Claiming the Black Mountain

Montenegro’s Separatists Win

After seven years of frustrated attempts, the separatist regime in Montenegro celebrated victory Sunday night, as it managed to drum up the 55.5 percent of the votes necessary to win the independence referendum. What would be a landslide in any Western election was actually the narrowest of margins in Montenegro, as the acceptable threshold set by the Brussels bureaucrats was 55 percent. It took weeks of pro-independence propaganda in government-monopolized media, multi-million-euro public works timed for the referendum, shady political deals with ethnic minorities, and voter shenanigans to secure that .5 percent margin between victory and defeat. And though the unionist parties are demanding a recount and complaining about irregularities, Milo Djukanovic and his separatists have already declared victory – and more importantly, just about everyone, including Belgrade, has accepted it as fact.

The outcome caused outpourings of joy at the International Crisis Group, among the Kosovo Albanians, and in the ranks of Serbophobic media. Their eagerness to celebrate the “demise of Greater Serbia” suggests that external support for Montenegrin separatism was never about Montenegro at all. What happens to the rocky republic next will be of little interest to its erstwhile partisans, as they continue to redraw Balkans maps to match those of 1941.

Democracy in Action

It has been said that it doesn’t matter who votes as much as who counts the votes. In Montenegro this weekend, what mattered was who counted the voters. In the run-up to the referendum, tens of thousands of “Montenegrins” living abroad were registered to vote, while hundreds of thousands who lived in Serbia were denied that right. While separatists complained that because of the 55 percent rule, their vote was worth only 0.82 percent of “a Serb’s” (meaning a unionist’s), it was people like Began Cekic, “a demolition expert from Brooklyn,” who decided the outcome of the plebiscite.

Writes Nicholas Wood of the New York Times:

“Figures from the border police suggest that Montenegro’s diaspora had a decisive role in passing the referendum. Some 16,000 Montenegrins from abroad returned in the three days before the election, a number equal to 3 percent of the total voter turnout.”

While people like Cekic, “an ethnic Albanian,” flew in to support the separatists, none of the 350,000-plus Montenegrins living in Serbia were allowed to vote. Most of them consider themselves ethnic Serbs, much as those in Montenegro who voted against secession. But the Djukanovic regime has systematically denied Montenegro’s Serb identity, establishing a separate “Academy of sciences,” a separate church, a separate language, even inventing a separate history.

Alexis de Tocqueville once warned that a democracy could easily become a mere “tyranny of the majority.” The great irony of Montenegro’s May 21 plebiscite is that the “majority” that won was actually an alliance of minorities – the ideological and pragmatic separatists among the Montenegrin Serbs, ethnic Albanians, Croats, and Muslims, who together outnumbered the plurality of Serb unionists.

The Gloating Begins

While news of Montenegro’s secession generally merited a short wire report in most American papers, the media establishment with vested interests in the “Bank of Collective Serbian Guilt” (Deliso) reacted to the outcome with ebullience and gloating.

The staff correspondent of New York’s Newsday told his readers how Sunday night’s referendum was a defeat for “every Serb who ever yearned to expand Serbia’s territory” and “a dream of a land called Greater Serbia.” Insisting that the 1990s wars were motivated by this mythical conspiracy – something even the Hague Inquisition has abandoned, due to complete inability to fabricate even halfway credible evidence – the Newsday correspondent explains that:

“The hope of the United States, the European Union, and the international community at large is that Serbia will accept its modest new status as a landlocked country of under 10 million people, give up its expansionist, nationalist impulses, and embrace the West.”

This sort of rhetoric is parroted by The Guardian‘s Ian Traynor, who opined that the loss of Montenegro, and the likely loss of Kosovo to follow, “may be just the tonic Serbia needs to divest itself of a disastrous 15 years and a nationalism that has brought nothing but grief.” Continues Traynor, “[C]ertainly, the cream of Belgrade’s liberal and democratic class is happy that an independent Montenegro also means, finally, an independent Serbia that can get on with rebuilding itself.”

The “cream” he is referring to are people like Sonja Biserko, who told the LA Times that Montenegro’s secession “marked the end of Serbia’s ‘imperial ambitions.'” There’s something incongruous about Biserko, the leading supporter of the Empire, talking about some supposed Serbian imperialism. In her Serbophobic crusade, she has supported the NATO bombing and advocated the occupation and forced “reeducation” of Serbia. That’s some “human rights” record, indeed.

One of Biserko’s detractors once asked the rhetorical question: How small would Serbia have to be for them to no longer consider it “imperialist” and “aggressive”? The answer he postulated, based on the Jacobin language of Biserko and the rest of the “liberal and democratic class,” was, “Never small enough.”

