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Montenegro -
A state is born

Håkan Wiberg
TFF Associate

Jan Oberg
TFF director

September 22, 2006

The 192nd member has recently been admitted to the United Nations. Montenegro with its 600,000 inhabitants recently had a referendum, where 86.6 per cent of those enfranchised voted. Out of these, 55.5 per cent voted for independence, and 44.5 against. Another way of presenting the same data is that 48.1 per cent voted for, 38.5 against and 13.4 not at all.

There are reasons to dig deeper into what happened. What is the internal and external background to this event? Does it increase or decrease the stability of the region? Could this decision cause trouble at some point in the future? Could it have an impact on the question of independence for Kosovo? Indeed, is the Montenegrin drive for independence mainly a result of external – at the time, anti-Milosevic – pressures by the West and, thus, an unintended result of short-sighted policies years ago? And what about the fact that there live about as many Montenegrins in Serbia as in Montenegro, but the former could not vote?


A few historical notes

Two Balkan states managed to preserve their independence throughout the Ottoman period. Republica Ragusa (Dubrovnik) did so by being rich and having a vast navy, very thick walls and a very complex diplomacy, cautiously balancing among all the surrounding powers, that earned it the nickname "Cittá delle sette bandiere" - the city of seven flags. Montenegro also had an impressive international diplomacy, but otherwise its security basis was just the opposite of Ragusa: it was very poor, had mountains instead of walls and could mobilise most of the male population within days. A small army entering it would quickly face defeat, a big one would slowly starve to death.

For a long time most Montenegrins saw themselves as the noblest and bravest Serbs, the only clans among them that did not capitulate to the Turks. It did, however, capitulate to Austria in January 1916, once its Thermopyle style defence in the Battle of Mojkovac permitted the Serbian army and government to escape to the Adriatic coast from its encirclement by German, Austrian and Bulgarian forces, embark on the entente navy, camp on Corfu and eventually liberate its country from Saloniki. On Corfu, negotiations were held between Serb, Croat and Slovene politicians. They agreed to create a common state, which was done in late 1918. It was originally called the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” (from 1929: Yugoslavia), which was significant - the other peoples in that state had recently been taken over from Turkey or were yet to be taken over from Austria, and were not really asked.

Montenegro was about equally split between those who wanted to restore its independence and those behind the slogan "Only unity can save the Serbs". After the colours of the ballots in the referendum that was soon about this, the former group was nicknamed “Greens” and the latter “Whites” - and they have remained of approximately equal size since then, as the recent referendum also showed.

The first referendum in the early 1920ies was rejected as invalid by many Greens, and the ensuing rebellion took Belgrade years to suppress. The “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes” had the policy of eliminating names of nationalities from the political map as it was divided into eight provinces named after rivers or seas. The river Zeta gave name to a province that included Montenegro, the Dubrovnik region and a slice of southern Bosnia until World War II. When Germany attacked in 1941, Yugoslavia immediately collapsed, also suffering from deep internal ethno-national divisions.

After the partisan victory in 1945, the new constitution distinguished between nations (narodi), who had their main domicile in Yugoslavia and the right to national self-determination and their own republic, and nationalities (narodnosti), for which neither was the case. Macedonians and Montenegrins were immediately recognised as nations (Moslems 25 years later and Albanians never). Both got their own republics, the Macedonians also their own official language; that spoken by the great majority in Montenegro was counted as dialects of the Serbo-Croat language.

Repeated attempts were made to change the map, the constitution or both in Tito's Yugoslavia. Small armed Croat groups who infiltrated the country in 1968 were easy to suppress, having no popular basis, the "Croatian Spring" in 1971 led to many long prison sentences and purges in the Communist party of Croatia when the demands had rapidly accelerated from cultural autonomy through economic autonomy (meaning the lion´s share of Yugoslavia´s tourism incomes) to independence and finally demanding a big slice of Bosnia-Herzegovina that was a part of Ustasha´s Croatia in 1941-45.

