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For Montenegro, Statehood Might Have Been the Easy Part

Five years after its independence, the country must still tackle corruption and master the peaceful transition of power.

by Florian Bieber 30 May 2011

Montenegro declared independence on 5 June 2006 after a referendum in which almost 45 percent of the population had voted to remain within a union with Serbia.


The new country was divided, and further had yet to prove that it could be economically viable and tackle widespread corruption. The period since has been something of a roller coaster. Its economy grew rapidly, buoyed by foreign investment, and unemployment dropped. But the financial crisis of 2008 wiped out much of that progress and hundreds of companies have filed for bankruptcy.


In crafting a constitution, Podgorica strove for stability, trying to create a national identity while making concessions to Montenegrin Serbs. It gave the Cyrillic and Latin scripts an equal official status, yet privileged the use of a language it called Montenegrin over Serbian and Albanian.


In December, Montenegro officially became an EU candidate. The European Commission, however, gave Podgorica a list of seven key areas that needed work before it could be considered ready for membership. Among them is fighting against organized crime and corruption: the country’s law enforcement had not gone after a single high-ranking official. In the past several months, there have been encouraging signs on that front, including the arrest of local officials in Budva on corruption charges and the arrest of an associate of a suspected drug lord wanted in Serbia.


In a recent paper for the London School of Economics, Kenneth Morrison, a historian of the Balkans, argued that if Montenegro’s democracy is to progress, the country needs to risk a bit less stability. “The fact remains that Montenegro holds the unenviable record of being the only state in Southeast Europe that has been governed, uninterrupted, by the same political party (albeit with internal purges) since the first democratic elections in 1990,” he writes. That stranglehold perpetuates itself, partly through swollen campaign coffers of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists and the party’s ability to parcel out patronage.


In this article, first published on 23 May 2006, Florian Bieber laid out the tasks before the infant state: trying to win over the dissenting 45 percent, defining the concept of Montenegrin, and boosting the economy. He also observed that opponents of independence tried to make then-Prime Minister’s Milo Djukanovic’s grip on power an issue during the vote, equating “an independent Montenegro with a private mafia-state run by the prime minister.”


Reflections on Europe's newest state by a human-rights expert who observed the referendum in Montenegro.


NIKSIC, Serbia and Montenegro | As we talk to members of the local electoral commission of Election Unit 32 in Niksic, Montenegro’s second city, swallows occasionally fly into the voting station, where they have made their nests. There are no voters. Of the 86 eligible voters here, most had already voted in this small hut on the road to the famous Ostrog Monastery, built spectacularly up in the rocks in a valley between Niksic and Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital city. 

Moments before, as we approached the polling station, we found the electoral commission members outside. As they returned to the one-room hut, they explained it was simply cooler and more pleasant to wait outside for the remaining 19 voters who had yet to cast their ballots in the referendum on Montenegro’s independence on 21 May. “We are all relatives and friends here and we have to be able to look each other in the eye tomorrow,” was the answer to our obligatory question on how the voting process was unrolling. 


Revelers celebrate the passage of a referendum on Montenegro's independence. Photo by Marko Milosevic, from flickr under a Creative Commons license.


From small polling stations such as this one in villages where everybody knew how everyone else would vote to large polling stations in schools, hiking clubs, run-down theaters, sports halls, trade union offices, or chess clubs, this reply seemed to sum up best the atmosphere on the referendum day in this tiny country of fewer than 700,000 people. While passions over the issue of Montenegro’s international status have run very high for years, on the day the voting procedure ran in near-perfect order.

One reason for this is that every electoral board was staffed by equal numbers of supporters of the state union with Serbia and those who favored independence. They sat together in all kinds of rooms in 1,120 polling stations across the country. Considering that each of the electoral boards had six members, in all the electoral commissions make up about 1 percent of the population. 

While the number of elections alone is hardly an indicator of the state of democracy, the fact that Montenegro has seen its fair share over the past decade meant that the local boards did not lack experience. In addition, with nearly 500 accredited observers from international organizations and foreign delegations and close to 3,000 local observers, this was probably one of the best observed votes per capita anywhere. 

That the voting went smoothly was certainly also down to both sides of the divide realizing the significance of the occasion and both having a realistic hope of winning the day. 

On the insistence of the European Union, at least 50 percent of registered voters had to participate, and 55 percent of those votes be in favor of independence, for the measure to pass. Preliminary results showed 55.5 percent in favor of independence and 44.5 against. The turnout was 86.5 percent.


As the polls closed and the first results began to circulate, the unity during the day dissipated. Montenegro is a divided society, yet at the same time the divisions remain often intangible. When representatives of the pro-union bloc called for national reconciliation in the days before the referendum, it sounded a lot like a concession of defeat, but the challenge on how to reunite the country remains after Sunday's vote. 

Much of the political discourse over the past six years has been shaped by the status question, just as before it was determined by distance and proximity of Montenegro to the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade. Now there is finally a chance to focus on the real issues Montenegro is struggling with, chiefly poverty and unemployment, the same issues that plague all of its neighbors. 

But the next big topic that might overshadow more “banal” questions is the personality of Milo Djukanovic, the prime minister. He is the clear winner of the referendum, while at the same time he has been much criticized and attacked not only by opponents of independence, but also by its supporters, such as Nebojsa Medojevic of the Group for Change. In fact, the opponents of independence focused their attacks on Djukanovic and equated an independent Montenegro with a private mafia-state run by the prime minister. With elections coming up in late 2006, the lines for the next confrontation are already drawn and solutions to everyday problems might once more be postponed.

Obviously, the next immediate item on the agenda will be nation-building. With brand-new symbols, adopted in 2004, a Foreign Ministry and even some foreign representations, Montenegro seems to lack few of the trappings of a fully fledged state. The army of Serbia and Montenegro, hardly to be missed as the successor of the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, will be replaced by a professional Montenegrin army, as the “yes” camp has been calling for and as is already being prepared. 

Such institutional and symbolic issues notwithstanding, the key challenge for the new state will be to attract the loyalty and support of those 45 percent of its citizens who voted against it. Unlike in Bosnia or elsewhere in the region, the lines of division in Montenegro remain fluid and nobody has a monopoly on defining what it means to be Montenegrin. Both Djukanovic and his opponent, Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of the pro-Belgrade “no” camp, declared themselves as Montenegrins in a much-hyped televised duel a few days before the vote. 

This openness of identity blurs the line between minorities and the majority and perhaps most crucially stops the Serbs in Montenegro from feeling like a national minority. The overwhelming support for independence from Bosniak- and Albanian-populated municipalities of Rozaje, Plav, and Ulcinj also pays tribute to this unbounded space of identity, as does the benign neglect of the issue by decision makers – until parliament passed a comprehensive minority law just days before the referendum – and the government's promise that an independent Montenegro would be better for minorities than a joint state with Serbia. The challenge for the government will be to live up to expectations and at the same time to keep an open space for the ambiguity of identity that has served Montenegro very well so far.

Florian Bieber is senior non-resident research associate at the European Center for Minority Issues, Belgrade, and observed the referendum in Montenegro for the local non-governmental organization CEMI (Monitoring Center).
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