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 passed, and analysts were predicting that the pro-independence vote would be a little over 50 percent, the EU announced that it would require a minimum of 55 percent. (The hypocrisy here was quite delicious. In enforcing this requirement, Javier Solana, the EU’s representative, was wielding the foreign policy powers granted to the EU by the Maastricht Treaty. And how had the Maastricht Treaty passed the test of a French referendum? By a majority of 51 percent.)

Eventually, in May 2006, the referendum was held, and just over 55 percent voted for independence; on June 28, 2006, Montenegro became the 192nd member state of the United Nations. But although that long wait had been frustrating for the pro-independence activists, it may also have served their cause. Djukanovic’s entire strategy since 1999 had been to move Montenegro toward independence by making it seem as if it already possessed it. As the years passed, Montenegrins watching the television news became accustomed to hearing about their country’s own foreign and economic policies, and seeing it treated with all the trappings of statehood; in this way, what had once been barely thinkable became not just unworrying but familiar and real.

So far, after more than a year of independence, it appears that Djukanovic’s combination of daring and caution has paid off. Despite some rumblings in the local hierarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church (which owes its allegiance to Belgrade, and fiercely resents the recent revival of an independent Montenegrin Orthodox Church), most of those who voted to remain with Serbia seem broadly reconciled to independent statehood. What will reconcile them even further is economic success, which is something that an independent Montenegro is better equipped to provide. Foreign direct investment has soared since the summer of 2006, and the presence of young, Western-oriented economists in the governments of recent years has led to a number of measures (including widespread privatization and a corporate tax rate of only 9 percent) that should stimulate economic growth. Some of the money pouring into Montenegro comes, admittedly, from Russian sources, not all of them of crystal-clear transparency; but for the time being, with unemployment in Montenegro still above 25 percent, the quality of the investment seems to matter less than its quantity.



To some irreconcilables, of course, separation from Serbia would always feel like a betrayal of Montenegro’s destiny. But no one with historical knowledge could describe it as a betrayal of Montenegro’s past. Before the Yugoslav state was created at the end of World War I, Montenegro had been an independent state; it had not even shared a common border with Serbia before 1913. International recognition of its independence was bestowed at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, with a rather clever piece of diplomatic wording: “The independence of Montenegro is recognized by the Sublime Porte [i.e., the Ottoman government] and by all those High Contracting Parties that have not accepted it already”—the point being that most foreign powers had, for some purposes, been treating Montenegro as an independent entity for a long time.

Formally, Montenegro had been under Ottoman suzerainty since the end of the fifteenth century; but its own domestic rulers raised armies, issued law codes, and entered into negotiations with foreign states—above all, with Russia, its protector power from the early eighteenth century onward. (These rulers, whose title “vladika” is roughly translated as “prince-bishop,” were bishops of the Orthodox Church who also held temporal power; from the 1690s onward the succession was hereditary, held by the Njegos family, with the title usually passing from uncle to nephew.) Once again, we find a quasi state acquiring real statehood by behaving, over a long period, as if it were a state already.

But if de facto independence preceded the de jure variety by a long time, how long did that time last? This has been one of the most hotly disputed issues in Montenegrin history. To Romantic nationalists and their sympathizers in the nineteenth century, it was an article of faith that Montenegro had never accepted Ottoman rule, remaining a permanent bastion of independence (and Orthodox Christianity). As Alfred, Lord Tennyson put it in a sonnet written to accompany a fiery pro-Montenegrin newspaper article by William Gladstone in 1877:

O smallest among peoples! rough rock-throne

Of Freedom! Warriors beating back the swarm

Of Turkish Islam for five hundred years….

From the 1890s onward, however, critical historians from the region (above all, Ilarion Ruvarac and Jovan Tomiå«c) began to dismantle this version of Montenegrin history, pointing out that the territory had been regarded by both the Ottomans and foreign powers as part of the Ottoman Empire, and that, in the early period at least, it was subject to Ottoman administration and tax collection.

In 1951 a young Serb historian and Turcologist, Branislav Djurdjev, submitted a doctoral thesis in which he backed up these claims with detailed references to early Ottoman documents; even then his thesis caused a storm of controversy, and he was reduced to publishing it independently two years later, with a preface describing (in blistering terms) the hostility and obstruction he had experienced at the hands of eminent Serbian academics. Djurdjev did not deny that arrangements in Montenegro had evolved, by the early eighteenth century, into a kind of de facto self-government. But what he showed was that this was a consequence of particular conditions set up by the Ottomans themselves—above all, a special tax regime, an understanding that the territory would be treated as a personal estate of the sultan, and a special set of military duties that both entitled Christian Montenegrins to be soldiers (in order to defend the frontier) and exempted them, in normal circumstances, from military service outside their own area. And while Montenegro was certainly special, it was not, Djurdjev insisted, exceptional: there were several other areas in the Ottoman Balkans with similar arrangements in that period.2