The first - unarmed - Albanian rebellion in 1968 was easily subdued, the second and armed one in 1981 was ruthlessly repressed by the Yugoslav People's Army, with about 1,000 dead, and many thousands got very long prison sentences. Noteworthy, however, there was no attempt at rebellion in Montenegro.


Old Yugoslavia begins to dissolve

The bells began to toll for Yugoslavia in the 1980ies. Slovenia and Croatia demanded drastic constitutional changes to become independent states in everything but name, with their own currencies, armies, economies, foreign policies, and so on. Serbia and Montenegro wanted none of this and also eventually got the leadership of the Yugoslav People Army on their side. One Communist party after the other went from anti-nationalism to nationalism; that of Serbia shifted in 1987, as did its new leader Slobodan Milosevic, even though his new Serb rhetoric could not compete with that of Vuk Draskovic or later Vojislav Seselj.

Nationalist parties, whether socialist or anti-socialist, won everywhere in the elections in 1990 – and in most cases, the also-runs were even more nationalist. The winner in Montenegro was the pro-Serbian socialist Predrag Bulatovic. The bi- or tri-national governments in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina tried unsuccessfully to mediate between the two other blocs and find a compromise, apparently aware that a break-up of Yugoslavia had a strong likelihood of making them break up too.


Montenegro's metamorphosis

In all parts of Former Yugoslavia, history was rewritten to fit with the new nationalist ideologies, often by what Ivo Banac aptly called "para-historians" (taken from "paralegals" or "paramedics"). Montenegrins were suddenly no longer Serbs; they arrived before the Serbs and had a principality of their own before them. Petar Petrovic Njegos in the mid-nineteenth century used to be thought of as the greatest Montenegrin prince and the greatest poet in Serbian, but was now reinterpreted as an instrument of the Serbianisation of Montenegro.

Yet another example: The Battle of Mojkovac in December 1915 was no longer seen as a demonstration of "Only unity can save the Serbs", but as a Serbian conspiracy to eliminate the Montenegrin army in order to make Montenegro an easier prey after the war.

In short, Serbs were systematically transformed from in-group to out-group, to become "Other". The implications of this in the new situation are yet to be seen; historical parallels are far from encouraging, but neither do they necessarily spell doom.

One effect of this sudden shift can be seen in the differences between the censuses in 1991 and 2004. In these, everybody chose for himself what group s/he belonged to (there were also occasional Bushmen, Hottentots, Eskimos and Martians) – and could change that in next census. In 1991, Montenegrins were some 60 per cent, followed by 13 per cent Moslems, 10 per cent Serbs, 7 per cent Albanians and several even smaller groups, including Yugoslavs.

In the new census in 2004, however, two thirds of the Moslems had disappeared, as had one third of the Montenegrins, while the Serbs had tripled! What had happened?

In the first case, it seems that the majority of 1991 Moslems had followed the example of the majority of those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and renamed themselves Bosnjaks. The second case is more important. The 1991 census seems to reflect the traditional image that being a Montenegrin also entailed being a Serb, with no need to choose, whereas a Serb might of course be a Montenegrin or not.

In 2004, however, such a choice was now called for by the wide-spread assumption that Montenegrins are not Serbs. One third of the 1991 Montegrins apparently decided that in such a case they were Serbs, not Montenegrins, the result being that Montenegrins went down from 60 to 40 per cent, thus becoming the biggest minority in Montenegro, whereas the Serbs tripled from 10 to 30 and moved up to being the second biggest. The ironic effect of the ideology of the pro-independence groups was to make Montenegro less Montenegrin than ever!

The smaller the biggest group, the higher risk for troubles

One spine-chilling result of this is that Montenegro's demography is now quite similar to that of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991: a biggest group that is around 40 per cent, a second biggest around 30 and a third around half of that (if we add Moslems and Bosnjaks). The post-Cold War experience in Europe is that ethno-nationally heterogeneous states, whether old or new, run much higher risks of secession, civil war, de facto division - or any combination thereof. The smaller the biggest group in a state is, the greater is the risk.

