15 years on, Montenegro's vote to quit Serbia still cuts deep

May 22, 2021
Hours after the polls had closed in Montenegro on 21 May, 2006, the head of the Balkan nation’s election commission told journalists that Montenegrins had voted by a margin of 55.4% to break from Serbia and become an independent state. In normal circumstances, the result would have signified a close but conclusive result, but due to a quirk of Montenegro’s EU-sanctioned referendum, the yes campaign needed 55% to win. Now the result was too close to call. That did not stop Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s prime minister and architect of the independence campaign, claiming victory. In a speech to supporters, he said that 99% of votes had been counted and “only a few municipalities in Podgorica” remained. He claimed that there were 6,000 votes left to count which “in no way can alter the result.” Bulatovic and the coalition of unionists requested a recount, which was denied, and a few hours later the electoral commission announced that the final result was 55.5% in favour. 12 days later, on 3 June 2006, Montenegro declared independence from Serbia. The result of the referendum was, ultimately, widely accepted. Serbia was one of the first nations to do so, followed by Russia, the European Union, the United States and the country’s Balkan neighbours, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose own paths to statehood had led to the slow and bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro had achieved its statehood democratically, and without a shot fired. End of story. Except it isn’t. Exactly 15 years later and the deep divide that was exposed by the referendum in 2006 still defines politics in Montenegro. For Predrag Bulatovic, who led the unionist campaign, the wounds are still raw. “It was irregular,” Bulatovic told Euronews. “I may even say that it was brutally robbed.” Bulatovic stood down as leader of the opposition Socialist People’s Party (SNP) at elections in September 2006, when Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) won a small majority off the back of the independence vote and with a promise to take Montenegro into the EU. Bulatovic, who remains an MP and was a founder of the opposition Democratic Front, warned in 2006 that independence would turn Montenegro into a “black hole of Europe”, plagued by corruption and organised crime that would always prevent the country from joining Europe. Fifteen years later, Bulatovic believes his fears have been realised. “We are recognised as the country of endemic corruption, shady privatisation and crumbled institutions,” he said. The Djukanovic era Bulatovic attributes that primarily to one man, Djukanovic, who had dominated Montenegrin politics since 1991 and would continue to do so after 2006. His DPS won every election from 2006 up to 2020, taking Montenegro into NATO and maintained increasingly fractious relations with Belgrade. These were worsened still when Montenegro recognised Kosovo in 2008. He was opposed by a vociferous opposition that was led by the hardline pro-Serbian nationalists that had led the unionist campaign in 2006. In 2016, 14 people were convicted of a plot to overthrow and murder Djukanovic on the eve of Montenegro’s parliamentary elections. It was alleged that both Belgrade and Moscow backed the coup attempt, although both have denied it. In 2020, the fissure in Montenegro was again exposed in a row over the landholdings of the Serbian Orthodox Church, with the Djukanovic government wanting to force the institution to register its vast landholdings in Montenegro. The law led to street protests and ultimately, the defeat of the DPS in elections in August 2020 that gave the opposition power for the first time. Like the referendum, last year’s election was won by the narrowest of margins, with the opposition winning a one-seat majority in parliament. But that has been enough to wage a bitter battle with the country’s special prosecutor, Milivoje Katnic - considered a Djukanovic ally, although he denies it - over corruption investigations into the DPS and its allies. It has also seen a reset of relations with Belgrade and a controversial attempt by the new government to offer a path to Montenegrin citizenship for hundreds of thousands of long-term residents living in Serbia. Montenegrins in Serbia had previously been prevented from claiming their Montenegrin citizenship due to a ban on having dual nationality. That dispute, too, is an old one. In 2006, Montenegro’s government successfully lobbied for a ban on Montenegrins residing in Serbia to vote in the referendum. In order to qualify voters had to have had a permanent residence in Montenegro for at least two years. The independence campaign felt - not unfairly - that Serbia-based voters would likely opt for a continued union. The unionists, led by Bulatovic, were outraged by the decision, but it has been mirrored in other referendums since. In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, for example, Scots living elsewhere in the UK were not permitted to vote.