ISSN 1586-9733

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Elite Interests and the Serbian-Montenegrin Conflict

London School of Economics and Politics

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In ethnic conflicts, the behaviour of political elites constitutes an important variable, both in the outbreak of conflict and in attempts to find solutions. Insisting on the importance of elites does not imply, however, that elite interests are the only driving force: the elites operate in structures of constraints and opportunities. In this article, the conflict between Serbia and Montenegro is analyzed. The conflict began as a conflict over political and economic reforms, but during the course of the conflict it has acquired different characteristics. In this process, ethnicity has come to play a more important role. These developments are partly due to intentional elite behaviour, but the process of dissociation has also acquired its own momentum which constrains the elites. The article argues that elite interests, interplay between the elites in Belgrade and Podgorica as well as intra-‘ethnic’ dynamics have been crucial for the development of the conflict.




In the fortunate cases when regulation of national and ethnic conflicts is successful, the first stages of such success are usually represented by television footage of men in dark suits solemnly signing agreements vowing to put the conflict behind them. The role of elites in such an event is crucial; they are the ones signing the agreement and the ones with the authority to, attempt to, implement it. These same elites may, however, not only be agents of peace they may very well have played an important role in causing the conflict and in its further development. Conflicts can serve elite interests in a number of ways, but even if they were to begin with the product of elites pursuing their interests these elites may later on find themselves constrained by the followers they have mobilised and by hardliners breathing down their neck. In order to analyse the development of ethnic conflicts, one should therefore not only analyse relations between ethnic groups, but also dynamics within ethnic groups.


In this article, the conflict between Serbia and Montenegro will be analysed with a specific focus on the role played by elites. Compared to the other conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, the conflict between Serbia and Montenegro has taken on a rather different character. Most notably it has not turned into a violent conflict and this may in some part be influenced by a second distinguishing factor: the ethnic division between Montenegrins and Serbs is less clear than the ethnic divisions in the other conflicts. It is therefore debatable whether one should characterise the conflict as an ‘ethnic conflict’, but I will argue below that ethnicity has come to play a more important role and elite interests and dynamics within the two republics have been crucial in this development.

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