By the end of the Cold War, Former Yugoslavia had the worst prognosis in Europe from this point of view, with 38 per cent Serbs; then came Kazakhstan with 40 per cent Russians (today, Kazakhs are the biggest group) and then again Bosnia-Herzegovina with 42 per cent Moslems.

Going by this indicator alone, the new Montenegro would have a horrible prognosis, so it is to be hoped that it manages to group itself together with the peaceful development in Kazakhstan rather than Former Yugoslavia or Bosnia.

One lesson the international community could have learned - and funny voting rules

One lesson might have been drawn from these figures by the international community, especially after the horrible reminder in Bosnia: if one seeks to promote peace, one should not promote or recognise states as independent with a small minority only in favour of it. Becoming independent would, from a variety of viewpoints, be a decision so important and normally irreversible that anything less than a very broad majority is reckless.

The constitutions of various countries often demand a qualified majority, two thirds or even five sixths, for particularly important issues, such as changing the constitution. This was not the case here, so if democracy was to have priority before stability, simple majority should be enough. The demand from EU can be seen as a compromise violating both values: too high for democracy, too low for stability.

It is not yet known with any precision who voted how in the referendum, yet public opinion polls from recent years may give an idea. Serbs were almost entirely against independence, Moslems/Bosnjaks and Albanians almost entirely for; among Montenegrins there was a clear majority for and a big minority against. The 44.5 per cent of the voters who went against independence indicate that something like one third of the self-defined Montenegrins must be among them together with practically all Serbs.

Citizens of Former Yugoslavia had in their papers 1) a domicile in Yugoslavia (also most of those who lived abroad); 2) a nationality that they chose for themselves and 3) a republic citizenship that was administratively decided (though they could apply to get a new one). The two latter things were indeed related, but not very closely. Slovenia was in fact the only republic where the titular nationality was as high as 90 per cent: in the others it was far lower.

This makes the new Montenegro close to unique in another respect: after the changes between the two latest referenda, there are more than half as many self-defined Montenegrins in Serbia as there are in Montenegro itself, and many of them see themselves as discriminated against by the voting rules in the referendum: enfranchisement went by domicile, and you could only have one domicile inside Yugoslavia, hence most Montenegrins abroad with republic citizenship could vote in the referendum, but most of them living in Serbia could not.

This may well have been crucial for the result of referendum: if they had been allowed to vote, it is quite unlikely that "Yes" would have reached the crucial 55 per cent (see below) and quite possible that "No" would have gotten a majority. It remains to be seen what social and political effects this equal distribution of self-defined Montenegrins over two states will have.

Montenegro unique

The referendum outcome makes Montenegro virtually unique: very few states in history were created on the basis of such a heavily split referendum: the 55 per cent threshold demanded by the EU was only passed by one half of one per cent. The closest parallels in modern times are the referenda about Scottish devolution a generation ago and about Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. Scottish devolution won in terms of a majority for "Yes", but lost by the condition imposed from London that the "Yes" votes must be more than 40 per cent of those enfranchised.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serbs regarded the referendum as non-constitutional and de facto voted "No" by 99,5 per cent boycotting it, as it were, whereas the Croats voting "Yes" were indeed voting to get out of Yugoslavia, but hardly to become a minority under a Moslem majority.

By contrast, the referendum held in Norway after its unilateral declaration in 1905 – and upon Swedish request- was very convincing: some 368,000 voted to dissolve the union with Sweden, 184 persons to preserve it.


Foreign influence

Internal dynamics in Montenegro and Former Yugoslavia have played important roles in the developments; let us not forget foreign influence however. First of all, the U.S. and EU have played complex games with independence all over Former Yugoslavia since making their first bold statements in June 1991, stating themselves in favour of democracy, human rights, rule of law and minority protection, but not - repeat not - of unilateral secessions.

Slovenia and Croatia assumed that the West was bluffing, and were proven right within months, when they were recognised and all other republics invited to proclaim themselves independent. Macedonia and Bosnia did, but not Montenegro, which initially participated side-by-side with the Yugoslav army in various theatres, the attack on Dubrovnik in 1991/92 being the best-known example.

