On May 21st, Montenegrins are being asked, in a long-delayed referendum, if they want to end their union with Serbia. James Evans explains the background to their momentous decision.
If, as seems likely, the people of Montenegro say yes to secession from Serbia and the restoration of their independence after nearly ninety years, their decision will bring to an end a long period of speculation and political manoeuvring, not only in Belgrade and Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, but also abroad. Britain and other European powers have been guilty of inconsistency towards a region whose aspirations for autonomy they encouraged as a lever against Slobodan Milosevic, but which they have since treated coolly. The EU has tried to head off a move that it fears will set a dangerous precedent with the status of neighbouring Kosovo still unresolved. Meanwhile Serbia, it seems, has lost the will to cling to a union from which it derives little economic benefit and which has been, since 2003, largely nominal.
Relations between Serbians and their Orthodox brethren in Montenegro have long been somewhat equivocal. They are undoubtedly extremely close. The true racial heritage of Orthodox Montenegrins is an inextricable mélange: Serb, Vlach, Albanian, along with remnants of all manner of pre-Slavic populations. But their sense of race is certainly Serb. Montenegrins share an allegiance to Serb history and culture, venerating the golden age of the Great Serbian Empire of the fourteenth century. Folk memory of the fateful battle of Kosovo of 1389, and of its semi-mythic heroes and villains, has dominated Montenegrin culture as it has that of Serbia. Most Montenegrins profess allegiance to the Serbian Orthodox Church, the critical repository and symbol of Serb culture and identity during five centuries of Ottoman rule. And their speech is distinguished from that of Serbia only by minor dialectal variations.