Montenegrin mists: politics, citizenship and identity

Jelena Džankić
The Millenium Bridge in Podgorica

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series and is available for download here.

Montenegro, the smallest of the former Yugoslav republics, carved its independence through multiple dissolutions (two federations and one “state union”), in the past two decades. From 1997, Montenegrin politics was dominated by strong internal divisions over the issue of whether Montenegro should be an independent state, and the related question of whether Montenegrin should be regarded as a distinct ethnic/national group, or as a sub-group of Serbs. And precisely because of such a political landscape, Montenegro has one of the most restrictive citizenship regimes from among the post-Yugoslav states. To fully understand the nature of these policies, it is necessary to consider the dramatic political shifts that have taken place in this tiny Balkan state over the last century.

Disintegrating states, fragmented people

Throughout history, identity in Montenegro was dual: that is, the denominations ‘Serb’ (as an ethnic category) and ‘Montenegrin’ (as both an ethnic and regional category) were both used, and not considered mutually exclusive. This dual identity had severe repercussions on Montenegrin politics, particularly in the three decades preceding the creation of Yugoslavia. After the Yugoslav unification in 1918, Montenegro was consumed by internal clashes between the movements to re-establish Montenegrin statehood within the Kingdom of the South Slavs (asserting thus the separateness of the Montenegrin nation) and the proponents of the status quo who believed that Montenegrin nationhood was a fragment of the greater Serbian nation. The issue of Montenegrin and Serb identity persisted, but in the following years it became obscured by the constitutional establishment of the post Second World War socialist Yugoslavia. The decentralised Yugoslav model allowed for the flourishing of separate identities in the republics, while the two-tiered citizenship regime (federal and republican) provided the legal framework in which the dynamics between the individuals and their membership communities could be played out. Until the late 1980s, the republican citizenship acts did not have strong implications for communities of membership. That is, republican citizenship was more an expression of a link with territory than a marker of (ethnic) belonging. However, the republican citizenship acts reaffirmed the quasi-statehood of the Yugoslav republics, which were responsible for a range of bureaucratic matters, such as naturalisation, keeping registers, issuing republican identity cards and Yugoslav passports with republican codes and serial numbers.

The so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolutions’ of 1988 and 1989 paved the way for Milošević’s growing control over Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro. The newly emerged leaders in the League of Communists of Montenegro drew their political strength from their association with Milošević, whose nationalist rhetoric was particularly successful in Montenegro due to the overlapping of ‘Serb’ and ‘Montenegrin’ identity. The fact that the political and intellectual elites in the first half of the 1990s did not emphasise the difference between the two aspects of Montenegrin identity helped to preserve the populist movement driven by Serbian nationalism.

These political developments motivated the decision of the Montenegrins to remain in the common state with Serbia. The new state—the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), was established in April 1992.  The FRY Constitution retained the two-tiered citizenship system of the socialist Yugoslavia. Though there was supposed to be a federal citizenship law, and two republican citizenship Acts– for Montenegro and Serbia, respectively,  none of these laws were adopted in the first half of the 1990s. The federal law was passed only in 1996, unlike in the other former Yugoslav republics, whereby citizenship legislation was quickly in place after the disintegration. Policymakers in the FRY may have hoped to postpone a clear legal definition of citizenship policies until after the conclusion of the wars of Yugoslav disintegration. This avoidance allowed them a greater margin of manoeuvre when it came to ethnicity, nationhood and citizenship, all of which are particularly malleable during interethnic conflicts.

By the time the 1996 Yugoslav Citizenship Act entered into force, the political milieu of the FRY had significantly changed. A part of the Montenegrin ruling elites departed from Milošević’s politics, causing the ruling Montenegrin party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), to split in two. The rupture of the DPS divided the Montenegrin political scene into the supporters of Milošević (after 2000 the pro-union camp) and the opponents of the regime in Belgrade (after 2000 the pro-independence camp). The margins by which the opponents of the Milošević regime won the elections in Montenegro have been rather small since 1997. The tensions over the identity of the people in Montenegro became central to the political struggles taking place within Montenegro and between Montenegro and Serbia. One of these battlefields was the question of citizenship, a concept that, among other things, encapsulates rights, political claims and identity, the latter two being rather ambiguous in the Montenegrin case.

In fact, at the peak of political tensions with Milošević’s regime in Serbia in 1999, Montenegro adopted a separate citizenship regime, which conflicted with the 1996 federal norms. This law was adopted as part of Montenegro’s process of ‘creeping independence’, whereby the ruling DPS enacted a series of republican laws, which stood in open conflict with the centralising federal (FRY) policies. With the definite turn of the ruling DPS towards independence after the fall of Milošević in 2000, citizenship became not only a matter of formal legal membership in the (Montenegrin) polity, but also a way of expressing belonging and allegiance to it..

The 1999 Law on Montenegrin Citizenship introduced a rather restrictive citizenship regime, because the combination of federal citizenship and two years of residence in Montenegro conferred the right to political participation. The relationship between citizenship and political participation became ever more pronounced after the transformation of the FRY into the state union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2002. Access to citizenship, and the relationship between citizenship and the individuals’ perceived ethnic or national identities - the combination of which decided who could vote and for whom - were among the key issues debated in the run up to the Montenegrin referendum in 2006. That these were highly divisive questions was shown by the narrow margin by which Montenegro voted for independence. The number of voters that supported Montenegro’s independence exceeded the required threshold of 55% set by the European Union by only 2,095 votes.

