Can Europe Make It?

The politics of worship in Montenegro

“The entire Democratic Front Caucus was taken away from the parliament building in two police vans, while the remaining MPs voted unanimously to adopt this legislation.”

Srdja Pavlovic
22 January 2020
Podgorica, Montenegro, January 10, 2020.
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Vijesti/ Luka Zekovic All rights reserved.

Conflicting views of the state-building process and the fight between Serbian and Montenegrin nationalisms are both the reason for and the context in which to analyze the current crisis in Montenegro.

The current problems started once the government decided to fast-track the controversial Law on the Freedom of Worship. The leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro (SPC) and almost its entire flock as well as their political representatives interpreted this law as an attempt by the state to take away both their houses of worship and properties used by the SPC in Montenegro, and transfer the ownership to the recently reconstituted Montenegrin Orthodox Church (CPC). It should be said that while the law in question has many weak points, it is far from obvious that its effect would confirm the darkest fears the SPC leadership and opposition politicians announced urbi et orbi.

Tempers flared as the MPs from the opposition Democratic Front (DF) disrupted the parliamentary session, destroyed the audio system, hurled insults at their political rivals, and threated to cut off the arms of those who would raise them to vote in favour of this law. The entire DF Caucus was then arrested and taken away from the parliament building in two police vans, while the remaining MPs voted unanimously to adopt this legislation.

What followed were daily protests by the followers of the SPC. Encouraged by their religious leaders, tens of thousands of believers have filled the streets of Montenegrin towns every night to voice their opposition to the adopted law and to castigate the government. Their ire was directed toward the ruling elite and the leaders and followers of the CPC.

Tens of thousands of believers have filled the streets of Montenegrin towns every night to voice their opposition to the adopted law and to castigate the government.

Historical context

Since 1997 the ruling elite had embraced the main tenets of Montenegrin nationalism and worked on reconstituting Montenegro as a sovereign and independent state, thus, re-establishing the continuity of statehood with the medieval proto-state formations of Doclea and Zeta. That continuity, they argued, had been broken when in 1918 Montenegro was annexed by Serbia following the gathering known as the Podgorica Assembly of the Serbian People in Montenegro. Reconstituting the CPC had been the essential part of this state-building process which reached its goal following the results of the May 2006 referendum on independence. Both the SPC and those who voted in 2006 against independence never recognized Montenegro’s new status, bitterly complained about its international recognition and referred to the CPC as a Satanist Cult.

The historical document relating to the pre-annexation status of the CPC, however, tells us a different story. Prior to the Podgorica Assembly and the subsequent annexation, the CPC was independent and autocephalous. It is listed as such in the Sintagma catalogue of Easter Orthodox churches (1851) and in a Catalogue published by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (Athens, 1855). Article 40 of the Constitution of the Principality of Montenegro (1905) proclaims Eastern Orthodoxy to be the state religion and the CPC to be autocephalous. Before 1918 the CPC had been led by the Holy Synod, and on the bases of the Constitution of the Holy Synod in the Principality of Montenegro (1903), The Constitution of the Eastern Orthodox Consistories in the Principality of Montenegro (19804) and the Law on Parish Priesthood in the Principality of Montenegro (1909).

Before the annexation, the state had the right of ownership over the church buildings and adjacent lands while the church had the right to use those. As was the case with his predecessors, Prince Nikola I Petrovic enjoyed such a right until the introduction of reforms in 1868. Following the annexation, the ruling elite in Serbia and the SPC justified their acquisition of church buildings and lands in Montenegro by characterising the Podgorica Assembly as a revolutionary act, and by referring to the meeting of Easter Orthodox dignitaries in the newly formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SHS) in May 1919.

The meeting known as the Gathering of All Serb Eastern Orthodox Archbishops decided that every Serb Orthodox eparchy should unite into one unit. That decision served as the basis for the June 1920 decree by the Regent Aleksandar Karadjordjevic announcing the unification of all Eastern Orthodox eparchies in the newly formed Kingdom which preceded the request to the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Constantinople for the elevating of this unified church to the level of Patriarchy.

The document issued on February 22, 1922 and signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Melentije IV, clarifies that the action taken was more in line with church economy (opportunism) than with canonical rules. The Royal Government of the Kingdom SHS had paid the fee of 1.5 million golden francs to the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Constantinople. It is unclear if the current government of Montenegro is either contemplating making a payment for the Tomos confirming the autocephalous status of the CPC, or if such a payment would have any pacifying effect on the ongoing crisis.

Timing and method

The most important question, however, is about timing and method: why now and why so hastily? The most obvious answer would be that this is an election year and political actors are trying to strengthen and stabilize their respective electoral bases. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition DF have, nevertheless, lost some of their political capital in the current crisis. For the ruling coalition, adopting a law in the parliament after the entire DF Caucus had been placed under arrest is not the shiniest example of democratic standards.

For the DF, encouraging violence, issuing threats to and hurling insults at political adversaries, and destroying furniture inside the main parliamentary chamber shows political desperation and emotional fragility. The DF have, without doubt, lost the greatest amount of political capital. They self-branded as radical opportunists whose political ear has for some time been turned towards Belgrade, and whose actions have been designed in coordination with the ruling elite from a neighbouring state. Moreover, the leadership of the SPC in Montenegro has denied the DF any future opportunity to fully articulate the popular discontent of the Serbs from Montenegro, which has isolated this political coalition even further.

The SPC is, de facto, the most significant opposition to the ruling coalition.

Well attended peaceful protests guided by the religious leaders and their distancing from political parties is a clear message that the SPC is, de facto, the most significant opposition to the ruling coalition. It is also clear that the head of the SPC in Montenegro, Metropolitan Amfilohije, will not allow anyone else to act as a leader of the Serbs from Montenegro. The SPC brought to the streets more people that any opposition party has managed to do over the last decade. This strength in numbers could be a useful negotiating tool when the SPC engages the Montenegrin government over the drafting and designing of a fundamental agreement between church and state.

The SPC has demonstrated its political strength and its ability to control the crowd on the streets of Montenegrin cities. Its leaders have stated that their primary objective is amending the law in question rather than toppling the government. The government, for its part, showed great restraint in deploying force against the protesters and expressed an interest in discussing the future ‘contract’ with the church. These are signs of de-escalation that could produce a political result beneficial to both the government and the SPC in Montenegro: and further marginalize the once very powerful Democratic Front.

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