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Years of Distrust: Serbian-Montenegrin Relations 1878-1914

Posted July 7th, 2018 at 11:58 AM by Tsar

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The Congress of Berlin put an end to two years of Serbian and Montenegrin efforts to liberate their territories (1876-1878). Two countries entered the wars with great optimism, but the Congress of Berlin brought their hopes to the end. The will of the Great Powers, articulated on the Congress, brought distrust and rivalry in relation of Balkan countries. Earlier historians were tempted to attribute distrust to dynastic rivalry between two Serb dynasties (the Obrenovićs of Serbia, the Petrovićs of Montenegro). However, if one takes a closer look to relations among any two Balkan states, he'll notice that the Congress of Berlin brought them to bottom.

The Congress of Berlin brought the recognition of independence to both Serbia and Montenegro. Both countries were augmented with most of territories they had taken prior to the Congress. However, the Congress sought to resolve the crisis on the Balkans by carrying out the principle of splitting Balkans up among the Great Powers. Bosnia and Herzegovina were given to Austria-Hungary, while the eastern half of the peninsula was given to Russia.

Serbia and Montenegro didn't feel like victors at all. Serbia saved a part of its gains from the wars only due to Austro-Hungarian support. The support came with the cost of Serbia becoming a part of Austro-Hungarian sphere, something that was confirmed with multiple agreements through the next decade. Montenegro had to lead an additional war, now with the Albanian League, and secured its gains only with support of the UK.

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King Milan of Serbia

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Prince Nikola of Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro had also led the 1876-1878 wars separately, each pursuing her own interest. After the Congress, they got under different spheres of influence - Serbia under Austro-Hungarian, Montenegro under Russian. Austria-Hungary took care not to allow revival of ideas of Serb national unification and expansion among general population. Policies of Progressive Party, that led the government of Serbia in following years, and perfectly placed rumours about Montenegrin ambitions on Herzegovina and its support to the revolts in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The period of silence was cut by the President of Serbian Parliament, Milan Kujundžić Aberdar, in 1882. He arrived to Cetinje (then capital of Montenegro) with the personal letter of King Milan I of Serbia and the news that Prince Milan I took the royal title. Milan Kujundžić Aberdar informed Milan Piroćanac (then PM of Serbia) that he was welcomed in Cetinje, that there were no signs of envy towards the king of Serbia, and that Prince Nikola of Montenegro sought to establish friendly relations with Serbia. Prince Nikola denied the news of his implication in Herzegovinian Uprising (of 1882). Prince Nikola and Aberdar also discussed establishment of permanent diplomatic representation. Prince Nikola was very discontent with Serbian acceptance of Montenegrin dissidents, claiming that such events meant systematic undermining of Montenegro. Aberdar was content with these meetings.

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Milan Kujundžić Aberdar

The Timok Revolt of 1883 in Serbia and its suppression proved to be a turning point in Serbian-Montenegrin relations. King Milan's conflict with the Radical Party, as well as with the Metropolitan Bishop Michael of Belgrade, brought him in conflict with all other pro-Russian elements in Serbia as well. The crisis escalated when Prince Nikola decided to marry his daughter, Princess Zorka, to Petar Karađorđević (who lived in Cetinje) in the same year. Aberdar was very unhappy with the fact that both Serb dissidents in Bulgaria and the Serb population from Austro-Hungarian lands supported Prince Nikola instead of King Milan, just because the former was supported by Russia. The situation remained unchanged until for six years. Cetinje remained the center of Russian activities on the Balkans. As Emperor Alexander III exclaimed during the reception of Prince Nikola in Peterhof (1889): I drink to the health of the Montenegrin prince, the only honest and loyal friend of Russia!

The next turning point happened in 1889, when King Milan abdicated in favor of his juvenile son Aleksandar. The facts that the new Constitution was proclaimed and that the Radical Party took over the government, meant that Serbia abandoned pro-Austro-Hungarian policies and that it returned to its idea of the Balkanic cooperation. The leader of the Radicals, Sava Grujić, accepted 6000 Montengrin migrants into the Toplica region. Such a friendly gesture resulted in the visit of Montenegrin Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gavro Vuković, in 1890. Gavro Vuković discussed the need for improvement of Serbian-Montenegrin relations, as well as the common national work in the Ottoman Empire.

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Gavro Vuković

Gavro Vuković went from Belgrade directly to Constantinople, where he met his former professor, Stojan Novaković. Stojan Novaković was the head of Serbian consulate in Constantinople. Gavro Vuković visited Constantinople with the purpose of negotiating the regulation of flow of the Bojana River, which was a vital question for Montenegro (Montenegro would get arable land, for which she was desperate). Even though the negotiations proved futile, Gavro Vuković and Stojan Novaković managed to fulfill an important goal, with Russian support: they started the action which resulted in a Serb becoming the bishop of Ras and Prizren instead of a Greek (the Eparchy of Ras-Prizren covered the areas between Serbia and Montenegro). Both diplomats came to conclusion that the best way to improve Serbian-Montenegrin relations were common diplomatic efforts.

Meanwhile the governments of Serbia and Montenegro signed a trade agreement on the basis of the most favored nations (1891). A secret agreement was signed, in which Serbia either cancelled or decreased tariffs on main Montenegrin export products (dyer's sumach, fish, olive oil).

