BUDVA, Montenegro -- The mayor of the city of Budva, a magnet for tourism on Montenegro's Adriatic coast, tried to kick a Balkan hornet's nest this month.
Marko Carevic, a controversial businessman who helped lead pro-Serbian protests that turned last year's election in favor of the longtime opposition, suggested that Podgorica should return a handful of luxury properties to Serbia's former royal family.
He suggested restitution to the surviving members of the Karadjordjevic family would help draw a thicker line between ostensible allies within Montenegro's current ruling coalition and the opposition Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) during their three decades in power.
Carevic also suggested that failing to return the royals' former property would be an indictment of the country's legal system and an abrogation of "goodwill and logic."
"I don't decide," Carevic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service after his initial comment, "but if I'm asked, I publicly state my position, because I came to change things for the better."
His statements drew instant rebukes from the junior partners of his governing Democratic Front (DF) alliance, in which Carevic is a colorful figure with rising national ambitions.
The Karadjordjevices are a polarizing topic because of their role in sidelining Montenegrin royal lineage early last century and ushering in a Yugoslavia largely dominated by Serbs.
Montenegro put an end to a joint federation with Serbia by declaring independence following a bitterly contested referendum in 2006, a move that is still a source of mutual resentment across their shared border.
Carevic's gamble appeared aimed at grabbing the national spotlight as his Democratic Front allies battle to stay in power in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, and his own political fortunes suffer serious setbacks in Budva.
The outcome could help shape the local and national political landscapes at a crucial juncture in Montenegro's bid to rebound from COVID-19's cataclysmic effects on tourism while pressing ahead with reforms to cement its leading candidacy for EU membership.
Montenegro's current government is led by a pro-Serbian alliance, the Democratic Front, that rode a wave of protest to power last year over a perceived assault led by longtime President Milo Djukanovic on the authority and property of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
But the government's slim majority has threatened to erode and leave it scrambling for a foothold to accomplish meaningful change in the country.
"The Democratic Front alone cannot win a majority in Montenegro, but [Carevic] might be their front-runner in the next parliamentary elections and maybe the presidential election," Ljubomir Filipovic, a local commentator, activist, and former acting mayor of Budva, told RFE/RL. "He has a strong presence, not just locally, but nationally in Montenegro."
He also said the "macho-flamboyant" Carevic appeared to be using trips to neighboring countries to burnish his regional standing.
"He is building up his, let's say, Serbian world portfolio," Filipovic said.
Royals Caught In The Middle
Questions of royal legitimacy and national justice are fraught in the Balkans, although their emotional resonance has mostly waned in the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
The Karadjordjevic dynasty was founded by Serbian revolutionary Djordje (Karadjordje) Petrovic during a major anti-Ottoman uprising early in the 1800s.
After a tumultuous century, by 1903 Peter I Karadjordjevic was reigning over the Kingdom of Serbia. Then, under disputed circumstances that derailed Montenegrin royalty during World War I, Peter I emerged as the sovereign of a joint kingdom that would become Yugoslavia.
Montenegrins' deep cultural, linguistic, and religious ties make for a special relationship with Serbia, whose population is more than 10 times the size of Montenegro's.
In the post-Yugoslav context, many people regard the Karadjordjevic family as a symbol of shared Montenegrin-Serb history and opposition to Montenegro's split from a short-lived federation with Serbia in 2006.
In the latest chapter of a decades-long saga, the last Serbian and Yugoslav king's descendants said this month they hoped Montenegrins and their government would return millions of dollars' worth of luxury properties nationalized after the communist takeover in 1946.
The properties include five hectares of land around a former royal winter residence called Leskovac Castle, and the home in which King Alexander was born, in Montenegro's former royal capital, Cetinje.
They also include King Alexander's former summer palace -- known as Villa Milocer -- on an iconic chunk of Adriatic coastline just outside Budva.
"If someone wants to return Karadjordjevic property, he is probably making the statement that Montenegrins are Serbs and their place is with Serbia," said Patrick Moore, RFE/RL’s chief Balkan political analyst from 1977-2008. "This is clearly a slap at the ideology of Djukanovic and others who favor Montenegrin independence and separate identity."
Djukanovic and authorities under three decades of rule by his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) consistently rejected the Karadjordjevic family's property claims.
In another Balkan twist, the royal family used to be represented by the law firm of Ana Kolarevic, who is Djukanovic's sister. The firm told RFE/RL's Balkan Service last week that it was no longer working for the family.
Serbian Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in a written statement last week that "the topic here is not the property of the royal family but the issue of private property."
Activist and commentator Filipovic said Carevic's taunt appeared to be an effort to shake up a rapidly shifting political landscape where playing the Serbian card carries less risk than in previous years and nothing is assured ahead of the next elections.
"Right now, in our coalition on a national level and in the local level, they're playing this game of 'Who's a bigger Serb?' 'Who's more loyal to the Serbian interest?'" Filipovic said. "And his coalition, DF, they don't have much to lose, so they want to go all-in on this subject."
Many people regard the Karadjordjevices as liberators who rightfully unified Serbs and Montenegrins a century ago.
Others exalt the Petrovic-Njegos dynasty that ruled Montenegro for over two centuries prior to World War I, a choice that emphasizes the countries' separate historical identities.
"I'm always a supporter of fraternal relations, but if choosing between Petrovic and Karadjordjevic, I'll choose Petrovic every time," the president of Montenegro's national parliament, Aleksa Becic, said of Carevic's statements.
Local And National Stakes
Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic is an independent former professor who has had a bumpy ride atop a disparate, 10-party coalition since winning parliamentary approval with a one-seat margin in December.
Carevic is a millionaire businessman and soccer-club chairman whose New Serb Democracy party is part of the Democratic Front, the strongest alliance within the coalition, which has a strongly pro-Serbian program.
Carevic has also been accused of building part of his agricultural empire on state land and of benefiting from massive local government contracts in connection with his political influence.
In April, he hinted on the Serbian World TV program that he may make a run for the Montenegrin presidency in 2023, when the long-ruling Djukanovic is expected to seek reelection.
But Carevic has local issues to attend to if he hopes to stage an effective national campaign of any sort.
Carevic became mayor two years into a power-sharing deal after his New Serb Democracy party and its pro-Serb Democratic Front allies unseated Djukanovic's DPS party after local elections in 2016.
The races in Budva and other places hinted at the growing public frustration that would fuel Djukanovic and his DPS's defeat on the national level four years later.
But on July 2, deputies rejected Carevic's annual report to the Budva city parliament, a political trip wire that blew up the local coalition between his DF alliance and its partner, Demokrate. The defeat put Carevic's mayorship in doubt.
His DF quickly pivoted to enlist two other parties for support until the next local elections, but it is still unclear if the deal will stick.
The DF's local leadership in Budva accused rival parties of having "become allergic to the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty [and] denying them even the right to seek the return of confiscated property through legal proceedings initiated in 2005."
They said opposition parties were "following in the footsteps" of Djukanovic by seeking to change the public narrative on the Karadjordjevic family, which it described as "pro-European gentlemen."
Moore, the Balkan analyst, wondered whether the royals' problems would make the kind of splash that Carevic might have been seeking.
"Monarchy is a dead issue in the postcommunist Balkans, of symbolic value at best," he said. "These royal families probably mean little or nothing to most Montenegrins, except as historical curiosities."