Montenegrins ( Crnogorci ) are a South Slav people who inhabit the Republic of Monte-negro but also have a substantial diasporic presence in Serbia, Italy, the United States, and Argentina. The highly ambiguous and historically changing character of the Mon-tenegrin identity, whereby some Montene-grins see themselves as Serbs too, makes it difficult to establish a precise number of the population, but it is estimated that there are more than 400,000 Montenegrins in the world. Most Montenegrins speak the ijekavian variant of the Shtokavian dialect of the Serbo-Croatian language, which in the 2007 Constitution of the Republic of Montenegro is defined as Montenegrin—the official language of the state.

Tradi-tionally Montenegrins have been Eastern Orthodox Christians with most nominally belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the rest adhering to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Roman Catholicism, or Sunni Islam, except for self-declared athe-ists. It should be noted that the questions of religious affiliation, language, and eth-nic attachment are all deeply contested as a large number of people in Montenegro have historically oscillated in their self-designation; identification has ranged from being exclusively Serb, to expressing simul-taneous Montenegrin and Serb identities, toward developing an exclusively Monte-negrin identity.

Furthermore the very exis-tence of the separate Montenegrin ethnicity has been contested and denied not only by the many political and cultural organiza-tions in Montenegro’s largest neighbor, Serbia, but also by a significant number of Montenegro’s own inhabitants.There is a little reliable information on the origins of Montenegrins. It is apparent that following the early large-scale migrations of the Slavs from the fifth century onward, the Slavic populations become a majority in the territory of the present-day Montenegro by the sixth century.

The name Montenegro ( Crna Gora ) is first mentioned in a papal epistle of 1053. The medieval period was characterized by in-tensive power struggles between the aris-tocratic households with the prominent presence of the Serbian nobility. This pe-riod also saw the establishment of the first forms of medieval statehood; the principal-ities of Dioclea and Zeta proved the most durable of these and are now recognized as the predecessors of the modern Monte-negrin state. From 1276 to 1309 Zeta was an autonomous principality within the me-dieval Serbian state governed by Queen Jelena, widow of the Serbian king Uroš I.

In 1496 Zeta fell under Ottoman rule but the Montenegrin tribes retained control of the hills. Although the Ottomans ruled the territories of Montenegro for nearly four centuries they were unable to gain con-trol in the mountainous villages where the majority of Montenegrin population lived. For most of this period Montenegrin soci-ety was organized in a segmentary fashion, with the patrilocal extended families form-ing distinct clans ( bratstvo ) belonging to a larger tribal unit ( pleme ). Despite adhering to common traditional tribal codes and sharing a common Christian Orthodox re-ligion, the tribes were notoriously auton-omous and disunited.

This distinct social order had a loosely organized theocratic structure with the metropolitan of the Or-thodox Church ( vladika ) acting as a both religious and secular authority. It was only during the rule of the House of Petrović in the 18th and early 19th centuries that tribal loyalties started to weaken at the expense of the broader pan-Montenegrin territorial identity. The three Orthodox Metropolitans of the House of Petrović—Petar I, Petar II, and Danilo—were decisive in modern-izing Montenegrin society and in uniting divided tribes.

While Petar I and Petar II were instrumental in devising unified legal and fiscal systems, more centralized state structure with a proper police force, and the first educational institutions, Danilo was successful in separating religious from secular authority and in instituting the first unified and standardized military force. Furthermore, Danilo proclaimed Montenegro an independent principality and was crowned the prince of Montenegro in 1852. Full independence from the Ottoman Empire was formally acknowledged at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 when Montenegro became internationally recognized as a sovereign nation-state.

The history of protracted warfare cou-pled with the durable existence of the tra-ditional tribal organization over several centuries generated a set of cultural codes and values that are unique to the Monte-negrin population. Among these cultural codes two ethical ideals stand out: Čojstvo (roughly translated as humanity and manli-ness) and Junaštvo (heroism). These nor-mative principles are derived from the warrior ethos that developed over the cen-turies of Ottoman rule and sporadic con-flicts with Venetians and Hapsburgs, and were reinforced in the wars of the early 20th century: the Balkan wars, World War I, and World War II. Whereas traditionally these cultural codes stipulated rules for the virtuous behavior of soldiers, they gradu-ally infused the civilian sphere too and be-came the moral parameters for the entire Montenegrin society.