This interpretation may have taken a while to penetrate Western scholarship (Donald Pitcher’s historical atlas of the Ottoman Empire, for example, published in 1972, still portrayed Montenegro as a distinct “state” in the sixteenth century), but among serious historians in the region itself it won speedy acceptance. By 1959 the leading Montenegrin expert on the early modern period, Gligor Stanojevic—who disagreed sharply with Djurdjev on points of detail, but agreed with the overall thrust of his argument—was able to write: “There is not a single person nowadays with the most elementary knowledge of Montenegrin history who can offer up again the old romantic notions about the age-old freedom and independence of Montenegro.”3

But that statement, true in 1959, may no longer be true today. In the long run-up to independence, some of the themes and concerns of the old nationalist historiography have been consciously revived. One leading example of this was the multivolume history produced in the 1990s by the archivist and historian Dragoje Zivkovic—a work pointedly at variance with the official multiauthored and multivolume work that had come out in the Titoist period. (While the earlier work had been called The History of Montenegro, his was entitled, significantly, The History of the Montenegrin Nation.)


Writing about the early Ottoman period, Zivkovic declared that Montenegro had always been a “focus of resistance to the Ottoman conquering power,” and that even in the early sixteenth century it had been “a de facto independent state.”4 It seems revealing that whereas his first volume, appearing in 1989 before the collapse of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was published by “friends of the author,” the second, in 1992, was sponsored by a local business, and the third, in 1998, was published by the Montenegrin cultural society called Matica Crnogorska, with funding from the Montenegrin government.5


To write a general history of Montenegro today, therefore, is to enter some very contested ground, whereold historiographical quarrels have been reactivated by modern political ones. The task, especially when undertaken by an outsider, requires bravery, independent- mindedness, and a cool head. Elizabeth Roberts—the Australian-born wife of a former British ambassador to Belgrade—has those qualities, combined with a gift for the lucid explanation of complicated matters. In putting together a history of Montenegro from the Roman Empire to the 2006 referendum, she has performed a huge service for English-speaking readers. Astonishingly, the last general account to be produced by an Anglophone author was Francis Stevenson’s A History of Montenegro (1912), which was in fact written in the early 1880s, and was thus itself a product of the mental world of Tennyson and Gladstone. Stevenson’s book, although quite scholarly by the standards of its day, was thoroughly Gladstonian in its assumptions about Montenegrin freedom-fighting and Ottoman tyranny; and besides, even if it could be relied on for the period up to the 1880s, rather a lot of history has happened since then.

While Anglophone historians have neglected Montenegro, however, Serbian and Montenegrin ones have not. During the twentieth century, major scholars such as Gligor Stanojevic produced monographs on many important aspects of Montenegrin history; and it is the one great weakness of Roberts’s book that she has paid hardly any attention to them. Even Branislav Djurdjev’s classic study is mentioned just once, in a footnote, and there is little sign that its evidence and arguments have been put to use. (It seems to be the fate of small countries to be treated in this way; no one would think of writing a history of France or Germany that was not based primarily on French or German scholarship.)

All but a few of Roberts’s sources are English-language works. For some periods, this means that she is able to draw on some very high-quality analysis—for example, Professor John Fine’s studies of the medieval Balkans, or Professor Ivo Banac’s work on the politics of the Yugoslav lands in the early twentieth century, or a wide range of modern studies of the Chetnik and Partisan movements in World War II. But in other periods the pickings are thin, and her regular sources include Stevenson, a British government handbook compiled in 1918, and a book written in somewhat unacademic conditions (a Communist prison cell) by Montenegro’s best-known intellectual of the last century, Milovan Djilas. Roberts refers to just a handful of items in Serbo-Croat, and the only works she cites repeatedly are the two multivolume histories—with the more recent and more nationalist one, by Dragoje Zivkovic, receiving the greater attention. These two works are useful, of course, because they synthesize a wide range of previous research; but they also engage in a kind of smoothing-over of awkward points, in such a way that it is difficult to get behind them to see what those points might have been.

