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Montenegro's Limited Coalition Hammers Away At Perilous Religion, Nationality Issues

Protesters in Podgorica rally against controversial amendments to Montenegro's Law on Religious Freedoms in front of parliament in December.

PODGORICA -- Still rutted with historically fraught questions of religious and national identity, Montenegro's political path took a sharp turn in August.

That's when a diverse coalition of Serbian nationalists, populists, centrists, socialists, environmentalists, and anticorruption campaigners won just enough votes to edge out the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) that had run the former Yugoslav republic for 30 years.

A record turnout among Montenegro's some 540,000 registered voters demanded change and heralded impatience with President Milo Djukanovic and the perceived clientelism that helped make him one of Europe's longest-serving democratic leaders.

But now, as the incongruous 10-party coalition and its "cabinet of experts" approach six months in power, signs are mounting of roiling ethnic and national tensions as well as political obstacles that could further divide -- or even destabilize -- the Balkans' smallest state.

Alongside a fast-paced reset in official relations with the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church headquartered in Belgrade, pro-Serbian Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic's bid to refashion the country's laws on nationality and citizenship has sparked "Montenegrin Spring" protests.

Supporters of the pro-Serbian Democratic Front celebrate victory in local elections in Niksic in March.
Supporters of the pro-Serbian Democratic Front celebrate victory in local elections in Niksic in March.

"We've got a polarized society in which I find myself on neither side and it seems to me I don’t belong to such a society," Lazar, a 23-year-old in the capital, Podgorica, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

He described the "sides" as the "Komitis," a reference to ethnic Montenegrin nationalists, and a "Serbian world" envisaged by proponents of closer cultural and political ties with Serbia.

"Whether these tensions will be resolved," Lazar said, "I'm not sure it will happen anytime soon, and it seems to me that we're sinking deeper and deeper into divisions."

Using My Religion

Within weeks of taking power in early December, Krivokapic's government introduced changes to a year-old Law on Religious Freedoms.

The amendments had been sought by the Serbian Orthodox Church and its Montenegrin arm since the law's passage by Djukanovic and his allies in late 2019 -- and Krivokapic's For the Future of Montenegro alliance had promised ahead of the elections to make such changes.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic (file photo)
Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic (file photo)

One of the most contentious elements in the new law was an obligation for religious communities to prove their ownership of churches and other property prior to 1918, when Montenegro joined the future Yugoslavia under disputed circumstances and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church's assets were eventually taken over by the Serbian church.

That led the Serbian church to fear the nationalization of its 700-plus churches and other sites in Montenegro if the law was rigorously enforced.

Its rushed, late-night passage by parliament was boycotted by pro-Serb parties, including some in the current coalition, and sparked months of clergy-led public protests that helped fuel opposition to Djukanovic and the DPS.

The 62-year-old Krivokapic -- whose side jobs have included decades teaching information technology at a Serbian Orthodox seminary in Cetinje, not far from Montenegro's capital -- made rescinding parts of the law his government's top priority.

Coalition lawmakers quickly approved the amendments and overrode Djukanovic's veto in January.

Around half of Montenegro's 620,000 citizens are thought to attend Serbian Orthodox services.

A far smaller -- but vocal -- number of Montenegrins attend services of the mostly unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which Djukanovic has spent decades promoting as the rightful successor to the defunct church of the same name.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic (file photo)
Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic (file photo)

"The scar is, so to speak, still open," Emil Saggau, research fellow at Lund University's Center for Theology and Religious Studies, said. "The Serbian Orthodox Church might have won the battle for now, but the conflict is not over. If they don’t use the situation to defuse things further it might create a political and religious backlash."

But Krivokapic didn't stop there.

Since amending the Law on Religious Freedoms, he has seemingly single-handedly prepared a Fundamental Agreement to regulate relations between the Montenegrin state and the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Krivokapic has kept its contents secret, but he and the new Serbian patriarch, Profirije, are expected to sign it as soon as this week.

Saggau called the agreement with the Belgrade-based church the "logical next step" because the Serbian church "has technically been in a sort of legal gray zone" since Montenegro regained independence in 2006.

The deal could "normalize the relationship," he said, and "restore the Serbian Orthodox Church to the same position as the Jews, Muslims, and Catholics" in Montenegro.

"It is therefore hardly surprising that they came to an understanding," Saggau said.

He called it a "deep blow" to the noncanonical Montenegrin church.

Otherwise 'Mixed' Reviews

Freedom House described Montenegro's leadership in its Freedom In The World 2021 report as "a government of nonpartisan experts...[and] a de facto minority government supported by an ideologically heterogenous parliamentary majority, leaving it vulnerable to instability as its work begins in earnest."

So rejigging church-state relations may have been the easy part.

It was the issue that most observers agree provided the decisive momentum going into the elections that flipped the result Krivokapic's way.

"On other reforms or stated policy priorities, the picture [so far] is mixed," according to Kenneth Morrison, a professor of modern Southeastern European history at Britain's De Montfort University.

Among the new government's successes, he cited Foreign Minister Djordje Radulovic's pledge that Montenegro won't deviate from its Euro-Atlantic orientation, although he noted that there has been "some skepticism regarding this."

Morrison also mentioned last month's arrest, in the coastal city of Kotor, of suspected senior figures in the Kavac clan, which is purported to be heavily involved in international drug trafficking and other serious crimes.

He said those arrests and a blunt public warning to the group by Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic could signal the coalition's intent to make tackling organized crime "a key cornerstone of government policy."