Such relations lasted until 1893, when King Aleksandar staged a coup. Young king turned Serbia to Austria-Hungary again. Serbia immediately quit her activities in "European Turkey". The relations with Montenegro cooled off again. However, the rivalry coming from other Balkanic rivals finally forced King Aleksandar to entrust Stojan Novaković with leading the government. At the same time, however, Bulgaria turned towards Russia as well. In this way, Russia became the dominant power on the Balkans.

The next goal of Russia was to consolidate her sphere on the Balkans. Therefore, Stojan Novaković put an end to agitation of Montenegrin dissidents against Prince Nikola in newspaper of Belgrade. His next measure was to revive the 1891 trade agreement, with additional benefits for Montenegrin exports. Two governments agreed that their rulers exchanged visits. However, Stojan Novaković was obsessed with the question of the Serbs that remained under Ottoman rule. While struggling with Bulgaria and Greece over the zones of interest in "European Turkey", Stojan Novaković saw Montenegro only as a supporter of Serbia - he saw no need for separate, Montenegrin zone.

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Stojan Novaković

The question of Montenegrin zone was opened in 1896, when Prince Nikola visited Belgrade. Prince Nikola sought to open this question, but Stojan Novaković refused it, as he sought to create anti-Bulgarian coallition with Greece and Montenegro as quickly as possible, in order to get as much lands as possible in an event of drawing future border with Bulgaria. Stojan Novaković was also aware that King Aleksandar would under no circumstance agree that Prizren become Montenegrin, which was the main goal of Montenegrins (other than being in a middle of fertile plain of Metohija, Prizren was also considered the capital of medieval Serbian Empire). This resulted in the princely visit being nothing more than a ceremonial visit, full of declarations of friendship and unity, but void of any results.

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The Večernje Novosti newspaper writing about Prince Nikola's visit

New Serbian government was formed in 1897, with Đorđe Simić as the PM. This government continued with pro-Russian policies, and it signed a friendship agreement with Bulgaria in the same year. Due to the Cretan Crisis (1897), the government sought to improve relations with Montenegro as well. The government made a significant move when it established permanent diplomatic relations with Montenegro. In the same year, King Aleksandar visited Cetinje. During the visit, the Serb government accepted Montenegrin demand that the towns of Prizren, Peć (seat of former Serb Patriarchate) and Pljevlja be ceded to Montenegro in exchange for unreserved Montenegrin support for all Serbian aspirations towards "European Turkey". Under influence of his father and Austria-Hungary, King Aleksandar refused to sign the agreement. He accused the government of Panslavism and conspiring against the dynasty.

During the very same year of 1897, the new government was formed. Headed by Vladan Đorđević as the PM, the government turned completely towards Austria-Hungary. Former king, Milan, returned to the country. New Serb diplomat was appointed to Cetinje. With this move, Serbia lost all support of Russia and Montenegro. In 1899 Milan became the commander of the army. When he survived the assassination attempt in the same year, he accused the Radicals and their foreign mentors, Bulgarians and Montenegrins. As Milan heard the rumor that Prince Nikola prepared trained Montenegrin assassins that were supposed to enter Serbia from Bulgaria and then eliminate the House of Obrenović, he started the policy of terror towards the Montenegrins in Serbia. Serbia immediately shut down her diplomatic residence in Cetinje. Borders were closed for all Montenegrin migrants. Serbian relations with Russia, Montenegro and Bulgaria hit the rock bottom. However, Russia didn't use the political pressure on Serbia; instead, she increased investments in Bulgaria and Montenegro, aiming to cause indignation in Serbia.

In 1900, however, King Aleksander entered the controversial marriage with Draga Mašin. That resulted in conflict with his father, who stayed in Vienna for the rest of his life. The new government, presided by Mihailo Vujić, made the first steps to revive the relations by sending the new representative to Cetinje. King Aleksandar held Prince Nikola in low opinion ever since he has been convinced that the latter planned to overthrow his dynasty (1897). Prince Nikola didn't feel any better about the king of Serbia. Therefore the relations remained only formally warm.

Two new issues opened in Serbian-Montenegrin relations. Serbia initially planned to build the so-called Adriatic Railway, which was supposed to connect Serbia with the Montenegrin port of Bar. However, Serbian plans changed a bit, aiming to connect Serbia with any significant port in Albania. Moreover, Prince Nikola married his son Mirko to Natalija Konstantinović, an offspring of the House of Obrenović. This resulted in increased distrust towards the ruler of Montenegro in Serbia. King Aleksandar undertook two more coups, in 1902 and 1903, sealing his fate.

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Zorka Petrović and Petar Karađorđević

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Natalija Konstantinović and Prince Mirko


The end of the Obrenovićs (1903) brought Serbia towards Russia. Therefore, Belgrade became the focal point of Russian diplomacy on the Balkans. That brought new waves of political thinking to Montenegro, which were sometimes treated with maliciousness in St Petersburg and Belgrade. The Montenegrin dissidents in Belgrade, seeing the rise of democracy in Serbia, openly criticized autocracy of Prince Nikola. Serbian government rarely undertook anything to supress such writings. The territorial pretensions remained the apple of discord even in 1912. Both countries entered the WWI with a mutual feeling of suspicion.
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