Montenegro on Edge

The prospect of civil war now looms in the mountainous Balkan state

Earlier today Montenegro erupted into political violence, which is very, very rare for this country that managed to avoid the fate of most of the other ex-republics of Communist Yugoslavia. The situation exploded due to the installation of the Orthodox Metropolitan Joanikije (to head the Serbian Orthdox Church in Montenegro) in the old capital of Montenegro, the town of Cetinje.

This is controversial because the Serbian Orthodox Church is seen as the driving agent of Serbian nationalism in Montenegro, a multiethnic state where Serbs comprise almost 30% of the population. Cetinje, the old royal capital of the Kingdom of Montenegro, is the centre of Montenegrin nationalism and resistance to Serbian national, ethnic, and historical claims over the country.

Montenegrins opposed to his installation in Cetinje battled police as they attempted to block his convoy from entering the site of today’s ceremony.

Joanikije was forced instead to arrive by a helicopter provided by the military.

And it wasn’t just those from Cetinje who tried to block the ceremony today. Montenegrins from other parts of the small country showed up to support the blockade.

Montenegro is not in the EU, but it is a member of NATO, which puts it firmly into the western camp. The situation is more complex than what you have read thus far, which is why I am happy to provide an analysis that strains to be as objective as humanly possible.

Vital Background

Montenegro is a wild, tiny country that gets very little exposure in the news but is one that I am fascinated with not just due to proximity and cultural similarities, but because it lies along several civilization fault lines: Venetian and Turkish, Orthodox/Muslim/Catholic, Mediterranean/Balkan.

Montenegro can be viewed as Austria to Serbia’s Germany. Many of Montenegro’s most famous sons were Serbian ultra-nationalists (Radovan Karadzic) or rulers of Serbia (Slobodan Milosevic), and within their current borders are the origins of the Serbian Karadjordjevich Royal Family. Even the Montenegrin Njegos Royal Family (exiled in 1918 to France and Italy) considered themselves Serbs. The Orthodox of Montenegro fall under the sway of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Yet at the same time there are Montenegrins who consider themselves Montenegrin by ethnicity and who reject any Serbian national consciousness. Much of this stems from the fallout post-WW1 where the Montenegrin Royals were evicted from their own soil in favour of the Karadjordjevich Dynasty, their land and property seized, and their Kingdom reduced to a collection of almost-powerless local counties. When the Njegosi once thought that they could be the Piedmont of South Slavs as Ottoman power declined in the Balkans, that role instead went to the Kingdom of Serbia (and ended disastrously twice through the device known as Yugoslavia).

The further one goes north and east in Montenegro, the more prominent the Serb national consciousness is. Towards the Adriatic Sea, Montenegrin consciousness is ascendant (with the obvious exception of Herceg-Novi, a Serb colony).

But there are others in Montenegro, as well. Muslims in the east and northeast who consider themselves Bosniaks, and Muslims who consider themselves as “ethnically Muslim”. Topping it all off are heavy concentrations of Albanians in the extreme south and east along the borders with Albania.

This makes today’s Montenegro (which is geographically tiny, but much larger than Old Montenegro, see map below) a mix of hostile faiths and ethnicities.

Since the collapse of the ex-YU, Montenegro has been run by one man: Milo Djukanovic. An ex-basketball player and communist, he is a very effective political opportunist who, at first, engaged in Serbian nationalism and unleashed army forces on his soil to occupy the extreme south of Croatia and besiege Dubrovnik, plundered and setting fire to everything along the army’s path. But he saw the writing on the wall not too long after that and decided to turn against Slobodan Milosevic, realizing that his days were numbered and staying on the same side as the USA allowed for a strong insurance policy.

Djukanovic used state resources to enrich himself and others by way of turning Montenegro into a narco-and-cigarette state, working closely with both Sacra Corona Unita of Bari and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta. For three decades his party ruled and his position was safe.

Last year, he finally bit off more than he could chew. He set his sights on the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which he wished to render powerless. The Serbian Orthodox Church is the institution that is most strongly associated with Serbian national consciousness. Montenegrin nationalism has seen a blossoming under Djukanovic in academia, media, etc., and he felt that the time was right for this showdown. In fact, his read of the political winds was left wanting, and his party was finally turfed from power, with Serbian nationalists now in office in coalition with others. A mix of apprehension with his moves against the Church combined with disgust regarding corruption, and basic fatigue set in.

The stereotype of Montenegrins is that they are a lazy lot, prone to excessive philosophizing, but they are wild and violent as well. At the turn of the 20th century, up to 1/3rd of males lost their lives due to murder/being killed in conflict. Circa 1880, their strongest economic sector was highway robbery (usually Ottoman caravans or those from neighbouring tribes). The conflict between Montenegrin nationalists and Serbian nationalists erupted with the reduction of Montenegro in the first Yugoslavia, and pitted Greens (pro-Montenegrin) vs. Whites (pro-Serbian). This conflict is still yet to be finally resolved and now dominates media, parliament, and the online world.

There are less than a million people in Montenegro today, and there are probably more Montenegrins in Serbia than Montenegrins in Montenegro. Most people there have the same issues as those elsewhere: employment, standard of living, and future. Will a bloody conflict break out in Montenegro? Odds are that it won’t. But this being the Balkans, violent incidents are never too far away.