Montenegro: a state for everybody?

Practice for independence day celebrations

Montenegro, the second youngest state in Europe is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. The country, divided as it is, still seeks to demonstrate unity.

A man stands on a ladder. Two others watch him, interested. He is trying to fix a garland with tiny flags on a lamppost to hang it across the street. The other two look up with crossed arms, shouting words of advice. Soon a crowd of people gather around the ladder and watch the man above them trying to fix the garland. Across the street, a huge stage has been built. Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro is preparing for its independence day.

As May 21 moves closer, garlands with flags appear in many streets across the inner city. At the main square on the stage, a group of dancers and singers are practising their performance.

First comes the group from the United States, then Italy and South Africa. Big shiny cars sport their country’s flag on the left side of the vehicle. The ambassadors have come to attend the 10th anniversary of the state. Today, the big square in the middle of Podgorica is divided into two areas. Inside the barrier of fences, guards, politicians, press members and honoured guests are seated.

Outside the area, citizens gather to watch the show.

One of the dancers in traditional clothes and his friends

“Most people stay at home to watch it on TV,” says a young man wearing a Montenegrin flag draped around his shoulders. Some people wear matching caps and shirts. Big screens show what is happening. The prime minister Milo Djukanovic gives a speech. Some people in the crowd are nodding consentingly. After, Donald Tusk, president of the European council makes his appearance. Actors and actresses recite the history of the state. Unconquered by the Ottomans, stories of war heroes, a perfect candidate for the European Union. Since the beginning of May, Montenegro has the “invitee status” of NATO. This means the country is one step closer to membership and one step closer to becoming a member of the EU.

On May 21, 2006, Montenegro gained its independence from Serbia. The European Union determined that for a valid result, more than 50% of voters have to participate and 55% have to vote “yes.” The result was 55,5%. Independence day should demonstrate pride, a long, rich history and unity. However, a closer look at the demographics show that there are still many differences that divide the nation. Like many countries in the Balkans, Montenegro is multi-ethnic. According to a census in 2011, around 45% of citizens identify as Montenegrin, whereas around 30% identify as Serbian, 9% as Bosnian, 5% as Albanian, 1% as Croatian and several other ethnic groups. Although there are no violent conflicts between the groups, ethnic identity is very important for most people.

“To understand why, it is important to know the history of the country,” says Ivan Vukovic, a history professor at the University of Podgorica. After the First World War, Montenegro was annexed by Serbia and together joined the first Yugoslavia, the kingdom in 1918. Many people protested at the time against the integration into Serbia. Then after World War II, socialist Yugoslavia was created and Montenegro joined as one of the six republics. “They had a great time back then, a great time,” laughs Vukovic. “Montenegro had a strong influence on a political level and benefited economically. “

But when Josip Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, a Pandora’s box of political turmoil was opened. In Serbia and Croatia, nationalistic movements became stronger and stronger. Then Slobodan Milosevic entered the political spotlight as the president of Serbia and Montenegro. “He promised, that Serbia would once be strong and great again,” says Vukovic. The regions Kosovo and Vovjodina, which gained independence from Serbia in 1975, were not recognized as such anymore. Milosevic started wars against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was responsible for thousands of ethnic-motivated deaths. In 1999, during the war in Kosovo, NATO forces struck controversial military operations against Serbia, which again claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Milosevic was imprisoned and accused of crimes against humanity. However, he died in 2006 before he was ever convicted.

When Yugoslavia started to collapse in 1991, Montenegro stayed with Serbia. “Montenegro had no clear political, national program. People were sure they were Montenegrin, but were not sure what that was. They just hoped that Yugoslavia would survive,” says Vukovic.

But it didn’t. At that point, people in Montenegro split into two camps. The ruling Democratic Party of socialists (DPS) debated the issue whether or not to support Milosevic’s politics and support the war against NATO in Kosovo. Milo Djukanovic of the DPS, who was elected president in 1997, turned towards the west, as he realized that Milosevic did not get support from the international community. The other part of DPS formed the opposition and stuck with Serbia. The demographics show how the public was divided over the issue. In 1991, when 62% of people identified as Montenegrin and 9% as Serbian, the next census in 2003 revealed that 43% were Montenegrin and 32% Serbian. A person’s ethnic identity does, to a certain extent, reflect their political beliefs and opinions.

In 1997, Montenegrin identity was made part of the political program by the DPS for the first time in history. They started to pursue the disengagement from Serbia.

