Montenegro-Serbia relations complex, differences evident, and potential of crisis continues

Relations between Montenegro and Serbia are sensitive and complex, requiring a realistic approach with a full awareness of their historical underpinnings and the influence of current decision-makers. The context also includes apparent attempts to provoke a crisis by the authorities in Belgrade, as highlighted in yesterday’s Plenum on Montenegrin-Serbian relations, organized by the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) in collaboration with the Regional Academy for Democratic Development (ADD) and with the support of the Swiss Embassy.

The Plenum was opened by Daliborka Uljarević, the Executive director of the CCE, and Balša Božović, the Director of ADD, with the presentation of key findings from public opinion research on the relations between Montenegro and Serbia through a comparative perspective. It is worth noting that individual research findings were previously presented separately in Montenegro and Serbia.

“Differences in the positions and interests of political actors, as well as among a significant portion of the citizens in Serbia and Montenegro, are serious and long-lasting, but they should neither be underestimated nor overestimated. Much depends on how things will develop further and what political course Serbia will take in respecting international agreements it has signed. In such a traumatic foreign policy context, with various chosen foreign policy destinations, these differences could potentially lead to conflicts,” stated Dr. Zoran Stojiljković, professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade, in his commentary. He emphasized the significant importance of research for the academic community, and also decision-makers.

Historian and President of the HIPMONT association, Miloš Vukanović, highlighted the number of undecided individuals when it comes to questions defining the value framework, such as attitudes toward the partisan and chetnik movements, and the importance of the educational system with its shortcomings. Vukanović stated that the narrative of Serbs being endangered in Montenegro, although existing for decades, is inaccurate. He explained, “A certain number of people were indeed endangered and discriminated against by the DPS regime, but it was due to their political affiliation, not their national background.” “It’s significant when, as a society, you have such a percentage of people who support the aggressor because that is a problem,” Vukanović concluded referring to respondents’ attitudes toward the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Aleksandar Sekulović, Vice President of Antifascist Serbia, had three key impressions. „The first impression is that the research is done well, and timely, and could be of great benefit to decision-makers in both countries. The second impression shows the societal differences between Serbia and Montenegro in terms of culture and values. The third impression is that some Serbian respondents showed a noticeable lack of sincerity, particularly regarding questions about the statehood and independence of Montenegro, as well as Serbia’s external influence on events in Montenegro, where it seems that they gave the expected answers“, he stated, among other things.

Slobodan Georgiev, the News Director of TV NOVA S, thinks that while the question of Montenegro’s independence was resolved in Montenegro in 2006, it remains unresolved in Serbia. “In the radical interpretation of history, the moment when Montenegro left the union with Serbia opens the space for Kosovo to leave too. Belgrade’s fantasy of being the center of a large state, by instrumentalizing Serbian identity, is to return to the period before 1997, which is what is happening in Montenegro today,” he said. “There is an attempt to create a crisis that would allow Belgrade to control Montenegro. This originates from the academic community, where an imperial policy has long been established – all Serbs in one state, with a dominant model of the Serbian population being endangered in the region and the diaspora, it’s further infiltrating the educational system, affecting young people and their value systems through politics and public services,” Georgiev concluded.

Dragan Đukanović, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Belgrade, believes that the results in both countries are worse than what the research shows however, unlike the divided Montenegrin society, there is a high degree of consensus in Serbia, which isn’t good for Montenegro. “This consensus exists even in the media when it comes to reporting on Montenegro, whether it’s media controlled by the government or those that can be called an independent media scene,” he said. Đukanović concluded that the new government structure in Montenegro derives its legitimate foundations from the Litija movement, which makes the role of the SOC very important.

Mihailo Miletić, the President of the Association of Montenegrin Voters in Serbia, believes that there is institutional endangerment of Montenegrins in Serbia, explaining this through the obstacles faced by the Montenegrin national community in Serbia when choosing their representatives and the discrimination of Montenegrins in the Serbian educational system, which denies Montenegrin history and identity. He also highlighted the continuous decrease in the number of Montenegrins in Serbia.

