Population census: Between statistics and politics

After two years of delays due to the health and political crisis, a population census will be held in Montenegro from November 1 to 15, 2023. The data collected in the census serve as a basis for the strategic development plan of the country. However, instead of obtaining a socio-demographic picture of Montenegro, the census is not treated as a collection of statistical data but is misused for political purposes, and this is the case not only in our country but also in the region.

The practice of EU countries is entirely different. Germany does not ask about nationality and language in its census, and neither does France, which is not interested in the religious affiliation of citizens when compiling this demographic data. Many other European countries follow a similar practice, so for Italians, Danes, Swedes, and Dutch, the question of nationality is not part of the census. The USA, Russia, and Canada are not interested in the religious affiliation of the population, and for many of them, language is the least important.

Even though Montenegro is defined as a civic state by its Constitution, the issue of the census automatically raises questions of national, religious, and cultural (language use) orientation. The rhetoric of politicians sharpens, the activities of church dignitaries and organizations bearing a national hallmark intensify, all accompanied by an aggressive media campaign. We witnessed this in 2011 when the first census was conducted after the restoration of independence.

Serbia was an active participant in the campaign leading up to the 2011 census. At that time, Mlađan Đorđević, the secretary of the Council for Cooperation with National Councils of Serbs in the region and an advisor to then-president of Serbia Boris Tadić, often visited Montenegro before the census. Montenegrin media reported that he was leading an aggressive campaign aimed at having as many citizens as possible in Montenegro identify as Serbs during the census. Novak Đoković was also a part of this campaign.

According to the final results of the 2011 census, Montenegro has a total of 620 thousand inhabitants, with no single nation holding a majority. The largest group is Montenegrins, making up 45 percent, while Serbs constitute 29 percent.

Over a decade after the census, the situation in Montenegro has significantly changed, primarily socio-politically. The polarization within Montenegrin society has not reached such a high level since the 2006 referendum. Moreover, in August 2020, there was a change in the long-standing DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists) rule. The electoral victory in 2020 further encouraged certain political structures, in association with the Serbian Orthodox Church, to initiate a nationalist campaign clearly targeting the upcoming population census.

Pro-Serbian and pro-Russian propagandistic media outlets, such as IN4S, launched a campaign two years ago under the slogan It’s not Montenegrin if it’s not Serbian. The campaign is based on a fake narrative about the endangerment of Serbs and Serbian identity in Montenegro, while at the same time aggressive propaganda is being disseminated against other national, religious, and cultural communities in Montenegro. Just like during 2011, the campaign for this census is based on the denial of Montenegrin identity, as well as Montenegrin state symbols.

The situation in Serbia has significantly changed since 2011. Since 2012, the Serbian Progressive Party, originating from Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party, has been in power. Aleksandar Vučić has become the absolute leader of Serbia, taking control of all levers of power. However, the attitude towards Montenegro has not changed much; in fact, the malign influence from Serbia has become much stronger and more visible. Serbia has allocated a large sum of money for the establishment and operation of organizations bearing a Serbian hallmark, engaged in information, education, and culture.[i] One of the larger projects that the Government of Serbia has invested 3.4 million euros from the budget in is the construction of the Serbian House (Srpska kuća) in Podgorica. Although it was established in March 2017, the Serbian House was officially opened in February 2019 and is registered in the Central Register of Commercial Entities of Montenegro as a limited liability company (d.o.o.). Its director is Emilo Labudović, an active advocate of the Serbian world and a former representative of the Democratic Front in the Parliament of Montenegro. Within the Serbian House, numerous organizations have offices and operate from there: Matica Srpska, Institute for Serbian Culture, the editorial office of the magazine Srpski Jug, Association of Writers of Montenegro, IN4S, Serbian Television, Serbian Newspapers, Serbian Radio, Serbian Literary Cooperative, and Serbian Cultural Club Zavjet. Listed as founders of the center are 29 individuals who are registered as owners with a 3.44% share in this commercial entity, among whom are numerous officials and activists of pro-Serbian political parties in Montenegro, advocates of the idea of the Serbian world and deniers of Montenegrin national identity, as well as opponents of Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integrations. Organizations located in the Serbian House are the carriers of the Serbian campaign for the upcoming census. In synergy with the most influential organization, the Serbian Orthodox Church, various events and manifestations are organized, promoting historical revisionism and disseminating a narrative about the endangerment of Serbian identity in Montenegro. This is already an established method of propagandistic activity that directly attacks the civic concept of Montenegrin society.  

Activities of Serbian organizations

Throughout this summer, the proponents of Serbian ethno-nationalism, through the organization of various events, have attempted to degrade the civic concept of the state, while simultaneously emphasizing the dominance of Serbian national identity over all others in Montenegro.

The concert of Beogradski Sindikat in Berane on July 29, 2023, the humanitarian concert for Kosovo and Metohija in Herceg Novi on August 12, 2023, as well as the Serbian party in Sutomore on August 15, 2023, organized by the militant brotherhood Stupovi, served to promote ideological frameworks that deny the modern identity of civic Montenegro. The threatened Serbdom and the restoration of the chapel on Lovćen as the dominant motifs of these events aim at creating cohesion among national Serbs in Montenegro, as well as creating a climate where an individual who does not accept this framework does not belong to the Serbian national corpus under the patronage of Belgrade.[i]

Additionally, the structure of the events suggests that all segments of the cultural and artistic life are being used to spread nationalist and propagandist narratives. For instance, through the promotion of the book Blagoje Jovović Serbian Hero in the Wolf’s Lair on August 4, 2023, in Bečići, the Chetnik collaborationist movement from World War II is glorified. Discrimination against the Serbian language is also part of the spectrum of fake narratives about the threatened Serbian national corpus in Montenegro, and so, in Berane on August 17, 2023, the Serbian National Council organized a forum titled Constitutional Discrimination of the Serbian Language in Montenegro, where well-known pro-Serbian proxy actors Veselin Matović and Budimir Dubak spoke.