These traditional normative codes emphasized the need to act with integrity and rectitude, to treat ad-versaries with dignity, to show humility and respect for others, to behave fairly to other human beings, and most of all to be willing to sacrifice oneself for other mem-bers of community. While in previous times this implied fighting to death—as being captured brought shame not only on the respective warrior but on the entire ex-tended family in recent periods čojstvo and junaštvo have found reflection in the conspicuously stoic attitude to everyday life shared by many Montenegrins.

As various anthropological and sociological studies have demonstrated over the years, despite a nominal commitment to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, most Montenegrins are not particularly religious. This is ev-ident from the fairly low rates of church attendances and little or no observance of religious practices. Instead the ethical ide-als of čojstvo and junaštvo that underpin the popularly accepted stoic worldview still have far greater resonance among the contemporary Montenegrin population.

These moral principles were articulated and reinforced through highly developed Montenegrin traditions of folk epic poetry. Historically this epic poetry was centered on depicting the heroic events and person-alities from the various battles, wars, and popular rebellions against Ottoman, Vene-tian, Austro-Hungarian, and Italian impe-rial rule. Usually a storyteller would sing or recite the epic poems in decasyllabic verse while simultaneously playing the gusle, a one-stringed instrument. Building on this folk tradition, Montenegro’s greatest poet, writer, and ruler, the above-mentioned Metropolitan Petar II Petrović Njegoš, created the highly acclaimed epic book, The Mountain Wreath (1846), which still serves as a cornerstone of the Montenegrin literary tradition.

The book’s focus on the oppressive character of the Ottoman rule proved inspirational not only to the vari-ous resistance movements among south Slavs but its contents have appealed to the variety of national movements throughout 19th- and early 20th-century Europe.The importance of the Montenegrin war-rior ethos was also visible in 20th- century warfare, where despite the nation’s nu-merically small size, Montenegrins have been highly represented. The Montene-grin military proved extremely resilient in the 1912–1913 Balkan wars and World War I, as a result of which Montenegro doubled the size of its territory.

In World War II Montenegrins were enthusiastic participants in the Yugoslav partisan re-sistance forces and proved themselves again stubborn soldiers, able to expel Ital-ian occupiers without external help. Con-sequently one-third of all officers in the communist Yugoslav People’s Army were of Montenegrin origin and a large number of generals and high-ranking party offi-cials were Montenegrins.The collapse of communist Yugosla-via in the early 1990s and in particular the breakup of the joint federal state of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 had a decisive im-pact on the transformation of Montenegrin identities.

Although the communist period proved crucial for establishing all major Montenegrin cultural and political institu-tions, the communist state also preserved the ethnonational ambiguities with no clear distinction between the Montenegrin and Serb identities. Even though census re-sults over four decades of communist rule all indicated that the overwhelming major-ity of the population declared themselves as Montenegrins, this information in itself was no reliable indicator of the strength of Montenegrin identity, as many individuals understood Montenegrin-ness to be a seg-ment of the broader Serbian identity.

This identity concept became apparent in the 1990s when the political turmoil brought about by the wars of Yugoslav succes-sion put an end to these ethnonational ambiguities. The adverse geopolitical en-vironment polarized and radicalized the population of Montenegro by fostering the eventual split into two mutually opposing ethnicities: Serbs and Montenegrins. This dramatic social transformation was reg-istered in the latest census data (2003), which shows a clear split between those who self-identify as Montenegrins (43%) and those who see themselves as Serbs in Montenegro (32%).

Although this split is present throughout the entire country it also has a strong geographical basis, with much of the south expressing strong Montenegrin consciousness and the north being more pro-Serbian. Following the tight result of the referendum on indepen-dence (55.5% in favor) held in May 2006, Montenegro became an independent and sovereign state. However, independence did not bring an end to the ethnopolitical divide within the Montenegrin population. Instead the government’s decision to insti-tute Montenegrin as the official language of the new state and to support the highly contested Montenegrin Orthodox Church has further polarized the population of Montenegro.

Siniša Malešević

Further Reading

Andrijašević, Z., and S. Rastoder. The History of Montenegro from Ancient Times to 2003 . Podgorica: Montenegro Diaspora Centre, 2006.

Bieber, F., ed. Montenegro in Transition: Problems of Identity and Statehood . Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2003.

Boehm, C. Montenegrin Social Organization and Values . New York: AMS Press, 1983.