Of Cultures and Constitutions

My focus this past week was on Montenegro, the second smallest country in the Western Balkans. In many ways, Montenegro is unique among the other Western Balkan nations, and it presents an interesting contrast with the other states I have researched.

Most significantly, Montenegro is the only country in the region not dominated by a majority ethnic group. While most residents of Albania and Kosovo are ethnic Albanians, Macedonians and Serbians dominate their respective homelands, and Bosniaks form a slim majority of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegrins comprise only a plurality of the Montenegrin population. Indeed, the history of Montenegrin nationalism is quite distinct from that of the country’s neighbors. Due to the close religious, cultural, and linguistic ties between Serbia and Montenegro, the line between the two ethnicities has historically been unclear and remains so today.

Before the Second World War, in fact, when Yugoslavia was ruled by a Serbian monarchy which favored Serbs over the Kingdom’s other peoples, the “Montenegrin” nationality was not even recognized – the Montenegrin population was instead classified as either Serbian Orthodox or Muslim. Only after Marshal Josip Broz Tito established a socialist regime founded on the principles of brotherhood and unity of the South Slavic peoples did the Yugoslav government recognize and promote Montenegrin national identity. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, however (during which Montenegro chose to remain united with Serbia), Montenegrin national identity once again collapsed into Serbian identity, although not entirely. Montenegrin residents began to identify as Montenegrins or Serbs based on more nuanced factors than familial descent or geographic location. In 2003, about 43% of Montenegrins identified as ethnic Montenegrins, compared to over 60% identifying as such in 1991.

As a result of Montenegro’s unique demographics, even Montenegrin nationalism has a multiethnic character, and, though ethnicity and religion are important socio-political divides, they express themselves somewhat differently than in Montenegro’s neighbors.

For me, the most striking aspect of Montenegrin history is how difficult it has been for the nation to tread its own path in the face of domination by its larger neighbor, Serbia. Significantly, the Montenegrin Constitution, adopted after a successful independence referendum in 2006, specifically prohibits the nation from joining into any union with another state which would compromise its sovereignty. Typical of the Western Balkans, race and ethnicity likely play an outsize role. Contrasting Montenegro’s experience with that of its neighbor Kosovo, however, I cannot help but note that a country dominated by Christians historically grouped with Serbs achieved independence from Serbia relatively peacefully, while Kosovo, a nation comprised almost entirely of ethnic Albanian Muslims, endured prolonged violence and lingering bitterness on its path to independence – and only partially recognized independence at that.