The additional propagandistic activity, featuring elements of historical revisionism and a campaign against the national identity of Montenegrins, could be observed in the promotion of the film Montenegro – The border between truth and lies. This documentary was made at the initiative of the Union of Serbs from Montenegro, led by Željko Čurović. The main topic of the documentary is the Podgorica Assembly of 1918, showcasing an event symbolizing the disappearance of Montenegro as a state in a positive light. This film was screened in Žabljak, and the promotion of the film in Plužine on August 16 was attended by the Russian Ambassador to Montenegro, Vladislav Maslenikov.[i]  

The open meddling of Serbian state authorities and undermining of the constitutional principle of a civic state in Montenegro continued in September. In Berane, on September 13, under the patronage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, a two-day program was held to commemorate the Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom, and the National Flag. The Minister without portfolio in the Serbian Government, Đorđe Milićević, who is also in charge of coordinating activities with the diaspora, gave an introductory speech. Although the Serbs from Montenegro are not considered Serbian diaspora, such manifestations are used to instrumentalize identity issues, create national and nationalistic homogenization, as well as emotional manipulation of citizens ahead of the announced population census. One of the participants of the event was a pro-Russian propagandist from Serbia, Siniša Ljepojević, who is a regular guest on Sputnik and RT Balkan.[i]    

Indeed, the media activation of pro-Russian propagandists like Srđa Trifković and Siniša Ljepojević clearly indicates that Montenegro, in the run-up to the announced census, will face the onslaught of a media-intelligence network from Serbia. This network might exploit the created vacuum in the process of government formation to further influence public opinion in Montenegro, framing the census issue as crucial for the survival of Serbs in the region.

The activation of pro-Serbian and pro-Russian proxy associations, Orthodox fraternities, and individuals, along with the recycling of narratives about the endangerment of Serbian national identity in Montenegro, served as a prelude to coordinating the activities of the coalition For the future of Montenegro (ZBCG) and media outlets close to them, such as Borba and IN4S, along with certain websites and individuals threatening the destabilization of Montenegro if this coalition is not part of the 44th government.

The fact that within the movement Europe Now and Democratic Montenegro, as nominally civic political structures, there are individuals who identify as ethnic Serbs, clearly indicates that the hybrid operations with the thesis about the endangerment of Serbs in Montenegro aim at introducing the coalition ZBCG into the new government. Moreover, the coalition ZBCG, or the former Democratic Front, remains the most loyal proxy of Aleksandar Vučić in achieving regional projection of power and influence.

Formation of the Government

The percentage of citizens identifying as Serbs has always served as an excuse for Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to directly interfere in the internal affairs of Montenegro. This was confirmed once again during the negotiations on the formation of the 44th Government of Montenegro.

The announcement by the Prime Minister-designate Milojko Spajić that the coalition For the future of Montenegro will not be part of the new government, met with a turbulent reaction both in Serbia and Montenegro. A clear synergy is visible between political structures, media, activists and analysts, and far-right organizations advocating for the inclusion of For the future of Montenegro in the government. The public is again being misinformed about the endangerment of Serbs and the reshaping of the electoral will of citizens. Activities in the online sphere have also intensified, aimed not only at creating pressure but also at intimidating and radicalizing Montenegrin citizens who identify as Serbs, directing them towards the allegedly only true representatives of the interests of the Serbian people in Montenegro embodied in the political entities led by Mandić and Knežević. The campaign is also being conducted in Serbia, where identical narratives are being disseminated through the media.

The question of the entry of parties from the former Democratic Front led by Milan Knežević and Andrija Mandić is of crucial importance to Aleksandar Vučić, especially in the context of the census. From the perspective of Serbia and the Democratic Front as contractors, the desirable result of the census should be to achieve a dominant influence of the Serbian national corpus in Montenegro. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić himself stated that the census in Montenegro is the most important issue for Serbia.

Perceiving the census as a competition between Montenegrins and Serbs, Bosniaks and Muslims, as a rivalry between civic and national, and similar, will have long-term negative consequences for Montenegrin society. Potential collapse of the civic concept and recompositing based on the ethnic-national principle would mean changing the arrangement of Montenegro in the likeness of North Macedonia (which DFC recently wrote about ) or post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina. Montenegro would not be a civic state but a state deeply divided between different ethnic groups.

[i] https://dfc.me/wp-content/uploads/Studija-ruski-uticaj-MNE-online-4.pdf

[ii] https://www.cdm.me/politika/beogradski-sindikat-u-beranama-o-ugrozenosti-srba-i-povratku-kapele-na-lovcen-gradani-pjevali-o-kosovu-dps-nacionalisticki-performans/

[iii] https://lat.sputnikportal.rs/20230818/premijera-filma-crna-gora-medja-istine-i-lazi-u-pluzinama-prisustvovao-i-ruski-ambasador-1160071083.html

[iv] Удружење Срба Берана и Андријевице: Свечани програм поводом Дана српског јединства, слободе и националне заставе – ИН4С (in4s.net)