Many factors make a people or community a nation. Foremost among these is a common narrative of history, culture, and language. Yet there is another important factor, and that is “religion”. Religion plays a significant role in the self-definition of a society or people and in forming a narrative. Examining the studies in this context, one may see that Christian Orthodox societies and countries utilise the religious factor very much in the process of self-definition. While this definition often brings societies together, it can also be observed that it divides and disintegrates.
Montenegro is one of the places where the aforementioned fragmentation has been observed recently. At this stage, the presence of two different Orthodox churches in the country causes ethnic debates; it also wreaks havoc on the balance of domestic politics. In particular, the “Basic Agreement” signed between the Montenegrin government and the Serbian Orthodox Church recently was met with criticism by the Montenegrin Orthodox Church and many Montenegrins. As a result, the incumbent Dritan Abazovic government fell, with continued demonstrations and the opposition demanding a vote of no confidence in the government.
While all these experiences show that religion is still an important factor in the Balkans, one should not perceive these developments as tension between a government and a church. Because this rapprochement between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the government has brought along sovereignty and identity disputes.
Serbian Orthodox Church and Montenegro from Past to Today
To fathom the current events, the historical background should be mentioned briefly. Because all these developments are the result of a common history. It is well-known that Montenegro and Serbia have had close relations throughout history. Montenegro was a principality between the 12th and 13th centuries, and then it became a part of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Nevertheless, Montenegro, which rebelled against the Ottoman Empire many times, became a principality again in 1878. In 1918, it became a part of Yugoslavia. At this point, it is worth mentioning that Montenegro and Serbia had very close relations within Yugoslavia.
In fact, Montenegro, acting in cooperation with Serbia during the disintegration process of Yugoslavia, sided with Serbia during the Bosnian War and the attacks against the Croats. In fact, in this period, Serbs and Montenegrins saw themselves as members of the same ethnic group. One may observe that ultra-nationalist Serbian politicians are also Montenegrins. Montenegro, which established a confederation with Serbia after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, quickly estranged itself from Serbia and started to turn its face to the West. Since declaring independence in 2006, Montenegro has been trying to reduce the influence of the Serbs in domestic politics.
Although it moved away from Serbia, tensions escalated now and then due to the existence of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) in the country as an extension of Serbia. In fact, recent tensions stem from this. Gaining autocephaly in 1219, that is, a self-governing status, the Serbian Orthodox Church has worked for centuries for the identification of Serbian identity and Orthodoxy in the region. It is known that in this period, the founder of the church, St. Sava, formed nine dioceses, and one of them was located in Zeta, Montenegro.
The Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which had a somewhat separate structure from the SPC during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, merged with the SPC in 1920. Nevertheless, in 1993, with the developments generated from the disintegration process of Yugoslavia, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was established in Cetinje. It is stated that in this period, the Montenegrin government and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church acted jointly towards the separation of Montenegro from Serbia and its independence again.
By the time it was 1997, one could observe that the leader of The Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), Milo Djukanovic, who was in power, was growing away from Serbia’s leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and his policies at that time. Following its independence in 2006, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church attempted to expand its activities. This was met with a reaction by the SPC and Serbia.
Tensions in the Shadow of the Two Churches
From this point on, SPC and Montenegro would be associated with tensions. In only September 2021, protests arose during the coronation of the new Metropolitan of the SPC. In fact, the starting point of the events is the death of Metropolit Amfilohije in October 2020, who had been on duty in Montenegro for a long time. In the following year, a new Metropolitan was appointed after the meeting held in SPC Belgrade to fill the seat of Amfilohije. Following this, tensions escalated. Because, according to tradition, the coronation ceremony of the new Metropolitan would be held in Cetinje, Montenegro. This was met with a reaction by many Montenegrin nationalists, for this step was an attempt at Montenegro’s sovereignty. In addition, President Milo Djukanovic’s calls to join the protests also escalated the tension.
Despite this, the new Metropolitan was escorted to Cetinje under tight security, and the coronation ceremony was held. Meanwhile, President Djunkanovic strongly opposed the holding of the ceremony, arguing that it should be cancelled, whereas the then government of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic supported the church in going through with the ceremony.
The Krivokapic government, which came to power in 2020 in a tense election setting, is a pro-Serbian administration. After forming the government, he acted together with the Montenegrin Serbs and the church to show strength to the Montenegrins and Montenegrin Muslims. Even Chetnik anthems were sung in the streets during this period, as journalist Bayram Pomak has stated.