“It’s difficult to find recognition of Montenegrin identity among the elites in Serbia,” stated historian Milivoj Bešlin. Interpreting the research results, he mentioned that one cannot say that there is a prevailing fear, even with the authoritarian regime. “However, if so many people have said something that diverges from the dominant narrative of the elite in society, it’s a good sign and indicates that we live in bubbles, and with new media, we have a different relationship with reality,” added Bešlin. He emphasized the significance of social media, which has disrupted one-way communication channels. “Elites create an expansionist narrative when it comes to Serbia. The second issue concerns the narrative of protecting Serbs outside Serbia, which is the shortest definition of Serbian nationalism today – Serbs outside Serbia,” he underlined. Bešlin explained that it is extremely important for the authorities in Serbia to have Serbian lists in the countries in the region where there is a Serbian population, regarding Serbs in Montenegro, authorities in Serbia only consider those who are voters of party structures influenced by Aleksandar Vučić, which, given the data on the number of people identifying as Serbs in Montenegro, means that most of them do not trust Aleksandar Vučić.

Milena Samardžić Popović, President of the Medical Doctors’ Union, pointed out the need for more involvement of the academic community in Montenegro and a more proactive approach to writing its history. “Montenegro should be more engaged in building its identity, its language – the Montenegrin language. We’ve missed an opportunity because the ruling elite was dedicated to their businesses rather than identity issues, while the contribution of the academic community was lacking, reflected through the denial of the Montenegrin identity and the confiscation of cultural and historical values,” she concluded.

The significance of greater academic community involvement in matters of identity and Serbian-Montenegrin relations was also discussed by Dr. Nikoleta Đukanović, a professor at the University of Donja Gorica. “Even our civil society is reduced to a few non-governmental organizations. Fortunately, these NGOs have a significant influence, which compensates for the inactivity of the academic community,” she added. Đukanović mentioned that the research results align with some earlier findings in terms of values, and it’s no wonder we are witnessing the re-traditionalization of young people when we consider that they are a product of authoritarian regimes from the past. “This dominantly shapes their views and is reflected in the question of how much we see Montenegrin identity and relations between Montenegro and Serbia as relations between two independent states that should be developed on healthy foundations, and how much we politicize them to serve the interests of political elites in Belgrade and now in Podgorica,” explained Đukanović.

When it comes to the relations between Montenegro and Serbia and, generally, Serbia’s relations with its neighbors, the thesis of ethno-territorialization comes to the forefront, a concept that has historically played out over the past two centuries. This research shows that the most significant disagreements revolve around the issues of language and recognition of independence, but, interestingly, the most significant disparity comes from the issue of whether Serbia has the right to protect Serbs in Montenegro, where nearly 80% of those surveyed from Serbia believe it does, while in Montenegro, only half as many respondents gave an affirmative answer,” said the cultural expert and political analyst Srđan Šušnica. He explained that this is a worrying trend that opens up the space for various types of Serbian intervention in Montenegro to be seen as normal in both Montenegrin and Serbian societies.

Adnan Prekić, a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Montenegro, added that, in a historical context, what’s happening between Serbia and Montenegro isn’t accidental or a result of recent political actions but rather a policy of continuity. “The main problem in communication between the two sides is the attempt by the authorities in Serbia to turn the Serbs in Montenegro into a diaspora,” Prekić explained.

This event is part of the project “Plenum on Montenegrin-Serbian Relations!” conducted by the CCE in Montenegro in cooperation with the ADD in Serbia, with financial support from the Swiss Embassy. The plenum gathered around 50 historians, representatives of the academic community, NGO sector, journalists, and analysts who had the opportunity to give their review of the research findings through dialogue, but also to contribute to the understanding of the complexity of relations between Serbia and Montenegro, all with the aim of creating a new a narrative that promotes respect for good neighborly relations, religious rights, multi-ethnicity, multiculturalism, European values and human rights.

Nikola Mirković, Programme Associate