- Inventing Balkan Identities: Finding the Founding Fathers and Myths of Origin – The Montenegrin Case
1. Addressing National Identity in the Balkans
“To this very day ethnicity strikes many Westerners as being peculiarly related to ‘all those crazy little people and languages out there,’ to the un-washed (and unwanted) of the world, to phenomena that are really not fully civilized and that are more trouble than they are worth.”1 Despite a substantial reservoir of Western knowledge about Southeast Europe, public debate about national policies adopted in the Balkans is “full of false dichotomies, flawed analogies, gross historical exaggerations, and well-worn shibboleths with little foundation in historical reality.”2 The national question in the Balkans became an explosive issue in the foreign policies of major European powers, which coincided with the creation of the first post-Ottoman Balkan states in the 19th century. The states of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria emerged in the period when the most desired state structure was a nation-state modeled on the great powers of Western Europe, such as Britain and France. However, discontinuity of state traditions and the acquisition of national narratives based on often incomplete material evidence from the past caused a persisting divisiveness between the new nations and states, thus giving the Balkans a notorious nickname as “the powder keg of Europe.”
The Greek national narrative, formed on ancient roots and considerable material heritage from various pre-Ottoman époques, had various degrees of support from West European intellectual circles, and as such, is excluded from this inquiry. On the other hand, the Serbs of Serbia and Montenegro and [End Page 171] the Bulgars, influenced by romantic ideas related to South Slavic nationalism deriving from the intellectual circles of the Habsburg and Russian empires respectively, developed their narratives in accordance with the prevailing methods of nation-creation in those countries. While the Bulgarian national narrative relied almost exclusively on the Russian school of nation-creation, Serbian nation-creation rested predominantly on the academic inquiries of Serbian scholars from various Austrian universities. Unsurprisingly, the territorial claims and ethnic disputes between the Serbs and Bulgars that arose against the Ottomans and each other later in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century strikingly correspond to the designated spheres of influence of both empires. Throughout this period, the Bulgarian national narrative hardly changed from the one originally conceived in the second part of the 19th century. Because of that, as a case study for the analysis of nation-building in the post-Communist Balkans, Bulgaria is not an obvious example. However, the Serbian national narrative that was originally devised and maintained amongst the early-19th-century educated Serbs of the Habsburg Monarchy once transferred to the Serbian and Montenegrin principalities began a process of transformation that was influenced both by the growing elites in the two Serbian states and by political circumstances within an empire that was experiencing the growth of nationalism in its many constituent nations.
Furthermore, as Austro-Hungarian advances throughout the Balkans after 1878 coincided with the growth of nationalism in the Serbian ethnic territories, the nation-creation of the Serbs was affected by the political decisions of both Vienna and Belgrade. Following the complicated religious and ethnic composition of the South Slav Austrian territories, the imperial policies of Vienna rested on the attempt to divide the Serbian nation into several smaller nations and states that would be unable to function as a unified national corpus over the long run. Belgrade, in an attempt to defend its much weaker position in relation to Vienna, endorsed the unifying narrative not only of the Serbs themselves but also of the Croats and Slovenes, eventually leading to the creation of Yugoslavia. However, up to and immediately after the First World War, the Serbian national narrative in all Serbian ethnic territories remained largely unaffected by the divisive theories of nation-creation introduced by Austro-Hungarian intellectuals promoting imperial policies in the Balkans.3 The situation changed after 1918, when the Yugoslav government [End Page 172] faced political opposition from the Croats, who desired their own nation-state, and some elements of the disappointed Montenegrin elite, who withdrew support for the...