When the Drobnjak Battalion of Montenegrin Army’s Sandzak Division ripped through the Austro-Hungarian barbed wire with bayonets and wrestled trench after trench away to finally capture Bojina Njiva above Mojkovac on the Christmas Day of 1916, these heroes couldn’t know that their feat was destined to be the last of the glorious victories of Montenegrin armies, but that it would ensure the survival of the army of Kingdom of Serbia.
The Montenegrin opponents of the de facto annexation by Serbia, the Greens, rebelled against the decision on Christmas of 1919, citing loyalty to the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty, opposing the decision of the Podgorica Assembly and demanding that Montenegro and Serbia unite into a common Serb state as equals. Led by Brigadier Krsto Popovic, a hero of the Mojkovac battle, the rebel militia was active with fluctuating intensity until 1929, but never posed a serious threat to the structure established by the Podgorica Assembly.
The Montenegrin state had its roots in a Christmas Day as well. In 1711, Bishop Danilo Petrovic, the founder of the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty, led an uprising against the Ottoman rule, supported by a Russian Cossack of Serb Herzegovinian ancestry, Colonel Mikhail Miloradovich. Bishop Petar II, sitting on Danilo’s throne, mused about Christmas of 1711 when Danilo rose against and defeated his Islamized brethren, cleansing the small tribal area around Cetinje from Turkish presence and initiated what his successors would develop into the first free Serb state.
On Christmas Day of 2011, Serbs in Montenegro, descendants of heroes of Mojkovac, Vucji Do, Grahovac, Martinici, Carev Laz, once the vanguard of Serb nationalism and the standard-bearers of Serb statehood, lit up two badnjaks (yule log) in Cetinje, side by side, not as brothers, but divided, even hostile to one another. One group adheres to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s tradition, present in these parts under this label since Saint Sava and in practice even before him, and the other, opposed to it, adheres to the renegade, so-called Montenegrin Orthodox Church. The rise of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church somewhat corresponds to the political rift between Montenegro and Serbia that began in 1996. It’s not ecumenically recognized as it is a pure political creation aiming to give a religious context to the notions of separate ethnic identity of Montenegrin Serbs.
Christmas played a part in Montenegro’s political beginnings and in its end. Today’s Montenegro does not continue the political tradition of the state founded and run by the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty that spearheaded the Serb liberation process. Montenegrin Christmases in the 21st century are no more symbolic of Serbian righteousness, resistance and religiousness, but symptomatic of our disunity, disintegration and disorientation and indicative of the processes undertaken by the foreign forces to dismember Serbdom.
Montenegro used to be the Sparta of Serbdom and Cetinje had been pointing the way to the rest of Serbdom for centuries prior to 1918. If one wanted to pick the place where modern Serbdom was born, Cetinje would win hands down. Nowadays, it’s dangerous to publicly declare yourself a Serb in Cetinje. No, Serbs didn’t move out, but a new, very dangerous ideology has infiltrated the minds and hearts of a large number of Montenegrin Serbs, disorienting them to a level on which they refused to ethnically be the only thing they are: the Serbs. Sometime in the early nineties, an idea that Montenegrins were somehow distinct from Serbs was given a rise, first as a political stand against a perceived oppression coming from Belgrade, then forming into a notion that the historical distinctiveness of the state of Montenegro was the proof that the Montenegrins have always been ethnically different from the Serbs. In spite of there being no ethnological proof, no foundation in historiography or linguistics, this dogma, with the necessary assistance from the state that needed a new paradigm in its relationship with Serbia, took hold. Incredibly, some Serbs of Montenegro, whose immediate relatives were Serbs of Belgrade and Novi Sad in many cases, whose language was the purest Serbian, whose tribal affiliations were the same as those of Karadjordje, Milos Obrenovic, Arsenije Carnojevic, Slobodan Milosevic, Vuk and Radovan Karadzic and countless others, began rejecting Serbdom. No Montenegrin ruler of the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty has ever failed to establish the free and united Serbdom as the motivational matrix for their national liberation agenda. From Bishop Danilo to King Nikola, if you had to look for the most tangible manifestations of the Serbian national spirit, you’d have to look towards Cetinje. From the current perspective, one falls into a trap of feeling an urge to search for the evidence of Serbdom in Montenegro, when historically, Montenegro has been the embodiment of Serbdom. If Montenegrin bishops Danilo, Sava, Vasilije, Petar I and Petar II all said they were Serbs, what other proof do we need? No one in Belgrade of the time was more of a Serb patriot than Prince Danilo, Vojvoda Mirko or King Nikola – at least no one would dare to challenge them for that honor.