Taking a Cue

Albanian separatists in the occupied province of Kosovo have cheered Sunday’s results the loudest.

Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group, which has championed Montenegrin and Albanian separatism, did not hide his pleasure at the outcome of Sunday’s plebiscite, commenting that “there’s an expectation of domino-effect” in Kosovo now.

“Before the end of the year, Kosovo, too, will join Montenegro as a new state, and these new countries will be an important factor for stability of the whole region,” said the Albanian “prime minister” of Kosovo, Agim Ceku.

A commentator named Dukagjin Gorani distilled the Albanian argument thus: if 650,000 residents of Montenegro have the right to independence, why wouldn’t the 2 million Albanians in Kosovo? One could respond that Montenegro was a “republic” in the old Yugoslavia, and that according to the EU’s own ruling from 1991 only “republics” had the right to self-determination and secession, not provinces or peoples. That was certainly the argument used against the separatist movements of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the Abramowitz Doctrine clearly rejects the application of principles to the Balkans. Arguments rejected out of hand when they came from 2 million Serbs are now widely recognized as valid when coming from 2 million Albanians. It’s all in who does the rejecting and the recognizing, you see.


Reactions in Belgrade have been a mixture of shock, disbelief, sorrow, and satisfaction. The expression most wire services used was “grudging acceptance.” By Tuesday afternoon, Serbian President Boris Tadic – now de facto a full head of state – publicly announced Serbia’s acceptance of the plebiscite results. It isn’t quite clear whether he had the authority to do so, but the notoriously blurry lines of authority in Serbia have just become even more fluid.

To many in Serbia, Montenegro’s separation comes as a relief, after almost nine years of incessant provocations and tension-building by the separatists. Admittedly, the sundering will abolish the costly and useless union government, for years almost entirely funded by Serbian taxpayers. According to the charter negotiated in 2002, Serbia will automatically succeed to all international memberships, treaties, and charters, while Montenegro will have to start from scratch. Abolition of the Union will have another consequence – the independence of Serbia from Javier Solana, the man who presided over Serbia’s 1999 bombing, and who was instrumental in creating the Union charter.

And yet, Montenegro’s departure comes as a body blow to the Serb national conscience. Quite the contrary from Imperial claims of “Greater Serbia,” the prevailing view in Serbia itself has for decades been the Communist-induced provincialism, which regarded their close relatives in Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia as somehow different and alien. Montenegro, however, had always been regarded as more quintessentially Serb than Serbia itself. Throughout the 19th century, Austria-Hungary did its best to keep Serbia and Montenegro apart, finally failing in 1913. After the Great War, Montenegro was annexed by the Kingdom of Serbia, something the tactless Serbian monarch handled about as gracefully as the creation of Yugoslavia.

Even so, it was not until the Italian occupation of 1941-45 and the subsequent Communist creation of the “People’s Republic of Montenegro” that the idea emerged of a “Montenegrin” ethnic identity as distinctly separate from Serb. Djukanovic’s brand of separatism did not appeal to freedom from “Milosevic’s tyranny” or notions of regional autonomy – it rooted itself firmly in this anti-Serb concept of Montenegrin nationality. When even the proudest Serbs go as far to deny their Serb heritage… what does it mean anymore? This is the sort of question the foreign backers of Montenegrin independence wanted asked, for the explicit purpose of forcing Serbia to “accept its modest new status” and “embrace the West.” (Newsday)

The loss of compass in Belgrade is perhaps best described by Monday’s call from Vuk Draskovic, soon-to-be-former foreign minister of the now defunct Union, to reestablish monarchy in Serbia. While a great idea in principle, Draskovic chose to justify it as “a shortcut to full membership in EU and NATO.”

What’s Next?

The true consequences of Montenegro’s separation remain to be seen. Serbia obviously has a lot of soul-searching to do, even as it is facing enormous pressure to surrender Kosovo. In the rocky republic itself, life after secession does not look to be all milk and honey, as the separatists promised their electorate. For years, Montenegro has lived on U.S. foreign aid, while Serbia subsidized its share of government expenses and foreign debt. Now that it can no longer be used as a leverage against Belgrade, Podgorica may find its American sugar daddy inexplicably AWOL. Moreover, its rulers now owe favors to Croats, Albanians, and Muslims from the north – favors they may have to repay with special privileges, maybe even territory.

For years, Milo Djukanovic wanted to be president of an independent state. Now he has his wish, and may well live to regret it, as flags, marches, and hymns give way to grim realities he can no longer blame on Belgrade.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.