Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has canceled an upcoming visit to Montenegro amid a dispute over a new Montenegrin religious rights law.
“I decided not to go, and that was agreed with [Serbian Patriarch] Irinej,'' Vucic said at a news conference in Belgrade on January 4. “We respect their independence."
Vucic had been planning to visit Serbian churches in Montenegro on Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated on January 7. Montenegrin officials had said the visit would add fuel to the existing tensions in the small Balkan state.
Last month, Montenegro’s parliament passed a law under which religious communities must prove property ownership from before 1918, the year when predominantly Orthodox Christian Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Serbs say the new law will lead to the impounding of Serbian Orthodox Church property in Montenegro. Montenegrin officials have repeatedly denied the claim.
In 2006, Montenegro split from much larger Serbia following a referendum. About one-third of the small Balkan country’s 620,000 citizens declared themselves as Serbs and want close ties with Belgrade.
Vucic on January 4 also accused Montenegrin and unspecified Western officials of launching “a hysteric campaign of lies" when he first announced the visit.
He said he canceled it because of possible “clashes" that would “hurt the Serbian people in Montenegro."
Led by Orthodox priests and fueled by Serbian state media, thousands of Serbs in Montenegro have been staging daily protests in the small Balkan state, demanding that the law be annulled.
Serbian ultra-nationalists have also held protests against Montenegro's pro-Western government in the Serbian capital, Belgrade.
Thousands of soccer hooligans tried to burn the Montenegrin flag, threw flares and chanted “set it on fire” during a protest in front of the Montenegrin Embassy in Belgrade on January 2.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic called the embassy attack an “uncivilized” act and that it was “stunning” Serbian police did not protect the embassy during the incident, as well as at other recent protests.
Vucic said the embassy was protected and accused Markovic of “telling notorious falsehoods,” though he did not appear to comment on the flag burning itself.
U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Judy Rising Reinke expressed shock over the attack.
“Shocked at the image of the desecrated #Montenegro flag at the country’s Belgrade Embassy," she said on Twitter on January 3. “Attack on a diplomatic mission is absolutely unacceptable. Difference of opinions must be resolved through dialogue, not violence or acts of vandalism."
In his comments to the press in Belgrade on January 4, Vucic took aim at the U.S. ambassador’s remarks.
"U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro [Judy Rising Reinke] was vocal yesterday, saying she was horrified by the scenes she witnessed in. Right, but [Rising Reinke] is not horrified by what's happening in Montenegro? She is not horrified when people are getting arrested just for carrying the Serbian flag?” Vucic said. “There are 30 percent of them there. She is not horrified that the Serbian language is not permitted there? She is not horrified that [the Montenegrin government] is stealing [the Serbian Orthodox] Church property? She is not horrified by any of that."
The embassy attack in Belgrade followed a basketball match between Serbia’s Red Star and Germany’s Bayern Munich.
Many of those taking part were members of the Serbian soccer fan group known as “delije.”
Members of delije, Serbian for “tough boys,” are known for their close ties with Serbia’s ruling nationalist party and the secret police.
Members of delije were behind attacks against Western embassies in Belgrade in 2008, when the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade was set on fire as police stood close by. The group was protesting against Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia.