Cetinje was the capital of the independent state of Montenegro, which existed from 1878 – the year of its international recognition at the Congress of Berlin – until 1918, when it was merged into Serbia, and subsequently into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929).
Except for the old government buildings and embassies from the first Montenegrin state, this small, sleepy town of 15,000 inhabitants does not remind the visitor of a onetime capital city. Indeed, it never did – even when Cetinje played host to Montenegrin rulers and foreign officials of 13 consulates, who tried to intervene in the political life of the small Balkan state. Edith Durham, who travelled through the Balkans in the early 20th century, described Cetinje as a toy city "no one had played with yet".
A stroll though Cetinje today, past the former consulates, the old hospital (fallen into decay), King Nikola's Palace, and the old government building, is a reminder of Montenegro’s tradition of statehood. However, despite Montenegro's statehood and its long tradition of resistance to Ottoman rule, its population never developed a national consciousness in the modern sense. Like all his predecessors and most of his subjects, Nikola I (1841-1921), Montenegro's last ruler, considered himself a Serb.
Owing to Nikola’s Serbia-friendly policies, the two entities were never at war. The idea of union with Serbia enjoyed considerable support even before World War I, though given Austro-Hungarian opposition it was not a realistic option. (Nikola himself was reluctant to cede statehood.) After the war, however, with Nikola exiled in France, Montenegro was merged with Serbia and immediately incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. To this day, the legality of this process remains hotly disputed.
Nevertheless, the concept of a Montenegrin nation, fostered during socialist times, remained popular in Cetinje. Unsurprisingly, once the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia reinvigorated the debate on Montenegrin statehood. Cetinje once again became a pro-independence stronghold.
Under socialism, Cetinje – like many other towns in Yugoslavia – experienced industrialisation. Its driving force was "Obod", a huge company producing goods like washing machines and refrigerators.
Since the fall of socialism, companies like "Obod" have fallen into decay. Cetinje is once again a city without an industry, largely bypassed by Montenegro’s recent economic boom. Except for the renovated historical buildings, which attract some day-trippers from the coast, there is very little construction. The locals commute to work to the coast, or to Podgorica, both no more than a half hour drive.