One example may illustrate this problem. In 1788 an Austrian military mission visited Montenegro, with the aim of organizing joint action against the Ottomans. It suffered many setbacks, and left after a few months, having achieved nothing. Zivkovic devotes several pages to this episode, but blames the Austrian commander for everything that went wrong; he must be aware of the detailed Austrian report on the mission, which recounts a history of prevarication and obstruction by the Montenegrins, but chooses not to quote from it. Roberts, unable to go behind Zivkovic (who gives no source references), assumes that the episode is of no significance, and omits it altogether. And yet the fifty-page report is one of the most detailed accounts of Montenegro written by any outsider in the eighteenth century, vividly depicting the internal divisions of the Montenegrins and the near powerlessness of their prince-bishop. It also makes some more general comments that historians have been rather reluctant to cite in the debate about Montenegrin independence:

It was always thought that this people was independent, and that they always fought bravely against the Turks in order to maintain their freedom; but we have found that this too is mistaken. First of all, the two districts which border Albania, and part of the other two [in this period “Old Montenegro” consisted of four nahije, or districts] still pay their tribute to the Pasha of Shkodra; the others, relying on their rocky crags, refuse to pay the tribute, partly because of poverty, and partly out of stubbornness. The Pasha of Shkodra pretends not to notice for two or three years, but then he overruns the territory with his troops, and robs, murders, and burns, and so takes his tribute ten times over….6

For at least some parts of the early modern period, this may well have been a more accurate assessment than the Gladstonian view.

Roberts is aware that the theme of Montenegrin independence has been overdone by some previous writers. At one point she remarks that in the early Ottoman period the area of four districts was “not the ‘eagle’s nest of freedom’ romantic historians and mythmakers later proclaimed it to be.” But here and there one finds that the old historiography may have influenced her in more subliminal ways. In 1660, she writes, “Montenegro and Venice signed a treaty of military co-operation.” That the Montenegrin leader made an agreement, pledging the use of his fighters to protect Venetian territory on the coast, is an undisputed fact, but the phrasing here puts Montenegro on a par with Venice (a sovereign state), and uses what is more or less a technical term—“treaty”—from the realm of international relations and international law.

Again, discussing the origins of the Montenegrin tradition of rule by a “vladika” or prince-bishop, Roberts writes:

When and how the story originated is hard to tell, but it was soon accepted lore that Ivan or his son Djuradj [the last of the pre-Ottoman dynasty which had ruled the area] had entrusted the people’s fate not to any representative of the sultan but to the Vladika or metropolitan [i.e., bishop] of Cetinje…. For early generations perhaps such foundation myths helped to…restore a sense of “national” dignity.

Here, on the one hand, we have the suitably critical term “foundation myth,” but on the other hand Roberts tells us that the myth was accepted “soon” (meaning, apparently, soon after the end of the dynasty: Djuradj departed in 1496), and that even among “early generations” there was a “national” feeling that needed to be restored. According to Branislav Djurdjev, however, this mythical story appeared for the first time in a little book about Montenegro published in Moscow in 1754; the author of the book was himself a vladika (or, to be precise, co-vladika) of Montenegro, no doubt with his own reasons for wanting to strengthen the principle of vladikan rule.

More generally, Roberts’s work follows the rather traditional pattern of a “national” history, in which the real subject of the story is the national-political unit as it develops; and since that development has involved territorial expansion, this means that the story concentrates in earlier periods on a much smaller area than it does in later ones. Old-fashioned histories of Britain used to be like this: they would start with Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, and would treat the Welsh and the Scots only as “noises off” until the English conquered them or united with them. For the medieval period, Roberts’s account offers quite general coverage of the region; given the shifting nature of geopolitical entities then, this could hardly be otherwise. But once the Ottoman Turks take over, at the end of the fifteenth century, and those four districts become, as she puts it, the “kernel of separateness from which the future independent principality of Montenegro would grow,” her story is much more narrowly focused on the kernel and its growth. Until the final years of the eighteenth century, therefore, it is the story only of those four land-locked districts (an area so small that, at the time when it was allegedly undertaking a “treaty,” its total population was just over three thousand households).

Then the kernel swelled to take in a similar area of even more impenetrable mountains, populated by warrior-clans of “Brdjani,” or highlanders. Two more waves of territorial expansion would follow, first thanks to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, and then as a result of the conquest of Ottoman territory in 1912. It was only through these enlargements that Montenegro gained, for the first time, a small stretch of coastline and a handful of significant towns. (According to one report, in 1860 the historic capital, Cetinje, contained thirty-four thatched houses.)

That this is the central story around which any history of Montenegro must be structured seems an unavoidable fact. That it should become the only story, however, seems both unnecessary and unjust. For example: Bijelo Polje and Pljevlja are two of the towns acquired by Montenegro in 1912–1913, having formerly belonged to the Ottoman province known as the Sandzak of Novi Pazar. Today they are, respectively, the third- and fifth-largest towns in the country. Inhabitants of such towns might expect, when looking through any general history of their country, to find that their own history is also recorded there; but it is not to be found in this one. The people of the Sandzak are the most inaudible of noises off, excluded from the history of what is now Montenegro for as long as they were not included in the territory of what was then Montenegro.

