Ask any casual observer about recent history in the Balkans, and they might recall headlines detailing the devastation and armed conflict that plagued the region not long ago. While bloodshed there ended in the late 1990s, countries such as Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still often synonymous with the nationalist-fueled violence that erupted following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Yet one country rarely mentioned is Montenegro, Serbia’s one-time junior ally. While some of its citizens took part in nearby clashes, including those in Croatia and Bosnia, Montenegro mostly managed to avoid violence. Today, it’s something of a beacon of stability in the region. Don’t listen to President Donald Trump, who told Fox News earlier this month that Montenegrins are “very aggressive” people whose membership in NATO could spark a global upheaval. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III,” the president said.
But considering Montenegro’s neighbors and their issues, it’s surprising the country has lived in relative peace. Here’s one reason why:
No single ethnic group comprises a majority of Montenegro’s population — it’s the only European nation with that distinction.
Nitpickers might cite Andorra, but it’s a tiny city-state with a population of just 77,000 nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. Montenegro is a predominantly Slavic nation of around 630,000. Then again, it’s Europe: chock-full of melting pots or mosaics, isn’t it? What about Switzerland, with its four official languages, or Belgium and its three major linguistic groups? Both are valid examples of multiculturalism at work, but neither has faced Montenegro’s recent political, economic and security threats.
In a region as volatile as the Balkans, one might imagine the country’s ethnic breakdown — 45 percent Montenegrin, 28.7 percent Serb, 8.7 percent Bosniak and 4.9 percent Albanian, among other groups — is ripe for conflict. Take neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, with its 50 percent Bosniak, 30 percent Serb and 15 percent Croat population: It’s facing a serious political crisis rooted in the very power-sharing scheme among those three groups that’s meant to keep the peace.
Actually, politics is what makes multiculturalism work in Montenegro — for better or for worse.
As long as Djukanovic presides over … a “stabilitocracy” based mostly on political patronage, you can count on Montenegro staying peaceful.
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) have effectively dominated the country’s political landscape since 1991, when Djukanovic became Europe’s youngest prime minister at age 29. Now one of the continent’s longest-serving leaders, either as premier or president, Djukanovic and the DPS have catered to Montenegro’s different ethnic groups and their smaller parties in exchange for supporting the ruling coalition. It’s not exactly a model for democracy, but the system has proven effective. “Montenegro’s minorities have been fairly well incorporated into mainstream political life,” says Kenneth Morrison, professor of modern southeast European history at De Montfort University in the U.K.
To be sure, the country has its difficulties. Its unique dual identity — being “Montenegrin” and “Serb” technically isn’t so different — has often been a source of political tension. “The modern history of Montenegro has been colored by this complicated and tense relation,” says Srdja Pavlovic of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies at the University of Alberta in Canada. In fact, the country’s 2006 independence referendum, which narrowly passed the 55 percent threshold in favor of breaking from Serbia, roughly reflected this divide.
Still, as long as Djukanovic presides over what Pavlovic calls a “stabilitocracy” based mostly on political patronage, you can count on Montenegro staying peaceful (if not completely democratic).
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