Doom without Hope? Montenegro in the shackles of nationalism and corruption.

Montenegro, like many other countries, replaced corrupt neoliberals with right-wing populists affiliated with the church. Unlike other places, when this happens in the Balkans, with its recent history of wars, imperialism and nationalism, it’s an entirely different story.
When Real Socialism fell apart, all the ghosts of the past came back to haunt us. Of course, they were multiplied and strengthened by new narratives created by politicians who had a very specific goal in mind– privatizing everything for pennies and pocketing the “spare change”. They succeeded in doing so by invoking the powers of extreme nationalism. People cried when Tito died because unconsciously they knew something far worse was coming.
When Real Socialism fell apart, all the ghosts of the past came back to haunt us. Of course, they were multiplied and strengthened by new narratives created by politicians who had a very specific goal in mind– privatizing everything for pennies and pocketing the “spare change”. They succeeded in doing so by invoking the powers of extreme nationalism. People cried when Tito died because unconsciously they knew something far worse was coming.

Decades later, we still live with the same uncertainty, but unfortunately the current uncertainty differs in one aspect– the doom remains, but there’s no more hope. Now, the whole country (and even region) follows the political situation on a daily, or even hourly basis. But we no longer hope. We “pray” that a less bad option will come. We “pray'' that we will all  be equal citizens of Montenegro, free of nationalists who deny our identity and political elites who tell us Montenegrins are non-existent. We “pray” that those elites, who claim to be civically oriented Montenegrins, stop hiding their corruption and nepotism behind a flag. But when average spending is double the average salary and you combine that with ill-omened ideological agendas, people turn to nationalism, and you hear the same chauvinistic stories again and again. And meanwhile, the gap between classes is getting wider and wider.

The post-sociaslist desert in Montenegro

In 1989, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS; party names  don’t really mean anything in Montenegro because they are most definitely not socialists) came to power. These politicians, who are now outspoken “liberal” Montenegrins, were right-wing Serbs when it was popular and it served their interests. Those same people, who collaborated with Milošević (specifically in the bombing of Dubrovnik and extraditing Muslims during the war) now present themselves as the pioneers of peace and prosperity in Montenegro, thus completely ignoring the fact that they "became" Montenegrin only when it was profitable. When there were clear signs that Montenegrins were more than ready to finally, after centuries of fighting, reclaim their autonomy, sovereignty and independence under the leadership of the very controversial leader Milo Đukanović, the DPS decided to turn their backs on Slobodan Milosević and become pro-”West”.

In doing so, they got a free-pass to take the “transition” forward. So, these neo-liberal politicians just continued to steal everything from this beautiful country; privatizing beaches, ruining nature to build hotels for themselves and their favorite oligarchs, completely neglecting the north of the country, destroying public health and leaving us with no valid institutions. The whole country’s property is owned by just a few families (mainly the Đukanović) and their partners in multinational institutions. In the meantime, people turned to religion and the free food in churches’ kitchens. Since the government itself didn’t organize this, it left people to be fed by religious leaders and thereby created fertile ground for chauvinistic indoctrination.

And then, it finally happened. After many scandals, the DPS’ reign ended with a loss in the elections. Curiously, it didn’t come as punishment for their nepotism or corruption, but largely because they tried to regularize the status of the Serbian Orthodox church (Srpska pravoslavna crka – SPC) in Montenegro. For years, the DPS funded the SPC with cash flows and land giveaways in exchange for their political support or, at least, silence. They were given ownership of everything that was once, until the occupation in 1918, the possession of the Montenegrin church. Then, the DPS introduced a law that demanded  property ownership documents, which the SPC certainly don’t have, to be checked, so they responded by mobilizing people in public liturgies.

After 30 years of rotten system(s) and corruption, years of money laundering, you would think people would rebel and go out to the streets en masse asking for true democracy, civic rights and freedom, without having to pay for it with poverty, unemployment and a corrupt justice system but instead, a large part of our country fell into an even deeper and darker dystopian hole. The promised salvation was instead a road to even bigger and more sinister problems that built on those that already existed.

Montenegro, like many other countries, replaced corrupt neoliberals with right-wing populists affiliated with the church. Unlike other places, when this happens in the Balkans, with its recent history of wars, imperialism and nationalism, it’s an entirely different story. Even more so since the government was elected on a wave of clerical-nationalism, as agreed upon in a monastery of the Serbian Orthodox church, which stands  accused of hiding war criminals, propelling the ‘Greater Serbia’ narrative, and pushing Russian influence, as recognized by a European Commission report. In what appear to be leaked SKY documents obtained by Europol, the church was even shown to be funding kalashnikovs before the elections, just in case their option didn’t win.

We expected the extreme right wing Serbian nationalists Democratic Front (DF), Democrats, strongly backed by the SPC, and the “green” party URA to put nationalistic topics at the center of the agenda, but at the very least we were hoping that organized crime and nepotism would be slightly tackled. Long story short – that didn’t happen. Corporations are being welcomed with open arms to exploit the proletariat, there have been no successful efforts to get inflation under control, party affiliation is still the strongest form of recommendation and top biography item, messages about collaboration between prime minister Abazović (leader of the Greens) and notorious criminal clans are being leaked, and a long etcetera. Apart from communicating with criminals, Abazović, who swore to end mob and criminal activities in Montenegro, casually hangs out with the Night Wolves (an extreme right-wing pro-Russian organization banned in the EU). 

We asked for a change, but all we got was a replacement. Except this time packaged in right-wing Christian chauvinism. 

