agreement was viewed as a strong set-back by the Montenegrin independence camp, it was in fact a formalization of the status quo – Montenegro did not give up any of the state functions it had acquired over the previous years. While the EU initially pressed for re-integration (in particular for the harmonization of customs tariffs), it soon became increasingly clear that the state union was dead. In autumn 2004, the EU adopted a so-called “twin-track approach” with regard to the EU integration process of both republics, allowing them to negotiate separately the economic aspects of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA).

While pressures by the international community subsequently weakened, the problem of a deeply split society remained. It was clear that neither independentists nor unionists could gain a clear majority. The pro-unionist opposition, encouraged by earlier EU pressure and unionist rhetoric from Belgrade, maintained that Montenegrins residing in Serbia should be allowed to vote and that a qualified majority was required for independence. The government rejected such demands, but it was clear that in order to avoid instability an understanding with the unionist opposition on the modalities of the referendum was required.

In an effort to avoid deadlock and a potential crisis, the EU’s High Representative Javier Solana sent a personal representative, Miroslav Lajčák. The Slovak diplomat, backed by the Council of the EU, proposed a minimum turnout of 50 percent and a qualified majority of 55 percent of votes, while Montenegrins residing in Serbia would not be allowed to vote. After initial hesitation, the government accepted the proposal, and so did the unionist opposition, calculating – wrongly – that the independence forces could not reach such a threshold.

On 21 May 2006, in a referendum closely monitored by the OSCE and domestic election monitors, 55.5 percent of voters supported independence. Turnout was very high with over 86 percent. After the announcement of final results by Montenegro’s referendum commission on 31 May, Montenegro declared independence on 3 June. It was recognized by Iceland on 8 June, followed by Switzerland, Estonia and Russia. The EU and the USA extended recognition on 12 June and Serbia on 15 June. On 21 June the OSCE decided to accept Montenegro as its 56th member and on 28 June Montenegro was confirmed as a new member of the UN. During the whole, strongly contested process, not a single shot was fired.

Prospects / Analysis: 

Montenegro managed to achieve independence through democratic and peaceful means. All major parties that advocated continued union with Serbia have accepted Montenegrin statehood. Calls for re-unification have vanished from political programs. Minor disputes about state symbols and the use of the Serbian language in public and educational institutions persist. Also leaders of the Bosniaks/Muslim and Albanian minorities raise concerns from time to time. Nevertheless, the overall climate between the different ethnic groups in Montenegro is better than in any other country in the Western Balkans. As all major actors are committed to the democratic process, do not question the territorial integrity of the state and have never recurred to violent means in the sometimes very tense recent past, a resort to violence is very unlikely.

An additional stabilizing factor is Montenegro’s progress towards NATO and in particular EU membership. Montenegro, as well as Serbia, have been admitted to NATO’s Partnership for Peace, have joined CEFTA and are both aspiring to EU membership. In July 2008 Montenegro’s first Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) was agreed with NATO. In December 2008 Montenegro formally applied for EU membership and – at the time of writing – is expecting to receive formal candidate status in late 2010 or 2011. The further integration into Euro-Atlantic structures advances, the less likely internal or regional instability will be. In particular the EU accession process, as a motor for reform and economic growth, provides a shared vision of a stable and prosperous future.

References / Further Reading: 

Malcolm, Noel. 1996. Bosnia: A short History. New, updated edition. London: Papermac.

Roberts, Elizabeth. 2007. Realm of the Black Mountain: A History of Montenegro. London: Hurst.