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Analysis: Serbian – Montenegrin relations, an uneasy partnership

Author: Pavel Dubrouski

The recent diplomatic scandal between Serbia and Montenegro caused by an openly provocative comment by the latter’s high official Andrej Nikolaidis on the failed terrorist attack on the entire Serbian establishment in Banja Luka* reminded about certain “disarray” in the relationship between the two countries

Historical, cultural, linguistic and mental closeness of the Serbs and Montenegrins has ceased to be the guarantor of smooth and fruitful political dialogue in the last years. By contrast, numerous discrepancies and complications typified the bilateral relations over this period.  However, it seems that due to some internal and external factors the tendency for their normalization will slowly but surely overwhelm the differences.

The common state
Since the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) began in the early 1990s, Serbia and Montenegro had been enjoying a special relationship, remaining within Yugoslav state after the secession of other republics. However, first signs of political split came to light in 1997 as a result of Milo Đukanović’s rise to power and his subsequent policy of gradual distancing Montenegro from federal obligations. Nevertheless, the Serbs and Montenegrins had been living in one state up till 2006 when referendum on independence was held, having proclaimed a sovereign Republic of Montenegro in effect. The bilateral relations have been developing in a controversial path ever since, with numerous ups and downs and colourful rhetoric from both sides.

“The problems list”
Speaking about concrete problems that darken a good neighbourly cooperation between the two countries over the last years, the five major ones could be identified.
1. Status of Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC): since the mid-1990s a part of Montenegrin religious leadership strongly supported by secession-seeking Liberal Alliance of Montenegro (LSCG) has been striving for independence from Serbian Orthodox Church. As a religious organization, it was ultimately registered in 2000, causing a strong opposition of its Serbian counterpart and unwillingness of other members of Eastern Orthodox Community to recognize it. The strong desire of current government to achieve the unification of MOC with the Serb-controlled Metropolitanate of Montenegro and easily predictable opposition from Serbian side provoke arguments at the highest political level. While Serbian officials make claims about disproportionately sizeable intervention of Montenegrin government in religious matters, their Montenegrin opponents respond with bitter accusations of “Greater Serbian chauvinism” against them. However, the fact is that today approximately 70 % of the Orthodox Christianity believers in Montenegro still opt for the Serbian Church (with 29, 3 % who follow MOC).
2. Recognition of Kosovo: the decision of Montenegrin government to recognize the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo in 2008 deteriorated significantly Serbian-Montenegrin relationship. The stance of Montenegrin government that the independence of Kosovo had been a reality for a long time and its recognition was just a technical question was met with deep frustration from Serbian side that accepted it as an act of treachery. Nevertheless, exaggerations about a “destructive effect” of Montenegro’s step on the current state of bilateral relations should be avoided.
3. Situation of Serbian minority: another “painful spot” in the relations is the situation of local Serbian population which is the largest national minority in Montenegro (about 30 % of the whole population). As Serbian establishment argues, the Serbs in Montenegro do not enjoy a number of rights and freedoms that are guaranteed them by law (right for language, religion, national self-determination, etc.). Moreover, Belgrade points to the tendency for intense pressure on the Serbs by Montenegrin officials during population censuses in order to force them to declare themselves to be the Montenegrins. Obviously, these allegations are denied by Montenegrin government. It seems, however, that both sides tend to dramatize the situation.
4. Issue of dual citizenship: there is a very controversial nationality law that has been recently enacted in Montenegro. According to this law, everyone who possesses Serbian passport gets automatically deprived of Montenegrin citizenship; however, it is not the case when other citizenships are in question. This legal gap gives Belgrade the ground to accuse Podgorica of discrimination of Serbs; Montenegrin side, in turn, cannot provide a reasonable justification of this measure.
5. Annexation issue: this is a relatively fresh development that concludes in bidding by some groups in Montenegrin Parliament for enforcement of a special law that recognizes the unification of Montenegro with Serbia in 1918 as an annexation conducted by the latter. If adopted, this law would enable the Montenegrins to demand a solid financial compensation from Serbia, not to mention an outburst of banal nationalist rhetoric by politicians about the “triumph of historical justice”. Obviously, these plans arouse quite understandable criticism and indignation in Serbia.

Is it really so bad?
As it could be seen, there is indeed a number of problems in the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro. Some of them are quite long-standing, others have emerged recently. It is also the government of Montenegro that puts these problems on the agenda in most cases, while Serbian side finds itself in defending position.
At the same time, it should be acknowledged that these problems do not influence on the development of bilateral relations in some extremely harmful way. Both countries have established stable and steady economic and cultural ties, their citizens travel freely to visit Montenegrin beaches or Belgrade’s shopping malls (depending on the side), there is no evidence of ethnic intolerance or clashes on ethic ground.
Apparently, the role of troublemakers is performed by politicians (with the Montenegrin ones in the lead). As it could be seen, even originally non-political issues (church, historical questions, etc.) have been politicized. This politicization helps them in making political gains for themselves, using patriotic sentiments as a cover.
Nevertheless, the priority of the integration in the EU set by both states would have a positive effect on overwhelming of existing differences. As the example of the relations between Croatia and Serbia demonstrates, finding of the common language is always possible if the EU prospect is at stake. Since the case of Serbian-Montenegrin relationship is considerably less complicated, the overcoming of issues will be much easier.

* The Nikolaidis’s rude remark refers to the events of 10 January, 2012, when large amounts of explosives and firearms were found at the venue of celebrations of 20th anniversary of Republika Srpska’s independence in Banja Luka. In particular, he claimed that “it would also have been a civilizational step forward had the perpetrators used the dynamite and the guns they had hidden”. This statement aroused a very sharp reaction in Serbia.

About Łukasz Fleischerowicz