What’s behind the public spat between Serbia and Montenegro?

For Montenegro’s new government, a very public spat with Belgrade over a decision more than 100 years ago to unify with Serbia could not have come at a worse time.

On August 30, Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s coalition ousted the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which has governed Montenegro for almost 30 years. Now, in the week that it is due to actually take power, the row has seen Montenegro expel the Serbian ambassador.

Vladimir Bozovic was on Saturday given 72 hours to leave Montenegro after claiming that a century-old decision in 1918 to merge with Serbia in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes after World War One was “free expression of the people’s will to unite with fraternal Serbia”.

That is not the way that many see the decision in Montenegro. After joining the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918, the small Balkan nation spent the next 88 years under the effective yoke of Belgrade, until it declared independence from Serbia in 2006.

Since then, the DPS government and President Milo Djukanovic have actively moved Montenegro away from its northern neighbour and towards the West, joining NATO in 2017, shunning Russian influence, and pushing forward with talks to join the European bloc.

Indeed, Montenegro’s joining of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1918 is such a historical hot potato that in 2018 the country’s parliament declared the decision void.

Explaining Bozovic’s expulsion, Montenegro’s foreign ministry accused the Serb of “long and continuous meddling in the internal affairs of Montenegro”.

In response, Serbia expelled the Montenegrin ambassador to Belgrade. But on Sunday, it reversed the decision and said that the diplomat could remain.

Belgrade may have calculated, correctly, that the new government in Podgorica will be less hostile than its predecessor.

Montenegro’s relationship with Serbia is a deeply divisive issue. Only 55% of citizens voted for independence 15 years ago, leaving almost half of the country in favour of remaining part of Serbia, with which Montenegro shares its Slavic ethnic make-up, religion and language.

Meanwhile, the move away from Serbia and towards Europe and NATO under Djukanovic has not been well received in Moscow, which sees the Western Balkans as within its sphere of influence.

Euronews reached out to the representatives of both governments but received no response.

Montenegro fought successfully alongside Serbia in 1912 and 1913 against Ottoman rule but early discussions about a union were derailed by the onset of World War One. In 1918, Montenegro’s king, Nicholas I, was deposed and the country was subsumed into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes on December 1.

Montenegro remained part of Yugoslavia until 1989 and later fought alongside Serbia against Croatia and Slovenia to prevent the breakup of the country. In 1992, Serbia and Montenegro formed the “third Yugoslavia” proposed by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

But the partnership did not last long and it was Djukanovic, a former protege of Milosevic, that in 1997 won an internal struggle within the DPS to move Montenegro away from Belgrade. As Serbia under Milosevic became increasingly ostracised internationally over the violent suppression of Kosovo’s Albanian majority, Montenegro continued its move towards the west.

It was a trajectory that continued relatively unabated until August 30, when the opposition secured 41 seats in Montenegro’s 81-seat parliament. But while Krivokapic’s government has been portrayed as a stooge of Belgrade and Moscow, the new prime minister of Montenegro told Euronews in September that the country’s future was as part of the EU.

“This information that we are pro-Serbian or pro-Russian or that we will stop negotiations. That we are anti-NATO. It is not true, and we will prove that very soon. We are committed to all our obligations and everything that we have signed in the agreement with NATO,” he said.

“The pro-West, pro-EU orientation of the new government will be very clearly defined. There will be no doubt about it. Our pro-Western orientation is unquestionable.”

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