When Montenegro chose to part ways from Serbia in 2006, it was a brave move, especially given its tiny population. But toughing it out is something these gutsy people have had plenty of experience in. Montenegro's national identity is built around resisting the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years in a mountainous enclave much smaller than the nation’s current borders. Today, fierce little Montenegro has its sights set on joining an entirely different kind of union: the EU.

NATO & the EU

Shortly after independence in 2006, Montenegro applied to join both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Joining NATO is a contentious issue, as memories of the NATO bombing of Serbia and Montenegro during the Kosovo conflict are still fresh in many people's minds. Anti-NATO protests erupted in Podgorica in late 2015, followed by a split in the ruling coalition in early 2016. The accession to NATO has also upset the historically close relationship between Russia and Montenegro. Some have theorised that Montenegro’s NATO membership is a symbolic slap in the face to Russia, proving to them that the organisation's expansion cannot be halted. Nonetheless, in June 2017 Montenegro officially became the 29th member of NATO.

Formal accession negotiations were opened with the EU in June 2012 and Montenegro is tipped to become a member in 2025.

The Serbian Question

Although traditionally the closest of allies, linked by a shared culture and religion, positions have been hardening between Montenegro and Serbia. A recent flashpoint was the 100th anniversary of the Podgorica Assembly which, in 1918, resulted in Montenegro losing its independence and being subsumed within the Serb-ruled Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Commemorations of the event by Serbian organisations were seen as a provocation by the Montenegrin government, which banned a group of Serb academics and politicians from entering the country.

The rhetoric has ratcheted up in recent years, with senior Serbian politicians accusing Montenegro of discrimination against Serbs, and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch comparing the position of Serbs in Montenegro to their treatment under the Independent State of Croatia during WWII (an era when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered by Croatian fascists). Montenegro's government has described such comments as inaccurate and offensive, and asserted that Serbs never have been and never will be discriminated against in Montenegro.

The Never-Changing Goverment

Montenegro’s 2016 general election was a hugely contentious affair, marked by protests, scandal and intrigue. But for all of the kerfuffle, the results remained the same as they have been since 1990, with the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) holding tight to the reins once again. Considering that the DPS was born out of Montenegro’s Communist Party, one could argue that it's been in power continuously since 1945 in one form or other. However, today’s DPS is a long way from communist, having embarked on an enthusiastic and often controversial campaign of privatisations since the demise of Yugoslavia.

Many of the party’s successes and scandals boil down to one man: Milo Đukanović. A charismatic, handsome politician, Đukanović has been the president of the DPS since 1997, and – apart from a few scattered years of ‘retirement’ – has been either the prime minister or president of Montenegro since 1991. It’s a situation redolent of Vladimir Putin and his many power swaps and perennial string-pulling, but don’t tell Đukanović that.

Đukanović has alleged that Russia – with a little help from Serbia – was behind a coup plot to derail the 2016 elections due to the DPS’s pro-NATO and EU stance. The Montenegrin prosecutor claimed the suspected would-be coup members – 20 of whom were arrested on election day – planned to incite violence on election night, and to have Đukanović assassinated. Đukanović also accused his opposition – the Democratic Front (DF), a coalition comprised mostly of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian groups – of being funded by Russia, a charge the party has denied. The DF – which won 20% of the vote – accused the DPS of faking the attempted coup to improve their vote count. While opposition parties initially refused to accept the election results, the DPS was able to secure support in parliament from social democrats and parties of national minorities.

Organised Crime & Corruption

In the early 2000s Đukanović was investigated by an Italian antimafia unit and charged for his alleged role in a billion-dollar cigarette-smuggling operation; the charges were later dropped. He was named Person of the Year (2015) by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project for his work in ‘promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society’; the OCCRP also called Đukanović's Montenegro ‘one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world’.

It's a claim that echoes the 2012 billing of Montenegro as a 'mafia state' by Foreign Affairs magazine. The European Commission noted in its 2018 Report on Montenegro that ‘despite some progress, corruption is prevalent in many areas and remains an issue of concern’.