Citizenship in the cradle of a newborn state

In a state where divisions exist over basic political issues such as statehood and nationhood, laws have different meaning and implications for various groups in society. This is particularly true of laws that regulate belonging, rights and political participation, which are all issues related to citizenship. It was no surprise that the draft of the 2008 Montenegrin Citizenship Act remained pending for adoption for almost two years after Montenegrin independence. Once adopted, this legislation explicitly defined citizenship as the legal relationship between individuals and the state, while avoiding references to ethnic or national identity.

While ostensibly open and civic, Montenegro’s citizenship regime is a restrictive one. It poses high barriers for naturalisation, such as the need for ten years of permanent residence. Moreover, the issue of dual citizenship in Montenegro is a politically sensitive one. In the context of Montenegro’s relationship with Serbia in particular, dual citizenship is not only related to participation, but also raises issues of loyalty. Yet another reason for such legal rigidity is the complexity of the political milieu in Montenegro, where participation is inextricably related to the voting arithmetic. Owing to the small size of Montenegro, individual votes count more as a percentage of the overall citizenry than they would in a more populous country.  For that reason, regulating who can take part in elections or referenda is a burning political issue of which citizenship is the essential ingredient.  

In order to understand the complexities of the Montenegrin situation, one has to approach it by the way of a linguistic detour. In the local languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian), what is known as ‘citizen’ is denoted by two words – građanin and državljanin. The latter denotes those people who are formally the citizens/nationals of Montenegro, in line with the provisions of the 2008 Citizenship Act. At present, the term građanin (not regulated by law) refers to those Montenegrin citizens (državljani) who are of age, and who reside in Montenegro. While Montenegro was a part of the common state with Serbia, the term građanin included the ‘Montenegrin citizen and the citizen of the other member state, with residence in the Republic of Montenegro’. Rather than being a mere linguistic twist, this difference in terminology has serious implications for Montenegrin politics, as it prevents a significant number of people from exercising voting rights.

The Constitution of Montenegro guarantees universal suffrage to the državljani of Montenegro who have reached 18 years of age, while previously such a right was granted to all građani. Yet, not all the people who live in Montenegro are the citizens (državljani) of the country. After the disintegration of the common state with Serbia, 25,000 Serbian citizens (previously also građani in Montenegro), continued to reside in Montenegro, as did a large number of people (mostly of Serb ethnicity) who had settled in Montenegro after fleeing the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Their status and access to Montenegrin citizenship are still a matter of political debate, as is the range of rights these people may enjoy, including voting rights. Interestingly, due to the government’s concerns over criticism by the international actors the legal provision related to voting rights was loosely applied. Citizens (considered to be građani) of the other successor states of the former Yugoslavia were able to vote in 2008 and 2009 (even if they were not citizens – državljani- of Montenegro), along with a number of people with unknown citizenship (OSCE 2009). However, since then the Electoral Register has been closed to people resident in Montenegro who do not have Montenegrin citizenship.

The question of whether one is a citizen (državljanin) of Montenegro also determines whether a group may or may not be a minority and thus have special minority rights. This fact places the Roma, Egyptian and Ashkali (RAE) population in a peculiar situation, because there are two RAE groups – domicile RAE and RAE from Kosovo. The domicile RAE have been living in Montenegro for generations, have Montenegrin citizenship, and thus the status of minority in Montenegro. By contrast, the RAE from Kosovo, which outnumber the domicile RAE by several thousand, came to Montenegro during the Kosovo crisis in 1998 and 1999. They are not citizens (državljani) of Montenegro, and thus are not covered by the definition of minority, but were citizens of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Before the FRY disappeared they enjoyed most, if not all of the same citizenship rights as federal citizens. Without the common state, they have been turned into aliens with problematic residency situation. Being marginalised socially and often without any citizenship documents, they are de facto stateless.

However, one potential source of hope for these groups stemmed from the conditions for membership of the EU. Given the importance of issues such as judicial cooperation, political participation, and human rights, the concept of citizenship has become central to the process of socio-political transition, and has already induced a series of institutional changes in Montenegro. However, on a practical level, the process of Europeanisation has actually made it more difficult for some to gain citizenship. First, the EU request for border security and the compulsory switch to biometric documents mostly affected the Roma from Kosovo. They did not possess Montenegrin citizenship needed to switch to biometric documents. Instead, they had the invalid FRY documents, which prevented them travelling back to Kosovo in order to collect the documents needed for naturalisation in Montenegro.  Second, border security required by visa liberalisation made border crossing—where previously there was no border —even more difficult. In that sense, Europeanisation, as a process underpinning the idea of a ‘borderless Europe’, has reinforced the reality of ‘border-more Balkans’.


Citizenship policies in Montenegro over last twenty years were a peculiar variant of the post-Yugoslav model, in that citizenship was not used as a mechanism of ethnic homogenisation but instead of political manoeuvring. As a result, citizenship policies in Montenegro bore many traits of the changing political environment in which they were adopted; the environment framed through the processes of state and nation building.  After multiple disintegrations, some residents of Montenegro discovered that they formally did not possess Montenegrin citizenship and that they can acquire it only with considerable difficulties. They became non-citizens in a country where they have lived for many years. Though the process of joining the EU might have been expected to help clarify the citizenship of such people, some aspects of the institutional and bureaucratic changes that have followed appear to have had the opposite effect.


Jelena Džankić works at the University of Edinburgh as a Research Fellow on the CITSEE project. She holds a PhD from the Faculty of Politics, Psychology and Social Sciences (PPSIS) at the University of Cambridge (New Hall College). Her academic interests fall within the fields of transition of SEE countries, democratisation, Europeanisation, politics of identity and SEE history.

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