The New Montenegro: The State That Was Not a State


When is a state not a state? More than once in modern history, a possible answer to this question has been: when it is Montenegro. The academic industry that studies “state formation” has examined all kinds of examples, from Anglo-Saxon England to postcolonial Africa. But it has paid curiously little attention to this tiny Balkan country, which has demonstrated more than once an extraordinary skill—the art of becoming a state by simply behaving as if it were one already.

The last time this happened was just a few years ago. After the dissolution of the old, Titoist Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992, a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had come into being, consisting of two of the former Yugoslav republics, Montenegro and Serbia. It was a very unequal union. Montenegro’s population numbered barely 600,000, while Serbia’s was roughly ten million; and at just over five thousand square miles—many of them containing nothing but arid and impassable mountains—Montenegro’s territory made up little more than an eighth of this new Yugoslav state.1 (For comparison: Montenegro is almost the same size as Connecticut, but has a population five times smaller.)

At that stage, however, most Montenegrins could not seriously imagine anything other than a common destiny with Serbia. Their president, Momir Bulatovic, was a protégé—some would say sidekick—of the Serbian ruler, Slobodan Milosevic; many Montenegrins identified themselves ethnically as Serbs and belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church; and some had willingly participated, as regular soldiers or even as irregular volunteers, in Milosevic’s campaign against Croatia.

The long years of the Bosnian war, followed by a period of stagnation under international sanctions, caused many Montenegrins to rethink their options. A new political leader, Milo Djukanovic, emerged, critical of Milosevic and keen to cultivate Western goodwill. In 1999 he introduced the deutschmark as an alternative official currency, and a year later it replaced the Yugoslav currency altogether in Montenegro. He also abolished the visa requirements for foreign nationals, after which Serbia set up border checkpoints on the dividing line between the two republics—an unusual state of affairs for the interior of a sovereign state. Djukanovic was already thinking seriously about independence; but it would be wrong to portray this whole process as driven only by him. Before he was ousted from power in 2000, Slobodan Milosevic duly played his part by first ignoring and then arbitrarily changing the provisions of the joint constitution, thereby making a mockery of Montenegro’s status as a partner.

By 2002, legislative election results in Montenegro had already indicated a slight majority in favor of independence, and Djukanovic was openly campaigning for it. But the European Union, fondly imagining that the problem of Kosovo would somehow be easier to handle if Montenegro and Serbia were kept together, brokered a deal to create a new quasi-federal state, called Serbia and Montenegro, and strong-armed Djukanovic into accepting a delay of three years before any referendum on independence. Further wrangling turned those three years into four; then, when that time had…

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