This approach has some implications for the way in which Montenegrin identity is presented in this book. Although she is writing primarily a political history, Roberts includes some short treatments of cultural life; these concentrate on the Orthodox monasteries of the kernel territory, and on some of the outlying monasteries that were connected with them. An important monument of Ottoman Islamic architecture such as the Husein Pasha mosque in Pljevlja (one of the finest sixteenth-century mosques in the western Balkans) is not discussed at all, because it was not in Montenegro when it was built.

The neglect of non-Orthodox culture and history is, indeed, a necessary corollary of Roberts’s approach. For the awkward truth is that each time the Montenegrin state expanded, it took in more and more people that differed from it in religion, or language, or both: Muslim Slavs, Muslim Albanians, Catholic Albanians, and even some Catholic Slavs. The later the expansion, the higher the proportion of such people. Like Serbia and Greece, Montenegro never had a clear idea of where its expansionary progress should halt; growing step by step, it eventually reached the point of occupying swathes of territory in which the great majority of the population belonged to a religious or ethnic-linguistic “other.”

All the towns taken over in the period between 1878 and 1913 had majority Muslim populations; the Montenegrin state then applied various kinds of pressure on the Muslims to leave, and those who stayed—especially the Albanians—experienced discrimination. The worst treatment was meted out to Muslim and Catholic Albanians after the conquests of 1912, when a program of forced conversions was imposed, and many hundreds of people were massacred in cold blood. One modern writer, a respected Albanian historian in Kosovo, has gone so far as to call this “genocide.”7

If one considers the history of Montenegro only from the point of view of the onward-and-upward trajectory of the expanding Montenegrin state, one is likely to accord to these painful issues less importance than they deserve. After all, the people concerned appear as rather shadowy outsiders, up until the moment when they are caught in the headlights of the oncoming expansionary state; their history, until that moment, has not been Montenegrin history. And on the other hand, if their importance is thus downplayed, there is a risk that one will not appreciate just how great the recent achievement of Montenegro has been in creating a society in which the main minorities—Albanians and Muslim Slavs—now feel more at ease, and indeed more integrated, than their equivalents do in several other states in the region, including both Serbia and Macedonia.

With all these qualifications, it must be said that the central story of Montenegro’s rise to statehood is well told by Roberts. And it is a remarkable story, because obtaining statehood in the eyes of the outside world was in many ways the less difficult of the two tasks facing the prince-bishops of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their harder task was to impose governmental authority on their own people. In the early phases of this process, the material resources they possessed were tiny (just the income from some monastic estates), and their rule depended on a combination of intangibles: networks of family loyalties, the moral authority of the Church, and personal charisma. Of these, charisma seems to have been the most important; it alone can explain the bizarre episode in the 1760s when an impostor (an itinerant herbalist) claiming to be the former Russian Tsar Peter III (who had been dead for some years) was accepted as such and installed as ruler of “Old Montenegro.” Until he was killed by an assassin in 1773, he was in fact one of the most effective rulers the territory had known: he introduced for the first time a state-administered system of justice, made a census of the population, and embarked on a major road-building program.

Gradually, over the next hundred years, the rulers put together a rudimentary version of a modern state: establishing an army, police, a judiciary, a tax and customs service, and so on. Superior Western visitors may have found much of this rather comical, in a Ruritanian sort of way, but the nature of the achievement should not be underestimated: while the new states that came into being in almost all other parts of the former Ottoman Empire were able to take over elements of an already existing Ottoman state structure, the core area of Montenegro (that is, the original four districts and the neighboring area of highland “Brdjani”) had almost no such structure at all. Here was a process of state formation bordering on sheer levitation, with rulers who somehow managed to project themselves upward just by pulling extremely hard on their own bootstraps.

But spare a thought for those on the receiving end of this process. In the 1830s, Petar II (vladika 1830–1851) became the first ruler of Montenegro to levy taxes. These were bitterly resented, especially by the highland Brdjani, whose resistance to the Ottomans had been founded on their refusal to pay taxes to them, and who had willingly joined the four districts of Montenegro a generation earlier because they thought this would strengthen their non-tax-paying position.

In the mid-1850s three of the most powerful highland clans rebelled against the Montenegrin ruler, refusing to pay the taxes he demanded and declaring their own territory, instead, an independent state. The revolt was rapidly suppressed; it is now just a footnote to Montenegrin history, a small backward eddy in what is otherwise seen as an onward-rushing stream. When the ancestors of those highlanders had engaged in such action against the Ottoman authorities, they had apparently been making a positive contribution to the long-term process of Montenegrin state formation; now, it seems, their descendants were doing something merely negative and retrograde; yet the action, from their point of view, was the same. State formation, when all is said and done, may be a fine and necessary thing; but we should not forget that one person’s state formation can be another’s brutal oppression.

This Issue

December 6, 2007