Today’s problem is not that Montenegro as a state wants to lead a separate political existence from the rest of Serbdom – if that’s the political will of Montenegrins, so be it. No, the problem is in the fact that the ruling political establishment, unopposed by the people, has embarked on a route of de-serbianizing the oldest Serbian state and the pride of Serbdom. How is this possible? Wasn’t Milo Djukanovic himself a Serb earlier in his life? Didn’t he encourage attacks on Dubrovnik in the name of Serb nationalism, using a very explicit nationalist language? Well, Milo Djukanovic is still a Serb, simply because there is nothing else he could be, but for his political, and more importantly, ”economic” goals, it is more convenient to be an anti-Serb and to encourage the ethnic, linguistic and cultural de-serbianization.
If we forget the ethnonyms for a second and observe the inhabitants of today’s Montenegro against the people that live to the east, in Herzegovina, or to the north, in Serbia, we will notice no difference between a person from Cetinje and a person from Trebinje, or between someone from Pljevlja and someone from Prijepolje. Let’s go even further. Historically, regional migrations have taken inhabitants of the poor, mountainous Dinaric regions of Montenegro, Herzegovina and the Highlands to the north, to the more fertile areas of central Serbia, Bosnia and further, every time political circumstances allowed for it. All of northern Bosnia’s and western Serbia’s population descend from Herzegovina and Montenegro. How are a person from Ivanjica, Valjevo or Cacak and a person from Bijelo Polje, Kolasin or Berane ethnically different if they descended from the same man only a few generations back? These migrations have never ceased or subsided. Again, without naming these groups, can’t we establish that they are not ethnically different? They all speak the same language, they look the same, they have the same names, the same history and the same religion. What is different then? If we have to assign a name to this homogenous national group, we have to assign it a name that historically dominated and that is an ethnonym. The term Montenegro stems from the 15th century and was designated to a small region inhabited by a people that had to belong to an ethnic group even before this regional term came into use. If we have to pick between the Serb of the Montenegrin designation, history and geography both command that the above described people are Serbs.
What about the parts of today’s Montenegrin population that were included in the state of Montenegro gradually, in the liberation process, and whose habitats are geographically distinct regions from the original nahis of Montenegro. What about Niksic or Piva? Historically, before these parts have been included in Montenegro in the process of Serb liberation, they were part of the Herzegovina region. Vuk Karadzic said his family descended from the Drobnjak tribe in Herzegovina. Drobnjak is in Montenegro today. There was no ethnic Herzegovinians, so what were the inhabitants of Niksic area or the Drobnjaci before King Nikola liberated it and included it in Montenegro? The only reason Pljevlja is in Montenegro and Prijepolje is in Serbia is the fact that the armies of Serbia and Montenegro met one another between these two towns in 1912, while pushing the Turks out. Serbs lived on both sides of the new border, but there was no problem with that because both states were Serbian and it was understood that the unification was at hand anyway. What are we going to with Boka Kotorska? Boka hadn’t been a part of Montenegro before 1945. In 1918, Boka united directly with Serbia. In 1804, Boka’s merchants literally bankrolled Karadjordje’s First Serbian uprising as Serb patriots. Is the population of Boka ethnically Montenegrin and since when, 1945?
Some trace the roots of this newly created dogma of Montenegrin distinctiveness back to the very Christmas uprising of 1919 and Krsto Zrnov Popovic. But Krsto Popovic was a Serb. The Greens were all Serbs who wanted to unite with Serbia, but to do so on equal terms, not to be annexed and lose Montenegro’s territoriality. They had a problem with the Podgorica Assembly and the reckless way King Alexander went about bringing Montenegro into the fold. They were opposed to Alexander’s treatment of King Nikola. But Nikola was Alexander’s grandfather and it was purely a political matter of one dynasty deposing another. We can argue that Alexander had to be more sensitive and I’d even go as far to defend King Nikola’s rights to the point of claiming that, in the light of the liberation process, the Karadjordjevic dynasty had no more right to lead the united Serbdom than the Petrovic dynasty. Men of honor and loyalty like Krsto Popovic had to feel aggrieved and their decision to rise up was right, but it wasn’t anti-Serbian just because they rose against a political decision. Popovic, after he saw the futility of the continued revolt and after King Nikola, whom he was under oath to, died, asked Alexander for a pardon and received it, along with the state pension.
I can go on and on and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t, but the compounded evidence would be illusory because proving that I am the only thing I can possibly be is a Sisyphus’ job: it is self-evident that Montenegrins are Serb like Austrians are German. The very sad thing is that we came to the point of needing to prove the self-evident. This Christmas, the happiest Christian holiday, reminded me of some not so happy things. Montenegro is sadder than Kosovo, more gruesome than Jasenovac, more dangerous than Vojvodina.