In-depth | Montenegro

The law that rocked Montenegro

By - 18.04.2020

What’s behind the months-long protests?

As Orthodox Christians make final preparations for their most important holiday, Easter — which falls on Sunday, April 19 this year — a dispute rumbles on between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) in Montenegro and the Montenegrin government. 

This year’s holiday celebrations will be carried out under conditions dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic; or rather by current government restrictions banning all movement from Sunday, 11 a.m. until Monday, 5 a.m. The restrictions bar all social visits as well as gatherings in places of worship.

It was one such religious gathering that led to the recent arrest of the SPC’s leader in Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije, who rallied with other clergy in front of a church in Podgorica on April 12. Amfilohije was questioned by the police and later released, but his detention sparked outrage among worshippers and clergymen alike. Nevertheless, the priests claim that they will comply with the pandemic-related restrictions. 

The pandemic has now caused the SPC to postpone their regular litije, religious gatherings and mass prayers that had been organized at least twice a week in the streets of Podgorica and other Montenegrin cities from last December to April 13. These processions served as a form of protest directed against the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion, which was passed at the very end of 2019.

The issues behind the law and the reaction it has provoked are complex, dealing with Montenegrin identity, religious independence and political opposition.

However, the church has not given up on the litije completely, so they continue — even during the state of emergency declared due to the spread of COVID-19 — to call for online versions to be held in the same time slots previously designated for the public ones. 

Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović has accused those who attend the litije of being part of a “lunatic movement,” urging Montenegrin citizens not to take part in these events.

The church, on the other hand, regards the processions as the nation’s return to religion.

Meanwhile, some members of the public regard these developments as part of a political dispute. So what exactly lies behind the litije has been difficult to assess. 

The issues behind the law and the reaction it has provoked are complex, dealing with Montenegrin identity, religious independence and political opposition to the longest serving president in the region.

The litije, supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church, have been held across Montenegro twice a week for months. Since April 13, they have been held online. Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

What is the controversy?

The main issue at stake revolves around the provisions of the new law that applies to religious communities’ property. 

In line with these provisions, each place of worship and landholding in the territory of Montenegro that is occupied by a religious organization and that was built or acquired through state funds — or had been state-owned until December 1, 1918 — will be transferred to the state if there is no evidence confirming the given community’s right of ownership.

Some Montenegrin Orthodox Church officials believe that the law has given them an opportunity to claim some of the more than 600 churches and monasteries in Montenegro.

In 1918, the Montenegrin state was annexed by Serbia. This created a long running  Montenegrin or Serbian identity issue that was revived when Montenegro voted for independence from Serbia in 2006.

According to those who support the law, in order to revert Montenegro back to its “original state,” as well as to solve the identity issue, it was crucial to bring forward such legislation.

The law pertains to all religious communities. However, it turns out that it will only apply in practice to the SPC, as the state has already adequately addressed property related matters with the Catholic Church and the Islamic Community.

This means that only the SPC and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC), which has been seeking to assert itself, are left. The law in its current form suits the latter since it would finally enable the CPC to play a more prominent role in society by restoring its autocephaly — or independence.

Some high-ranking CPC officials believe that the law has given them an opportunity to claim some of the more than 600 churches and monasteries in Montenegro, none of which they currently own. 

Members of the SPC are against the law as they fear that a large portion of their landholdings, monasteries and churches might be transferred to state ownership. 

These properties are desired by the CPC — which was effectively shut down in 1918, having been absorbed by the SPC. The CPC has been trying to position itself among the Orthodox populace and Orthodox churches alike since Montenegro’s independence.

Why this law?

The controversial law was adopted at the end of 2019, after five years of failed ratifications and draft amendments primarily made because of pressure from the SPC.

The adoption came after a wave of unrest stirred up both within the Montenegrin Parliament and in the streets of Podgorica and other urban centers, when citizens set up roadblocks along main roads, consequently clashing with the police.

The European Commission has requested that the Montenegrin government begin negotiations immediately to produce a solution acceptable to everyone.

For the past five years, President Đukanović — head of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists — has been shifting his tone with regard to the law and corresponding concerns from threatening to conciliatory, but it is evident that neither he nor other supporters of the law anticipated the resistance they are facing now.

Members of the SPC — or rather its Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral branch governed by Metropolitan Amfilohije — claim that the situation will remain the same until the law is withdrawn, which Prime Minister Duško Marković believes is impossible since “no one can withdraw it” once it has been enacted. Church members also say that they will set up an initiative for a constitutional review.

The priests in charge of litije say they are going to carry on with rallies and protests — for now, online — until the law is repealed, while the government has not yet even hinted that a repeal is possible. Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

The government announced that the law — in force since January 8 — is soon to be implemented, adding that they are going to start negotiations with the Metropolitanate, though it is yet to be specified under what conditions and in what way these negotiations — or dialogue — would be carried out.

The European Commission (EC) has requested that the Montenegrin government begin the negotiations immediately. The EC emphasizes that the dialogue should produce a solution acceptable to everyone in the country.

What are the litije?

The general atmosphere in Montenegro had been charged even before the law was passed.

MPs from the Democratic Front — the opposition bloc consisting predominantly of Montenegrin Serbs — had tried to prevent the law’s adoption, then joined in with clergymen and monks who would gather in front of the Parliament building.