Yet King Nicola of Montenegro told a Danish journalist a century ago that "The Balkans is the small change that the great powers use in their transactions," and this has become no less true. The West had its own designs that made the Montenegrin record less important. Montenegro was therefore to some extent given special treatment, especially after Bulatovic losing elections to Milo Djukanovic and when it was no longer necessary after Dayton to treat Milosevic as the man who could deliver.

The same formula as in 1991 was proclaimed to Montenegro and to Kosovo: independence was not in the fine print. Yet people in both areas easily arrived at the same conclusion as Slovenia and Croatia in 1991: that they were nevertheless promised independence somehow. The cornering of Milosevic was stepped-up with determination and de-linking from Serbia encouraged in many ways.

For example, the night in 1996 before Montenegro abandoned the Yugoslav Dinar as currency, American planes flew tons of Deutsche Mark into Montenegro; and when NATO was systematically bombing out the economy of Serbia in 1999, Montenegro was largely saved. Milo Djukanovic was encouraged to go for independence, this being yet another card to play in the ongoing fragmentation of former Yugoslavia and of Serbia, with Kosovo to follow soon.

As soon as Milosevic had been flown to the Hague in 2001, however, that attitude changed and Western diplomats flocked to Podgorica to tell Djukanovic that full independence was not what they had really intended. As late as 2002, the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana allegedly told Djukanovic to join with Serbia and forget about independence. Here is what the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reporter, Milka Tadic Mijovic in Podgorica, reported on February 20, 2002 – and note Solana's "sweetener" that pointed to today’s independence:

"The EU might cut off at least half its financial aid to Podgorica unless it drops its plans to hold a plebiscite within the next few days, according to Western media reports.
At a meeting in Brussels in mid-February, the EU foreign policy chief Xavier Solana is said to have told President Milo Djukanovic to start setting up a new federal customs and monetary system, or face the possible withdrawal of economic help. He is reported to have said the EU envisaged the creation of a unicameral parliament for the federation, which would continue to enjoy international recognition - ruling out separate diplomatic recognition for Montenegro. The name Yugoslavia could be replaced by a title mentioning both republics, either in a "union" or "federation". Solana´s apparent ultimatum threatens to ruin the career of the republic´s pro-independence president, who was the darling of the West when he opposed Slobodan Milosevic´s government in Belgrade. Djukanovic urged Solana to extend the February 16 deadline while he consulted his Socialist and Liberal coalition partners. As IWPR sources in Podgorica confirmed, Solana offered one sweetener in the form of an assurance that this was a temporary solution and that Montenegro could withdraw from the renegotiated federation after five years. However, the president will still have a tough job selling a "volte face" to his supporters.”

The sweetener worked and the time-limited “Serbia and Montenegro” (often nicknamed “Solania”) was created. It soon became clear that time could preferably be without limits, as far as EU was concerned. The expected referendum was postponed time and again, and when it finally came, it was under EU tutelage.

Here is what we wrote in TFF PressInfo 234 of March 9, 2006:

"The International Herald Tribune writes that the EU suggests "that Montenegro be allowed to secede from the two-state federation if 50 percent of the electorate takes part in the vote and 55 percent of voters opt for independence." Amazing indeed: a new European state can be created with only 27.5% or less than 200.000 voters behind it. … Furthermore, an independent Montenegro and an independent Kosovo will make the Serbs in Bosnia ask why on earth they should keep on being loyal with the independent "Dayton" Bosnia that 99% of them never voted for and which they - like all other citizens in Bosnia - was never asked to accept in a referendum.”

As it turned out, participation was very high but the majority for independence relatively thin if we take 50 per cent as criterion, paper thin (one half of one per cent, i.e. about one thousand voters) in relation to the 55 per cent limit imposed by the EU, and non-existent (48 per cent) if we look at the percentage of those enfranchised rather than of the voters.