The crowd watches the show on big screens

Olivera Komar has her office next to Ivan Vukovic at the University of Podgorica. She is a political scientist and does research on political behaviour and motivation.

“The result of the referendum in 2006 got highly influenced by the minorities, like Bosnians, Croats and Albanians,” she says. “It was because of the ideas which got promoted, like Montenegro as a civic state, where no nation would dominate. A nation for everybody.”

One man named Igor is one of the people who didn’t participate in the Independence Day celebrations. He identifies as Serbian and for him Montenegro and Serbia are one. “Politicians are creating an evil image about Serbian people in Montenegro. Evil Serbs that are conquering Montenegro. But we have always been the same. I am proud to be Serbian. And I am proud to be a Serb in Montenegro.” For Igor, the two countries share the same history, traditions, religion and language.

But the DPS introduced a Montenegrin language shortly after independence by introducing three new letters to the Serbo-Croatian alphabet and calling it Montenegrin. “As a nation in the Balkans, it is important to have our own language,” says Vukovic. “When you don’t have your own language then you don’t have your own identity. For example some Serbians say, that Montenegri authors were just Serbs who happened to live in Montenegro.”

“The Montenegrin identity now gets built up as a opposition to Serbian identity,” says Komar. “After 2006, DPS created more and more an identity which is only focused in being purely Montenegrin.” In the end they ended up alienating part of society, who are still part of this joint identity. “The spirit of this independence celebration is still exclusive. It says we Montenegrins. It even annoys people by celebrating 10 years of prosperity we didn’t really have.

Boys with a Montenegrin flag

Being Montenegrin should mean belonging to a political unit but identity should be built on the common ground of us being all different.” Also, Montenegro is one of the rare countries where demographic voting still works. It means that people not vote for a party because of their program, but of their ethnicity, their (political) identity.

For Iva, a student of political science, and founder of the student radio station KRS, it is clear: she is Montenegrin and happy that the history of Montenegro gets cherished. But Iva is not sure what to think about the independence celebrations, because she doesn’t know what everybody is celebrating. “After gaining independence nothing big has changed. The state has done nothing economically,” she says.

The DPS has ruled the country for almost 25 years, and Djukanovic has been prime minister for 19 years. Iva is frustrated. “There is no place for young people to work. Most of my friends are looking for jobs abroad. You have to be a member of the right political party to achieve a higher position. You can see that at university also. To get elected as a student representative, you have to be a member of the DPS.”

According to the statistical office of Montenegro, the average net earnings in Montenegro are between 478 and 499 Euros per month. The unemployment rate is at 17,6%. Many young people have to stay with their families, because they cannot afford to move out.

On May 13, just a few days before the independence celebrations, an incident in the parliament caught attention. Just before the Prime Minister began his speech, members of the pro-Serb opposition Democratic front stood up and shouted “Milo, thief, Milo, thief!” They repeated their chant as some people got up from their seats to the front. One politician had to be held back by two others. His face turned red and he shouted at Milo Djukanovic, putting up his middle fingers. In the meantime, everybody gets up from their seats, the middle of the parliament hall filled with politicians and journalists. The crowd pushes each other around, here and there a camera or a microphone in the air.

The pro-Serb opposition is accusing Milo Djukanovic of corruption and election fraud. They are against his plans of joining NATO

“If these accusations are true? I don’t know, the answer can only give the government itself!” says Darko Sukovic, a well-known Montenegrin journalist. For 12 years he has hosted the political talk show “This is the truth” on Montenegrin public TV broadcaster RTCG.

He sits in a posh restaurant in Podgorica. With one eye always checking his iPhone, it is clear Sukovic is a busy man. As he talks, it seems as if he is used to being listened to.

“Montenegro is not a very democratic country, in a sense that everybody can say freely what they think. One thing is for sure though: After each election the process gets more and more regular and fair. The reason why Milo Djukanovic and the DPS are in power for almost 25 years is, that there is no organised opposition with an alternative programme. When you ask people on the street they will tell you the same. There is nobody else who is a good alternative. Even though they don’t like him or his politics, there is no one who can do the job properly.” The main points of critique are, that they have no consistent programme or charismatic political figures.

It is 10:30pm. End of the celebrations. Everybody sings the national anthem as well as the European anthem. Big fireworks signal the finale. The crowd on the square slowly dissolves. Leaving behind the melody of the chorus of the national anthem playing in a loop, they go through streets under garlands of Montenegrin flags passing by graffiti on the walls that reads “NATO FUCK OFF.”