Aided by these citizens — or “Believers,” as they have been referred to lately — these meetings eventually turned into litije organized initially every day following the law’s enactment. The SPC subsequently ordered the processions to be held twice a week — Thursdays and Sundays — in a number of cities and towns in Montenegro.

It is at these gatherings — which are now held online — that participants voice their opposition against the law and say they are simultaneously “defending their holy places.”

The majority opinion within the government is that litijes and gatherings against the new law are political acts, asserting that they have overt political/oppositionist undertones. Meanwhile, opposition leaders have not been among the protesters, or at least they were not in the front rows.

The SPC, meanwhile, has sent the message that it is standing alongside the populace regardless of whether they vote for the ruling or opposition parties. Fighting for their property and creed, the SPC — which is often quite vociferous — rejects being associated with leaders of the opposition and say this is why they are quieter these days, leaving the “Believers” to stand up for what they perceive as theirs.

Who else was taking to the streets?

Despite Đukanović calling on his party’s members not to participate in the litije, it is apparent that those carrying icons and crosses in the processions have frequently been accompanied by a number of ruling party voters and activists. They appear to be giving priority to the religious over the political, and perhaps using the protests as a cover for their own criticisms of Đukanovic.

This is one of the biggest issues facing the ruling elite — how to implement the law and subsequent fallout with the SPC, without alienating a considerable part of its own electorate.

Since ruling party supporters have partaken in litije as well, the establishment has closed ranks and threatened party members that take part that they face expulsion, saying that their emotions are being “deeply abused” by the SPC and its “political rallies [that are] directed against this state and its leadership.”

Antagonism toward the processions has been displayed in Cetinje, home to the Cetinje Monastery — the Metropolitanate and Metropolitan Amfilohije’s seat. Acting on police advice, no march was held there in the end to avoid potential incidents from some citizens, who — in their own words — “preserve Montenegrin values” by calling everyone opposing the law “adversaries.”

It should be noted that Cetinje was the seat of all Montenegrin royal dynasties and the Old Royal Capital, the largely symbolic title it bears even today as a sign of respect for the town’s history.

How else has the dispute been playing out?

For the last few months, the government has been committed to defending its policy and suggesting that it is defending the country’s independence that is once again under threat. This has been symbolized by the graffiting of the old tricolor that was the flag of the Kingdom of Montenegro — red, white and blue, similar to the Serbian flag — around the country.

The municipal and regular police have arrested people who have tried to prevent others from painting over these flags. The media in Montenegro has reported that — although they don’t confirm it — the municipal police in particular has been selective in removing only the tricolors while leaving other graffiti intact.

Suggestions that the story about the church is only part of a bigger picture of confirming allegiances appeared to be confirmed by Montenegro’s defense minister when he announced “a hybrid war” ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2020. 

Hybrid warfare refers to subversive methodology used to undermine an opponent, and Montenegro’s leadership has regularly talked of threats from foreign agents since the alleged “Russian coup” attempt in 2016.

Politicians manipulating people’s fears, and religious and national identities, has not been uncommon in Montenegro, even in the past.

Not too long after the citizens of Montenegro first heard of the hybrid war, the fight against a virtual enemy commenced publicly.

In January, a journalist was arrested in Podgorica for what the government termed “false reporting,” after she wrote that special police forces from Kosovo would assist Montenegrin police in Christmas operations. In a subsequent police action on January 12, police apprehended two journalists after they wrote that an explosion had gone off in a luxury Podgorica building.

Politicians manipulating people’s fears, and religious and national identities, has not been uncommon in Montenegro, even in the past. And just like across the region, these issues tend to be enhanced in the run up to elections.

However, the government has never deliberately gone against the SPC previously, knowing that they would be met with resistance.

Phrases such as “Greater Serbian nationalism” and the “Negators of Montenegro” can often be heard in public discourse — including the term: “Spiritual restoration of Montenegrin independence.” In this way, the old intranational divisions have been provoked and the gap between the two largest national groups in the country deepened.

What do the neighbors say?

As is frequently the case, when a problem comes up in one of the countries in the Balkans, the neighbors are not particularly helpful.

This is the case even now as the government of Serbia comments on developments in Montenegro on an almost daily basis. The events are regularly discussed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who rather abruptly stated that he wished to pay a visit to Montenegrin Serbs over Christmas along with Serbian government ministers and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, all of whom have criticized the government of Montenegro and their treatment of Serbs.

Though peaceful, each physical protest took place under the scrutiny of a large number of police forces. Photo: Boris Pejović / K2.0.

The situation is similar in Republika Srpska, where parties associated with Milorad Dodik — a member of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Presidency — share the view that the law is not good.

Litije of support and solidarity with the Serb people of Montenegro are organized in Serbia and in Republika Srpska alike.

On the other hand, the Montenegrin government has been sent messages of understanding and acceptance by their Croatian colleagues from both sides of the political spectrum.

The fact that in the space of six weeks when the Law on Freedom of Religion passed, various media in the region published more than 10,400 articles on the topic — 7,000 of them by Serbian media — speaks for itself as to the scale of this debate. 

Considering that there is still no solution in sight, it is clear that the news in Montenegro and other parts of the region will continue to be dominated by reports related to this law.K

Feature image: Boris Pejović / K2.0.