From the beginning of the 18th century, the population of Montenegro was torn between variants of Montenegrin and Serbian nationalism. As opposed to Serbian nationalism, which emphasizes the ethnic Serbian character of the Montenegrins, Montenegrin nationalism emphasizes the right of the Montenegrins to define themselves as a unique nation, not simply as a branch of the Serbs.
Montenegrin nationalism became a major political issue in World War I when a schism arose between Montenegro's tribes over plans to merge Montenegro with the Kingdom of Serbia, between the pro-independence Green tribes, that included the King of Montenegro amongst them, versus the pro-unification White tribes. Montenegrin ethnicity was recognized by the Communist government of Yugoslavia in the 1960s though it had been declared previously.
During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Montenegro's President Momir Bulatović supported unity and alliance with Serbia as well as supporting irredentist claims to Dubrovnik and territory in Herzegovina that he stated were historically part of Montenegro. The Serbian journal Epoha in 1991 declared that if Bosnia and Herzegovina's Bosniaks wanted to secede from Yugoslavia, that Eastern Herzegovina should be ceded to Montenegro. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declared that the Serbian and Montenegrin leadership during the Siege of Dubrovnik sought to annex Dubrovnik along with the "coastal regions of Croatia between the town of Neum, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the north-west and the Montenegrin border in the south-east" into Montenegro.
After 1998, Montenegro's government led by Milo Đukanović demanded greater autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 2006, a majority of just over 55 percent of Montenegrins voted in favour of independence from the state union with Serbia.
Contemporary Montenegrin nationalism cites that an independent Montenegrin culture separate from Serbian culture arose after Serbia was taken over by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century while Montenegro remained independent for many years, resulting in a different culture developing in Montenegro.
Montenegrin nationalism first strongly arose in the aftermath of World War I when Montenegrins became divided over whether to join the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) under the Karađorđević dynasty. The Montenegrin government in 1917 agreed to merge Montenegro into a South Slavic federation, however a political group known as the "Greens" that included the King of Montenegro and several powerful tribes opposed unification and advocated an independent Montenegrin state. The faction in favour of unification was the "Whites", who desired unification of Montenegro with Serbia.
The feud between the anti-Karađorđević Greens and the pro-Karađorđević Whites over Montenegro's joining with Yugoslavia continued and escalated in the 1920s. The Greens were infuriated with the Montenegrin Petrović dynasty being dismantled in favor for the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty. In response to perceived Serbian domination over Montenegro, the Greens initiated several revolts in the 1920s.
During World War II, when Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis Powers, tribes opposed to union with Yugoslavia successfully revolted and on 13 July 1941, declared Montenegro an independent kingdom to be neutral in the war. However before the kingdom could be organized, Italian forces occupied Montenegro. The majority of the Greens opposed Italy's control over Montenegro and engaged in combat with Axis forces. The Greens opposed the Yugoslav Partisans because many of their recruits were from the pro-Serbian White tribes.
After World War II and the rise of the Yugoslav Partisans to power in Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito, Montenegrin nationalism subsided for thirty years as a result of efforts by Yugoslavia's government to placate Montenegrins. Such efforts included: creating a constituent republic of Montenegro within the Yugoslav federation, recognition of a Montenegrin nationality, sponsoring industrial development of the previously rural economy of Montenegro, by providing financial aid to Montenegro that was the poorest of the six constituent republics and including substantial numbers of Montenegrins within the civil service. Montenegrin nationalism arose again as a movement from 1966 to 1967 when an effort was initiated to resurrect the separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
After Tito's death in 1980, nationalism in Montenegro and elsewhere in Yugoslavia surged. Beginning in 1981, Montenegrin nationalism grew in strength with its supporters demanding more autonomy for Montenegro within Yugoslavia, however a government crackdown against Montenegrin nationalists between 1982 and 1984 stifled the nationalist movement's efforts.
During the collapse of communism and breakup of Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1991, Montenegrin tribes were divided over Montenegro's culture.[clarification needed] The rise to power of Momir Bulatović who supported Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and unity with Serbia, quashed the efforts of the dissident tribes to move Montenegro away from Serbia. After Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, the Montenegrin government continued to support unity with Serbia and Montenegrin soldiers took part in the wars against the seceding republics. During the Yugoslav Wars, Montenegro's President Bulatović sought to satisfy both Montenegrin and Serbian nationalist factions in Montenegro by supporting Montenegrin irredentist claims to Dubrovnik and Herzegovina that he stated were historically part of Montenegro. The Serbs of Eastern Herzegovina hold strong cultural connections with the people of Old Herzegovina in Montenegro. Serbian and Montenegrin reservist soldiers from the JNA entered Herzegovina in September 1991 in preparations for an attack on Dubrovnik. Many Montenegrins at the time supported the irredentist aim of unification of Dubrovnik with Montenegro. During the Yugoslav Wars, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, then a supporter of President Bulatović and union with Serbia, supported irredentist claims upon Croatia, claiming that Montenegro's post-World War II borders (the current borders of Montenegro) were designed by "semi-skilled Bolshevik cartographers" and Đukanović declared that Montenegro should "draw demarcation lines vis-à-vis the Croats once and for all".
Dissatisfaction with perceived domination from Serbian circles resulted in Montenegrin nationalism becoming a strong movement in Montenegro. A referendum was held in 1992 to determine whether Montenegrins should remain united with Serbia or be independent resulting in 66 percent of Montenegrins preferring to remain in a union with Serbia versus 36 percent preferring independence. Frustration with the union with Serbia grew in the 1990s in response to FR Yugoslavia becoming an international pariah due to its involvement in the Yugoslav Wars, and frustration over Serbian nationalists dismissal of Montenegrin culture as being a sub-sect of Serbian culture. By 1997 most Montenegrins desired looser ties with Serbia and closer relations with the European Union. By 1998 Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović had abandoned his previous support for Montenegrin unity with Serbia, and ran against pro-Serbian President Bulatović in Montenegro's presidential election The election of Milo Đukanović as President of Montenegro in 1998 resulted in the ascendence of a Montenegrin nationalist government to power and a fundamental change of attitude by the Montenegrin government to the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević. Similar to the violence between the Greens and the Whites after World War I, violent confrontations occurred between supporters of Đukanović and pro-unity President Bulatović. The Montenegrin government refused to support federal government actions in the Kosovo War of 1999, and the Montenegrin government officially declared its neutrality in the conflict, resulting in NATO forces focusing air strikes on Serbia alone, although some military targets in Montenegro were hit. The idea of a Montenegrin standard language separate from Serbian appeared in the after the breakup of Yugoslavia, through proponents of Montenegrin independence from State Union.
James Minahan claims that the causes that resulted in the development of contemporary Montenegrin nationalism have been dated back to the mid-14th century when Montenegro first became a sovereign state. While Montenegrins have been regarded as a subgroup of Serbs, the independence of Montenegro during the period of Ottoman rule over Serbia resulted in a profoundly different culture emerging in Montenegro as compared with Serbia. Montenegro at this time developed into a tribal warrior society that was quite different from the culture of Ottoman-controlled Serbia.