The negotiations regarding the formation of the 44th Government of Montenegro once again encouraged the Serbian leadership to directly interfere in the internal affairs of Montenegro. The issue of the entry of the former DF parties led by Milan Knežević and Andrija Mandić is of key importance for Aleksandar Vučić. Once again, the public is disinformed about the endangerment of Serbs, while the regime in Serbia, as well as the media and analysts under its control, draw parallels and comparisons between position of Albanians in North Macedonia and Serbs in Montenegro.
The President of Serbia have regularly advocated for the re-composition of Montenegro according to the ethnic-nationalist principle, which has recently received its own advocates in Montenegro. Since the beginning of the religious processions in December 2019, with logistical support from Belgrade, the insistence of Serbian President Vučić and his closest associates on protecting the endangered Serbian people and finally resolving the Serbian issue in Montenegro has gained momentum.
The concept of endangerment
The nationalist concept was built on the principle of endangerment of the Serbs outside Serbia, in the function of their homogenization and affiliation to the Serbian national corpus, clearly expressing ambition to decide in Belgrade on all vital issues concerning Serbs, wherever they lived. This idea has also been institutionalized through key documents, declarations, and strategies, which Belgrade has been continuously adopting since 2006. In that context, the President of Serbia has repeatedly emphasized that the census in Montenegro is of key importance to him. In that way, Vučić hinted that Serbia will continue to work diligently on attempts to change the demographic structure in Montenegro.
From the point of view of Serbia and the Democratic Front as its proxy, the census should have, as a desirable result, dominant influence of the Serbian national corpus in Montenegro. It is clear that if part of the population is pressured to change its national orientation, the third phase of what Aleksandar Vučić has repeatedly announced and mentioned since 2020 will follow – an attempt of a constitutional re-composition of Montenegro following the political model of Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia.
Macedonian political model applied to Montenegro
At a press conference on January 6, 2020, after the situation worsened due to the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, Vučić asked how it is possible that 25 percent of Albanians in North Macedonia can be a constituent people, have the right to language, assembly president, ministers, directors of public companies, and that a larger number of Serbs in Montenegro have no one to represent them and no rights anywhere?
Vučić’s rhetoric was received with a faint diplomatic reaction from official Montenegro, stating that the concept of a Great Serbia threatens the peace and stability of the entire region.
The narrative that Serbs in Montenegro do not have even a tenth of the rights enjoyed by Albanians in North Macedonia was repeated several times during Vučić’s speeches when he spoke about Montenegro. In an interview with RSE in mid-2020, he even pointed out that Serbs, unlike Albanians in North Macedonia, do not have the right to an official language, although, according to the Montenegrin Constitution, Serbian is in official use, as are Montenegrin, Bosnian, Albanian and Croatian.
After the change of government in Montenegro in 2020, it seemed that this idea was put ad acta. However, passing a no-confidence motion in the Government on February 4, 2022, proved to be the optimal platform for rehabilitating the idea of endangerment of the Serbs in Montenegro. In that context, a series of recent statements by one of the leaders of the Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic, are indicative, revitalizing the idea of the need to redefine the status of Serbs in Montenegro, following the status of Albanians in North Macedonia.
Speaking on the show PRESS PLUS on February 8, Mandić said that the implementation of the Constitution of Montenegro, which defines it as a civil state, resulted in discrimination against the Serbian people in the period from 2007 to 2020. Similar theses were repeated two days later in the daily Politika.
In addition to the standard requirements for a technical government that would prepare the elections, these days we are thinking about how to find a model for a discriminated national community, namely Serbs, to fight as a people for the right to be in the position of Albanians in Macedonia, said Mandić, stating that discrimination against the Serbian people must stop and that they want to remove Serbs from power for the second time, as he said.
The model advocated by Mandić would imply that authentic representatives of the Serbian people must participate in government in order to ensure confrontation against organized terror against the community in a democratic way since discrimination against Serbs in Montenegro has taken the form of organized state terror. Identical to Vučić, Mandić also calls for the constituency and obligatory representation of Albanians in the government in North Macedonia, despite their lower percentage representation in relation to Serbs in Montenegro. In 2015, Mandić presented the idea of a Macedonian model for Montenegro in the Belgrade media, which he did during talks with Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for Enlargement in 2019.
Advocacy for the concept that carries obvious security risks, passed almost without any reaction from the Montenegrin expert public, parties, or the media, which opens up for many questions. Comparing Serbs in today’s Montenegro with Albanians in North Macedonia is a call for segregation and division of power on a national basis because that is what we had in the former Yugoslav republic under the Ohrid Agreement from 2001.
It regulated the rights of minority ethnic communities in the Republic of North Macedonia and ended inter-ethnic armed conflict between the two largest ethnic communities, Macedonians and Albanians.
According to the peace agreement signed on August 13, 2001, there was no federalization of the state, it retained its unitary character, but there were changes to the Constitution, which introduced positive discrimination against the Albanian population in the public sector, army, and police. Wider official use of the Albanian flag and language was also allowed. Also, the procedure for the adoption of laws that directly affect culture, language use, education, personal documentation, and the use of symbols has been changed, as well as laws on local finances, local elections, the city of Skopje, and municipal borders.
The Agreement was preceded by armed clashes, in which 72 soldiers and police officers were killed. Many of them were killed in guerrilla operations of the People’s Liberation Army (ONA). The exact number of killed ONA fighters is still unknown and varies from about 100 to several hundred.
The Ohrid Agreement was signed by then-Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister and leader of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE Ljupco Georgievski, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM) Branko Crvenkovski, leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Albanians Arben Xhaferi and leader of the opposition Democratic Prosperity Party. On behalf of the international community, the Agreement was signed by American diplomat James Purdue and French diplomat Francois Leotard.
Some of the most controversial issues which preceded the conflict, were concerning the Albanian language, which was not recognized as the official language in the country, as well as the ban on displaying the Albanian flag in public institutions. In addition, there were no Albanians in public office, nor, for example, in the police, where there was no approximate proportional representation concerning their population. Officials in Skopje saw demands to change that as a path to parallel government structures. Albanian political parties have worked for years to improve their positions, but have failed to achieve significant results. As an alternative, the People’s Liberation Army was offered, which had the same goal, but different means – weapons and military actions.
Although its signing ended the conflict at the time, the system that emerged after the Ohrid Agreement did not reduce segregation but deepened ethnic divisions. The Ohrid Agreement foresaw the closure of the ONA, which later became the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which remains the country’s largest Albanian party to this day.
Sporadic incidents also occurred in the years that followed, and 2015 was particularly tumultuous when eight police officers were killed in an attack carried out by an armed group whose members bore the symbols of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Despite opposing views and interpretations of the document, which is the result of armed conflict, it is clear that it legitimized violence as a means to change the political concept of Macedonian society. His character of the peace agreement was also questioned, given the fact that it was not signed between the representatives of the parties to the conflict, but between the leaders of political parties, who were part of the government of national salvation, as well as the character of the international act. There are also the signatures of the representatives of the United States of America and the European Union since no international institution is competent for disputes over its implementation.
The Macedonian model implies the existence of a joint government of segments of society in the form of a coalition government, which is formed based on results from two special election cycles in two ethnic communities. After the election, the prime minister has little power other than to negotiate with his ethnic partner, who won in the minority (Albanian community).
Representatives of each community have the right to veto, which is formalized through the principle of double majority.
Equitable representation of members of non-majority communities, i.e. more equitable allocation of positions, power, and employment in all state institutions, resulted in an increase in the number of employees in the already cumbersome public administration, as well as the marginalization of all non-Albanian minority communities.
Security implications for Montenegro
Serbia’s direct interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign and independent neighboring state, with evident pretensions to participate even in the reshaping of its constitutional structure, carries with it numerous security implications. The messages that Vučić and his associates in Serbia and Montenegro have been spreading for years about following the example of countries that went through the civil war and whose constitutional arrangements arose as a result of those wars are very dangerous because they (in)directly call for a change in the Constitution, civil concept of Montenegro and transformation into a (bi)nation state. Montenegro is a civil state – a concept that many contractors of the Serbian world project do not want to accept, and at the same time represents a brake on the paternalization and political exploitation of Serbs for political and other purposes.
In order to explain the danger of implementing the Macedonian model, we must start from several premises. The starting point is that the consociationalism model implies the capitulation of Montenegro as a civil state of equal opportunities in favour of two dominant ethnic groups that coexist. In such an environment, politics would be guided by mutual blackmail and blockades, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would prevent any progress towards the European Union and the stagnation of society as a whole. Although almost all political actors are declaratively in favour of reducing divisions on a national basis, this model would divide the foundations of Montenegrin society on a national principle.
The second premise is reflected in the Constitution of Montenegro itself, which, unlike Macedonia in 2001, lays down Serbian as one of the official languages and allows all ethnic groups a fair distribution of positions, power, and employment in state institutions.
Furthermore, the application of this model in Montenegro would lead to the marginalization of all other minority communities, such as Albanians, Muslims, Bosniaks, Croats, Roma, and others, which would further deepen divisions in society. Minority communities would not receive protection mechanisms, so they would have no choice but to become satellites of some of the great parties of ethnic provenance. So, they would be in a position to depend on the good will of the two largest ethnic communities in the country. Therefore, the bi-national model is not applicable in Montenegro, as it does not pay enough attention to the rights and status of less numerous communities.
Such dynamics of socio-political reality would result in the formation of new or turning existing parties to the right, while the space for civic movements and parties would be very narrow, and even unnecessary for such an established bi-ethnic society. Accepting the fact that there is a strong conflict of identity in Montenegro, which is gaining momentum, is the first step towards the normalization of relations in the troubled Montenegrin society. However, political processes should not reproduce and deepen differences, but enable them to be overcome. The problem with this model is that it institutionalizes differences, introducing them in areas that are not related to identity. Social and other inequalities in society, which can sometimes be the main cause of violent conflicts, are ignored, and it all comes down to a binary interethnic model. In addition, the Macedonian model legitimizes violence as a successful means of changing society’s political constitution. An additional problem is that this model can be abused to relativize individual responsibility in relation to collective one, i.e. the lack of action in a particular area would be justified by the unwillingness of Serbs or Montenegrins to act, which again leads to a policy of nationalism that cannot be sustainable in any multicultural and multi-confessional society. Such a policy would be disastrous, for all the reasons already stated.
In a heterogeneous political community such as Montenegro, bi-nationalism must not be a substitute for an authentic multinational model, i.e. a society of all citizens regardless of nationality, as defined by the Constitution of Montenegro. Otherwise, new internal divisions between different ethnic, national, and religious groups would be created, and existing would be further promoted, which would call into question all the values on which modern Montenegrin society is based. A possible crisis would not be stopped at the borders of Montenegro and could have unpredictable development dynamics in the regional context.