On the other hand, it is known that anti-Islamic street writings were written on the street walls in Montenegro during the aforementioned process. The reason behind these tensions during the 2020 elections was the ” Freedom of Religion Law” enacted by Djukanovic in 2019. Because the said law cleared the way for the religious buildings built in Montenegro until 1918 to become the property of the state. Serbs, especially SPC, reacted to this, and the country was trapped in a tense setting, hosting various protests until the elections. In the aforementioned period, Djukanovic aimed to reduce the influence of the SPC, and therefore of Serbia, in the country and consolidate the status of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
These developments have allowed the SPC to take over these properties by pressing the government. On the other hand, the authority of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was denied and its sphere of influence tried to be narrowed. On that note, a development occurred on August 3, 2022, which would shake the country deeply. On August 3, 2022, Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, who has been in power since April 2022, together with the SPC Patriarch Porfirije, hastily signed an agreement known as the “Basic Agreement” (Temeljni ugovor). This agreement would give the SPC the opportunity to take over many religious properties and structures that the SPC claims. On the other hand, it is stated that the agreement in question would acknowledge the “official status” of the SPC in Montenegro while regulating the relations between the SPC and the government and its relations with other churches in Montenegro.
As a result of this agreement signed between Abazovic and the SPC, reactions have arisen from the opposition, especially from the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), and from the Montenegrin public. Thus, the country hosted protests and tensions escalated. Meanwhile, Abazovic posted a video and expressed that he is proud that he ended a long-standing problem” and asserted that this agreement would bring peace and tolerance to the country.
On the other side, not only the opposition reacted to the developments, but also Abazovic’s own cabinet showed reactions. In his statement, the Foreign Minister stated that Abazovic did not have such authority. DPS, on the other hand, launched a vote of no confidence initiative for the government, leading the discussions posed by the agreement to shift to a different dimension.
All in all, the vote of no confidence resulted in Abazovic and his government falling on August 19, 2022. Behind this vote of no confidence against the government, apart from the agreement with the SPC, allegations of corruption and criticism that the government abandoned the European Union (EU) agenda were also influential. Moreover, the reason behind Abazovic’s move is also an attempt to get closer to Serbia in order to take part in the “Open Balkan Initiative”. However, while this step is expected to produce positive results in the short term, it deepens Montenegro’s ethnic and religious divisions and exacerbates disputes over national identity and sovereignty in the long term.
As one may observe, the presence of two different churches in Montenegro has cleared the way for many conflicts. Moreover, these conflicts will not stop here. Because the long-standing tensions between the SPC and the Montenegrin government (s) are not just for religious reasons. Beyond that, it also has historical, political, and geostrategic dimensions.
Within this framework, one may argue that the authority that is given to the SPC in Montenegro is at the same time given to Serbia. As a matter of fact, with the authority given, it can be said that Serbia consolidated its influence on Montenegro through the SPC. In addition to that, the steps of the SPC raise an issue regarding the national identity of Montenegrins. In this context, the statement made by the Metropolitan of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Mihailo, after the developments is noteworthy. Mihailo claims that, with the signing of this agreement, the Montenegrin state and national identity will no longer exist. He stated that Montenegro has now become a part of Serbia. While these words are striking, they are alarming. For Miahilo’s words have a grain of truth.
Eventually, religion in the Balkans maintains its influence in the political arena. In other words, policies and decisions shaped by theo-strategic dimensions are extremely common in this geography. The bond between the public, the church, and decision-makers is extremely strong. For this reason, Serbia, which utilises the SPC very well, maintains its presence in Montenegro through the SPC. Although the parties broke up in 2006, Serbia maintains its place and influence in Montenegro. One should not look past that; today, although Serbia under the leadership of Aleksander Vucic is observed reiterating the discourse of cooperation, Vucic’s ultra-nationalist years remain in the memory. Because the “Great Serbia Project” is still the first item on the secret agenda of Serbian nationalists.
In particular, Serbs do not see the Montenegrins as a separate nation, but acknowledging them as Serbian is an indication of this. This poses a problem for Montenegro, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) country. Since Montenegro joined NATO, Russia’s influence in this country has decreased considerably and its elbowroom has narrowed.
On that note, in the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Russia can utilise Serbia and Montenegrin Serbs to cause instability by consolidating its elbowroom here, for Pan-Slavism still maintains its place among the Serbs. With this dimension of the developments, it does not only affect domestic politics, but also it is understood that it is a tension with international repercussions. Because, considering the influence of religious institutions and Serbia in Montenegro, it is always possible for the tension over both churches to turn into conflict. Within this context, one may argue that the recent developments in Montenegro may disrupt the balances in the Balkans by activating the frozen ethnic and national tensions in the region, thus creating a domino effect for the region that is already drifting towards instability.
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