"But it is really too early to judge, more broadly, the efficacy of the new government," Morrison said.

However, the government's legislative vigor and its promised reforms have remained stalled since December.

One of the leaders of the senior governing Democratic Front complained last month that "the government hasn't sent a single legislative proposal to parliament since December, and that shows a lack of strategy."

But that same Democratic Front has reportedly conditioned its support for new legislation on judicial and prosecutorial changes that smack of payback for convictions against two of its members for an alleged coup plot around the 2016 elections that involved Serbians and Russians.

Such threats from the ranks of a disparate, three-bloc coalition with a collective one-seat majority hints at the potential for delays in the government's legislative agenda.

"Given the very narrow majority that they have in parliament and, equally, how narrow the margin of their victory was in the 2020 elections, they are never going to be an overwhelmingly popular government," Morrison said.

To make matters worse, as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on, it is taking a huge toll on Montenegro's tourism industry, which represented more than one-fifth of gross domestic product two years ago.

'Shifting Center Of Gravity'

But Krivokapic has not been idle on one of the country's most contentious topics: nationality.

Amended regulations that Krivokapic floated in March would provide a path to citizenship for tens of thousands of foreign residents currently prevented from becoming Montenegrin by a ban on dual citizenship.

Many of those residents are Serbian, prompting Montenegrin critics to decry the change as a thinly veiled "Serbianization" of their country, which split from a joint state with Serbia after a referendum in 2006.

"Patriotic" protests, many of them organized under the banners of a "Montenegrin Response" or a "Montenegrin Spring," erupted in Podgorica and other cities in April to push back against Krivokapic's initiative.

And nationalist incidents and demonstrations have been on the rise since election night when the DPS was sidelined by pro-Serb, pro-reform, and anti-corruption parties but some of the most boisterous celebrants sang Serbian national songs and waved Serbia's tricolor flag.

"There were protests and efforts to draw attention to institutional corruption prior to the elections, which is one of the many reasons the results aggregated the way they did," Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin think tank, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "But I think those who voted with that motivation clearly underestimated the potential downside -- how quickly and how far the political center of gravity could shift."

A Polarized Montenegro Inspires Devoted Activists On Both Sides
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Montenegrin Interior Minister Sergej Sekulovic warned in late April that the postelection period has been marked by increased tensions and confrontation.

He said 152 rallies -- almost all of them organized via social media and without permits -- had attracted more than 130,000 attendees since August.

Such events "deeply divide the public and encourage an environment of intolerance and violence," Sekulovic warned.

He cited attacks on religious buildings, incitement of religious and national hatred, and ethnic polarization.

"It appears to me that what had seemed to be a solid popular majority for Montenegrin statehood and identity as a multiethnic state was far less deeply rooted than many Montenegrins, let alone outside observers, believed," Bassuener said.

Nationalism is a particularly painful topic in the Balkans, where wars that broke out amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s killed at least 130,000 people, many of them victims of ethnic cleansing.

In early April, Krivokapic requested the dismissal of Justice, Human and Minority Rights Minister Vladimir Leposavic after he questioned the UN war crimes court's description of the 1995 Serb killings of thousands of Bosniak men in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica as genocide.

The Democratic Front's parliamentary leader said Leposavic wouldn't be removed "for as long as the DF exists" and added that every "Serb in Montenegro has the same view as Leposavic."

A newly released poll this week showed that nearly two-thirds of Montenegrins think there are still the kind of ideologies and policies in place in their country that were responsible for the bloodshed of the 1990s. One-third of respondents agreed with Leposavic that it has not been "unequivocably established" that Srebrenica was genocide.

Parliament is due to debate Leposavic's cabinet fate on May 11.

Justice Minister Vladimir Leposavic (left) and Foreign Minister Djordje Radulovic (right) pictured late last year
Justice Minister Vladimir Leposavic (left) and Foreign Minister Djordje Radulovic (right) pictured late last year

The atmosphere was toxic enough in late April for an elementary-school principal in the northern town of Pljevlja to be slated for dismissal after a photo on social media showed her wearing a shubara, a traditional peasant hat frequently worn by Serb soldiers during 20th-century conflicts, including the wars of Yugoslav succession.

Krivokapic was forced to comment on the case after a Democratic Front lawmaker raised the issue in parliament.

It's not necessarily a good look for NATO's newest member and a country that many have long regarded as the Western Balkans' most eligible candidate for EU accession.

Ethnicity, nationality, and the sanctity of post-Yugoslav borders are already causing headaches in Brussels with the recent leaks of purported "nonpapers" among EU member states, one of which purported to suggest the breaking up of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Just this week, 266 intellectuals, artists, and other public figures from throughout the Balkans warned in an open letter to the U.S., EU, and NATO governments of the ongoing "pursuit of border changes or ethno-territorialism" in the region. It urged them to "confront" a "clear and present danger" stemming from decades of "deterrence failure."

"There is still time for the U.S. and EU to arrest the current trajectory, which would eventually end in violence," the signatories warned.

Boris Raonic, president of the Podgorica-based Civic Alliance, an NGO that promotes civil and democratic society and human rights, says the international community could help combat runaway nationalism with messaging and other encouragement "if there's no desire or readiness by politicians in Montenegro" to do it.

"What is certain is that they don't need another hotspot in the Balkans," Raonic said.

Writing and reporting by Andy Heil in Prague with reporting by Aneta Durovic and contributions by Bojana Moskov from Podgorica
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Aneta Durovic

    Aneta Durovic is a correspondent in Podgorica for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.