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Serbia and Montenegro: The Politics Of Churches And Helicopters

Church on Mount Rumija The Army of Serbia and Montenegro recently provided helicopters to help construct an Orthodox church in Montenegro. The ensuing controversy shows once again how politically explosive ostensibly religious issues can still be in parts of former Yugoslavia.

Representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) consecrated a small prefabricated metal church on Mount Rumija near Bar on 31 July, one day before the deadline that the Montenegrin Environment Ministry had given the SPC to remove the structure. An unspecified number of helicopters (some accounts say it was only one) of the Army of Serbia and Montenegro brought the church to the mountain on 21 July without the permission of the pro-independence Montenegrin authorities.

After the church was dedicated, a spokesman for the pro-Belgrade Serbian People's Party (SNS) called for the reconstruction of a former SPC chapel on Mount Lovcen in place of the mausoleum of Petar II Petrovic Njegos, the Montenegrin national hero and writer.

Several pro-independence Montenegrin political leaders said the SPC is misusing religion for political ends by erecting the church on Mount Rumija, a mountain that has importance for Montenegro's Orthodox and Islamic communities alike. Montenegrin Albanian political leader Mehmet Bardhi said in Podgorica that the dedication of the church on Mount Rumija is "the biggest provocation against the Albanians in the past 50 years," adding that the move "is preparing the ground for further ones" that he did not specify.

Most Montenegrins belong to the SPC, regardless of their political beliefs. But there is also a small Montenegrin Orthodox Church that is closely allied to the much larger pro-independence movement. Many supporters of independence regard the SPC as an ally or instrument of the Belgrade authorities, who seek to shore up pro-Serbian elements in the Montenegrin population in anticipation of a referendum on independence in 2006. (See "Montenegrin Foreign Minister Makes The Case For Independence".) Underlying the problem is the fact that there has never been a solid consensus among Montenegrins as to whether they are a special branch of the Serbian nation or a separate and distinct people.

On 2 August, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic and speaker of the parliament Ranko Krivokapic announced in Podgorica that they will seek to determine who in the Army of Serbia and Montenegro is responsible for the use of the helicopter or helicopters to build the church.
Albanian political leader Mehmet Bardhi said in Podgorica that the dedication of the church on Mount Rumija is "the biggest provocation against the Albanians in the past 50 years."

It is not clear what the military's position is. On 2 August, Chief of the General Staff General Dragan Paskas said on Serbian television that high-ranking clerics of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Podgorica asked the army for the helicopters to transport the small building. Paskas argued that the army's agreement did not constitute an "abuse of its authority [because] the army in this case was [simply] helping, like [it has] in many previous situations."

Elsewhere, however, Deputy Defense Minister Vukasin Maras said those responsible for using the helicopters will have to answer for it. Some observers told RFE/RL that they are sure that Maras will get to the bottom of the matter, while others were skeptical and suggested that he is simply playing politics.

Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic took a slightly different tack. He said that there is no justification for the fact that he and his fellow Montenegrin, Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic, both learned about the use of the helicopters only from the media even though both men belong to the Supreme Defense Council. Maras, he added, also learned of the matter from the media.

It is not clear whether the authorities will seek to remove the church or whether some mutually face-saving deal will be worked out. The SPC has meanwhile sought to legalize the status of the structure. Several observers noted in the media that Montenegro has many buildings, including mosques, that were built without permits, and that efforts to legalize such structures now should be encouraged. For his part, Montenegro's Environment Minister Boro Vucinic said that he is happy that the SPC and its Metropolitan Amfilohije have, as he put it, "finally decided to respect the legal system and the laws of Montenegro" and register the new building.

Whatever might come of the Mount Rumija dispute, it seems certain to have political repercussions. Tensions between pro-independence and pro-Belgrade forces have been on the rise for some time in anticipation of the 2006 referendum. The Montenegrin government, moreover, has long been concerned about the roles of the army and the SPC in internal politics. And the present imbroglio over the church on Mount Rumija comes at a time when relations between Serbia and Macedonia also are strained over issues regarding the SPC and its rival, the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Some observers say that the two controversies are part of a broader attempt by the SPC to assert its role in public life throughout the region. Others commentators, such as one for Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service, pointed out that Djukanovic himself has not been above misusing religion for political purposes and was happy to enlist the support of Amfilohije and the SPC in the 1997 Montenegrin presidential election campaign. Djukanovic was then running against Momir Bulatovic, an ally of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose relations with the SPC were poor.

In any event, the latest controversy over Mount Rumija shows how politically explosive ostensibly religious issues can still be in some parts of former Yugoslavia. This is true even at the start of the 21st century, when the governments of the region are officially committed to seeking Euro-Atlantic integration and a pluralistic society.

See also:

Montenegro Seeks Talks On Dissolving Joint State With Serbia