Reading the European and North American Press these days one gets the impression that there is a Montenegrin majority and Serbian minority in Montenegro. For example, Nicholas Wood from International Herald Tribune Tuesday 16th May 2006 argues, “Diplomats worry that any attempt by Montenegro to declare independence unilaterally could provoke the region's Serbian minority, about 30 percent of Montenegro's population of 650,000.”
In this way foreign correspondents fall into the trap of perceiving the political division in Montenegro as ethnic division. Historically, Montenegro existed as a State independent from Serbia but the population of this geographical area always perceived itself belonging to the greater core of the Serbian nation. Prince Danilo Petrovic Njegos (1852-1860), Montenegrin XIX century ruler, proscribed in the Code of Prince Danilo, article 92, “Although there is no other nationality in this land except Serb nationality and no other religion except Eastern Orthodoxy, each foreigner and each person of different faith can live here and enjoy the same freedom and the same domestic right as Montenegrin or Highlander.” Thus, belonging to the Serb cultural space and nation did not exclude regional identification of these people as Montenegrins. The course of history from XIX century onwards created a situation in which political in fights and divisions led to the gradual creation of a Montenegrin identity, considered by many separate from the Serbian identity. Communist dictatorship after 1945 through the formalization of the status of Montenegro as a Republic contributed to the creation of the mirage of ethnic difference.
It is by all means true that political differences today, contribute to the slow but gradual reification of ethnic differences. Today, many hard line supporters of Montenegro’s independence consider themselves Montenegrin, not Serbian. Nevertheless, this process is by all means not irreversible and could, if and when the political tensions die out, turn back to a more or less calm setting. Political identification with the independence agenda is one thing, family relations are other. There are numerous families in Montenegro divided along the disagreement of the future status of Montenegro.
The latest census is indicative of a change in the declaration of ethnic affiliation of the inhabitants of Montenegro, compared with that made at the 1991 census. This applies particularly to Montenegrins and Serbs. The number of those declaring themselves as Montenegrins decreased from 380,000 in 1991 to 273,000 in 2003, while the number of declared Serbs from 57,000 to 202,000. The declared composition of the total population is as follows: Montenegrins 40.6%, Serbs 30%, Bosniacs and Muslims 13.7%, Albanians 7.1%, Croats 1% and Romanies 1.2%. Ethnic affiliation was not declared by 4.3% of inhabitants and that of 1.6% of inhabitants is not known. The increased number of citizens declaring themselves as Serbs does not reflect their sudden relinquishing of the Montenegrin identity. Rather, these people, 30% of Montenegro, understood that identification as Montenegrins amounts to the support of the independence agenda, and decided to underline the Serbian part of Montenegrin identity. On the other hand, many of the 40.6% of citizens declaring themselves as ethnic Montenegrins belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church and most of them do not negate the Serbian component of the Montenegrin national identity.
True, the present referendum campaign, on both sides has done much to increase the false impression of strong ethnic differences that are surely confusing to the average foreign reader.