Analysis 21 May 12

Symbols Row Holds Montenegrin Reforms Hostage

Six years after the referendum on independence, Montenegro has consolidated itself as a state, but dispute over symbols still dominates politics, overshadowing more important priorities.

Milena Milosevic

As Montenegro celebrates its sixth year of independence, not everyone in the country has accepted, let alone embraced, its national symbols.

All opposition parties have now accepted Montenegro as an independent state, although some initially questioned the 2006 referendum results.

But they say that the Montenegrin constitution discriminates against the Serbian-speaking majority by naming solely Montenegrin as the official language.

The two biggest opposition parties, the Socialist People’s Party, SNP, and New Serbian Democracy, NOVA, also want to exclude verses from the national anthem written by Sekula Drljevic, a controversial historical figure.

They further want the old tri-colour to become the national flag.

Unless the authorities meet these demands, they say they won’t support for constitutional changes in the field of judiciary that Montenegro must adopt if it wants to join the EU. 

To hange the constitution, the government needs the votes of two-thirds of MPs in parliament. The votes of NOVA and the SNP are thus crucial.

As a result of this dispute, questions about the national language, anthem and flag are overshadowing the issue of an independent judiciary.

The proposal of another opposition party, Movement for Changes, PzP - that the chairman of Supreme Court and Supreme State Prosecutor should be elected by two-thirds of parliaments and that all judges should be re-elected - raises less public debate than the negotiations about changes to the constitution and laws on state symbols and official language.

Reforms and Symbols

The 2007 constitution designated Montenegrin the official language instead of Serbian, which was the official language prior to independence.

However, the results of 2011 population census revealed that a plurality of people, over 40 per cent, say they speak Serbian, even though less than 30 per cent declared Serbian as their ethnicity.

The implications of this result soon spilled over into daily politics. So-called identity issues, as local media call them, emerged as a sticking point in negotiations on changes to the electoral law last summer, soon after the census results were released.

The electoral law could only be changed with a two-thirds majority in parliament. So, NOVA and the SNP conditioned their support for changes on changes to the name of the language taught in school.

The new election law was adopted only last September after months of negotiations, when it was agreed that pupils would in future be studying “Montenegrin – Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian language and literature”.

Now, a similar scenario is being repeated with the equally urgently needed constitutional changes in the field of the judiciary.

Daliborka Uljarevic, head of Centre for Civic Education, CGO, an NGO, says that flags and symbols have become a mask for the lack of engagement by politicians and experts in such issues as the reorganization of the judiciary.

“The insistence on an excessive presence of national–identity issues is slowing down the pace of reforms in Montenegro,” she says. 

Different views of patriotism:

Goran Danilovic, of NOVA, however, says that there is a big difference between what his party seeks and the way others interpret their demands.

“The Serbian language is not an issue only for Serbian people, because it also belongs to Montenegrins and Bosniaks,” he says.

“It's not an identity issue, but a question of human rights and freedoms,” he adds, explaining that his party is not blackmailing anyone but only opposes discrimination.

Montenegro’s anthem is indeed controversial. The President himself, Filip Vujanovic, in September 2011, created a stir when he said he listened to two verses of the anthem only because he was obliged to.

Those two verses were written by Sekula Drljevic, a Montenegrin publicist, politician and lawyer from the first half of the last century.

Drljevic, who was declared a war criminal by the new Communist authorities in Yugoslavia in 1946, is seen by some as a valiant fighter for Montenegrin independence.

But most of the opposition parties share President Vujanovic's more critical view.

“As an antifascist party which fights for a free society, we don’t agree with an anthem that contains Drljevic's verses,” Danilovic says.

Others think differently, like Aleksandar Damjanovic, chairman of NGO Montenegrin Cultural Network, CKM, founded in 2009 to spread loyalty and respect for the country’s state symbols.

“Thirty per cent of our MPs don’t stand up while the anthem is being played but it’s no obstacle for them to receive a salary from the state that they don’t recognize,” Damjanovic complaints, adding that by not recognizing the identity of the state, such politicians don’t recognize the state itself.

Danilovic, however, thinks that such remarks are a red herring. “We merely advocate the democratization of Montenegro, which is internationally recognized already,” he says.

He says it is insulting for some people to imagine that they have a monopoly on the way Montenegro should be loved.

A change of state symbols thus seems inevitable.

However, unless it can reconcile people’s very different views, the danger is that at the next independence-day anniversary, not everyone will be singing the same national anthem, once again.


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