From one point of view, this combination of high participation and narrow majority is about the worst thing that could happen: the former indicates that the issue is seen as having high importance and the latter that Montenegro is deeply split on it.

Some possible consequences of this independence process

Whatever the case, Montenegro is now an independent and recognised state, so what effects can this be expected to have where? First – but not necessarily most important – there is a further sense of amputation and humiliation throughout Serbia, even though its government has kept a stiff upper lip with recognition, etc.. To Serbs more than other nations, the dissolution of Yugoslavia was a disaster. They had a particularly high stake in it: the dissolution placed some two million Serbs as minorities in states whose majority populations had collaborated with Hitler and Mussolini against the Serbs, showing no mercy.

A bit later, the West (especially USA in this case) encouraged the shift of Kosovo-Albanian separatism from Ibrahim Rugova´s nonviolence to the very violent Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, of 20.000 fighters that it had been crucial in creating, with and NATO’s bombing in 1999 as climax.

Saying farewell to Montenegro may be less hurting, given its peaceful manner so far and the affinity still felt between many Serbs and many Montenegrins in spite of the nationalist elite ideologies in both states – it can be seen as an encouraging sign that the areas voting "No" did not declare themselves independent to stay with Serbia. Montenegro’s dependence on trade with Serbia may also play a role – even Slovenia has discovered that the Western market was tougher than expected and the Balkan market important to (re)establish.

Yet Montenegrin independence can be seen as setting a precedence in a region where all problems are linked to each other, and the prospect of losing Kosovo/a to full independence may create ripples in Serbia, where nationalism is again on the rise as humiliations accumulate.

Also, as late as September 2006, the leader of Republika Srpska in Dayton Bosnia has repeatedly more than hinted that it does not seem right that Serbs are forced to remain as an integral part of Bosnia while, as it seems, everybody else are allowed, even encouraged, to become independent. Given the sentiments among Bosnian Serbs, one would hardly have any problem satisfying the same – or even higher- EU criteria for an independent Republika Srpska as those presented to Montenegro.

Kosovo is qualitatively different from Montenegro, which was the last of the old republics to secede. Kosovo is a part of a republic and once that gate is opened, the international community may find it difficult to prohibit the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia to secede and federate with their neighbouring “mother states”, with Albanians in Macedonia (and perhaps eventually in Montenegro) down the road.

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The economic sanctions against Yugoslavia greatly benefited criminality, mafia and black economic operations all over the Balkans. Today, Kosovo is allegedly the most criminalized square kilometers in Europe with considerable networks all over it as well as in Central Asia, Russia and the U.S. The mafia there is an important partner to that in Montenegro, as is the Serbian mafia.

All three have strong political connections; in fact, the Italian minister of finance fingered Milo Djukanovic himself as deeply involved in the cigarette smuggling a few years ago.There are no convincing reasons to believe that those features, coupled with rampant economic problems, debts and skyrocketing unemployment figures in spite of considerable EU and U.S. investments and loans will add to, rather than subtract from, stability in all of Europe and the Balkan region.

In the just held September elections, Djukanovic could cash in on having provided independence; yet he is now signaling that, perhaps, he wants to resign. Perhaps he has read the writing on the wall: independence does not automatically mean a better life for the majority of the population – and from now on there will be no one else to blame, unless the tough conditions the EU and the IMF will impose on Montenegro take over that role. In addition, independence could have long-term divisive consequences at home, as the changing census figures may indicate, and intensify the struggle for power in one’s own house.

Further, the independence movement ranged between soft versions ("we have nothing against Serbs, but like everybody else we prefer to be run by our own crooks") and increasingly extreme anti-Serb sentiments during the last few years, which – like in Croatia and elsewhere in the past – had a mobilizing role for in-group cohesiveness; yet if this continues, we will get an increasing ethnic polarization inside Montenegro, with potentially catastrophical effects.

A state is born, some infantile diseases could be readily identified and others may be feared. Hopefully, the fears will turn out to be largely unfounded.


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