At the same time public opinion is being manipulated and culture destroyed. Authors who write apologetically about chetnik ideology are getting literature prizes, an abortion ban has become debatable, gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights  are declining, and the church is lobbying for religious education in public schools. Just to illustrate how dangerous this is: the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) has the highest confidence rate compared to any other institution in the country, according to polls.

To make matters worse, the government is spreading messages saying antifascists are the real fascists, and tear gassed us on numerous occasions, including during the celebration of the antifascist uprising. This is all enabled by the discursive power of elites who portray self-proclaimed chetniks (Serb fascists) and partisans as the two extremes, one belonging to Serbian nationalism and the other to Montenegrin nationalism, which are ultimately just two sides of the same coin[1].

This story is strengthened by anti-Montenegrin messages coming from officials in Serbia, who claim that Montenegro as a nation doesn't exist and that those who are Montenegrins are criminals and fascists.

The geopolitics of Montenegro

As described simply by Miloš Vukanović: “There is no difference between attempts to demonize Montenegrins in an effort to defend Serbian nationalism, with all its positive and negative aspects, and the violent perception that Putin has constructed towards Ukrainians.” 

Constitutionally, our multi-ethnic Montenegro is sliding towards disintegration and imperialist ‘big state’ projects, mainly due to internal problems like rising clericalization, and also the Open Balkans initiative. 

Open Balkans is criticized by many prominent figures as a big state project that will take territories of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo and integrate them into big states like Serbia and Albania, and even Croatia, some claim. And yet, the media and politicians seem to be paving the way for it on a daily basis  so, as time goes by, people are starting to believe that Jansa’s non-paper, that called for disintegration of multicultural Balkan countries (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro) into big state projects, was not fabricated.

All this is closely observed and influenced by Russia, who have their eyes on our ports and on NATO’s weakest link. As I write this, cyber attacks, most likely orchestrated by Russia, are taking place in Montenegro. At the beginning of the Ukraine invasion, you could find publicly displayed banners that read “Russians in Ukraine, Serbs in Montenegro”.

The saddest part of this is that the war mongering organization of NATO is now seen as the only opposition. But, this is clearly not the case – NATO is not going to save you or guarantee your security unless it guarantees them selling weapons for profit. Once again, Montenegrins, Bosnians, Serbs, Albanians, Croats, non-nationals and others are victims of big political games and demagogy.

The symbolism of nations, and nationalization of symbols

It’s incredibly complex to describe our political context in just one article, but it’s vital to note that problems between Serbians and Montenegrins in Montenegro are not of ethnical origin. Nationalities in this country are fluid and people often identify as Serbs or Montenegrins according to their ideology, rather than ethnicity.  

The narrative is almost entirely formed by MPs, so people have truly started to identify nations with ideas and symbols of political leaders. If you are Montenegrin then you are socially liberal, pro-NATO, you take social issues more seriously than corruption problems, you are Yugonostalgic, and for the integration of national minorities (Croats, Bosnians, Albanians, etc.). If you are Serb then you are the opposite: socially conservative, anti-NATO, more focused on the battle against corruption, and so on. This dominant narrative that ruins multiculturalism is now being replicated by citizens, because this is what their representatives sound like[2]. People have completely forgotten and suppressed class struggle and other parts of their identity. Not only do governments and the opposition create public opinion, they also create the ideas that nations represent. In psychoanalytic terms, this dangerous rhetoric and generalization leads to identification through alienation: you embrace stereotypes that are imposed through others. This can even be seen as a form of societal neurosis, and the key to overcoming it is to eliminate the interference in symbolic relations created by imaginary relations… thus dissipating imaginary identifications', as said by Lacan.

The right to self-determination is something that needs to be obliged and the constitution of Montenegro says that we are a civil and not a national country, so nationality shouldn’t even matter. The problem is that political elites profit from these scenarios and the construct of nationality.

A conclusion without an ending

After 30 years of the same party ruling, we changed governments 3 times in less than 2 years and every one of them seemed doomed to fail. Why? Because a stable government cannot be formed by the MPs who are currently in parliament. They represent deeper ideological divisions that have been present in Montenegro since, at least, the time of the Whites and the Greens, which then transformed into chetniks vs partisans, and ultimately pro-independence or pro-unionists. Add core partocracy problems, corruption and nepotism to the blend and I guarantee  – you won’t leave here with your sanity intact.

In any case, we have no choice but to roll in the mud with “our”, so-called, political representatives. As left-wing novelist, Andrej Nikolaidis, wrote:

“Our current agony has lasted for far too long. And none among us who, despite everything stay in this country, can certainly say if we are doing so because of some crazy polymerization of patriotism and nihilism, or simply because we are masochists… And our sadists just continue to beat us, on and on…”

So, let me dedicate this article to the Communist Party. Thank you for giving us hope, economic stability and belief in the brotherhood of nations. The only present policies that are valid are from that era. We thought that fascism was beaten in 1945 and that capitalism would never come back… But then the 90’s came, and never ended. It seems we are forever stuck there.


[1] Needless to say that a lot of Serbs were partisans as well, but that’s how the story is now framed.

[2]  Of course, this is a crude generalization due to societal analysis. There are many left-wing Serbs and conservative Montenegrins. The same goes for other stances and views.

Dušan Pajović is a social psychologist who works as an activist and author. In the past he has collaborated with many different organizations including Humanity & Inclusion, UNICEF, and UN. Now he is the coordinator of DiEM25's campaigns and Ex-Officio member of its Coordinating Collective. His area of interests are post-capitalism society and economics, green transition, total liberation theory, and Balkan politics.

Photo: Herbert Frank / Flickr

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