Up to 40 citizens were left injured after riots erupted in Montenegro earlier this month. Protesters sought to prevent the inauguration of Bishop Joanikije as the new head of Montenegro’s branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). The decision to hold the Bishop’s inauguration in Cetinje – Montenegro’s old royal capital that is considered a symbol of the nation’s struggle for independence from Serbia – was regarded as an insult by pro-independence protesters. The new leader of Montenegro’s SOC was flown into Cetinje by helicopter and ushered into the monastery surrounded by police with automatic rifles and bullet-proof shields. Meanwhile, police used tear gas to disperse Montenegrin protesters. In light of the ongoing tension between pro-Serbian and pro-independence factions in Montenegro, Politika News spoke with Montenegrin political analyst and former Deputy Mayor of Budva, Ljubomir Filopović. What does an independent identity mean for Montenegrins? Who stands to gain from political divide in the nation? And why is the struggle for Montenegrin sovereignty of global concern? Filopović tells all to Politika News.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, you stated that the recent protests in Cetinje are the result of ‘a 2-year campaign by the Serbian Orthodox Church’ and its ‘hate campaign that produced great interethnic tensions in Montenegro.’ What has this campaign looked like?
I was referring to the church protest movement that was triggered when the Law on the Freedom of Religion passed by the Montenegrin Parliament in December 2019.
The religious mass processions in Montenegrin streets were followed by an aggressive media campaign which was coming from Serbia and Russia. The Digital Forensic Center of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro did several researches and detected more than 10 000 negative articles about Montenegro in Serbian media only in the first couple of months of the religious mass processions (lities).
Social networks were another tool where trolls and bots on Facebook and Twitter were coordinated through Telegram chats called “New age chetniks” and “Bunt Montenegro” for example. Some of the nationalist troll pages admins were praised in SOC publications, and some of them were even decorated officially by the head of the SOC in Montenegro recently.
They were rewarded for naming and shaming people opposing the SOC, using memes and satire to hide their true far-right agenda. They were spreading disinformation, using ethnic slurs against Albanians, Bosniaks and Montenegrins, calling for genocide. There were some examples of antisemitism in their campaign too.
You also state in the same interview that this was a campaign supported by both Belgrade and Moscow, with Montenegro being a ‘playground’ for ‘hybrid warfare’. Can you explain what you meant by this?
After the failed and cartoonish coup attempt in 2016, Russians got smarter, and they’re keeping a low profile in Montenegro, and they have been mostly using Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church as the extended hand of their influence.
The mass processions I mentioned earlier were greatly supported by Russian and Serbian media, state and non-state actors. Russophilia in both Serbia and Montenegro is not a new phenomenon, it has been present here for centuries and occasionally exploited by Russians when they have had interest to meddle in Balkan affairs. Montenegro joining NATO was one of the events that have triggered this Russian reaction. Now the crisis between the Moscow and Constantinople Patriarchate over Ukraine is another issue in which Russian interests have been directly involved.
Russia is using the same tactics they have been using in the West to influence political processes and elections. Media, propaganda, disinformation campaigns directed at raising ethnic tensions and playing with identity politics.
For those in Montenegro who wish to defend a Montenegrin identity separate from Serbia, do closer ties with the rest of Europe form part of that identity? Or should we understand this Montenegrin identity as something else entirely?
Montenegrin separate identity is closely connected with the idea of Montenegro as a sovereign multiethnic nation. The alternative is a Serbian identity based on alleged Serbian ethnicity and a dominance of the Orthodox religion.
The division within Montenegro’s Orthodox majority (75% of the total population) is not an ethnic one. There are no Montenegrin or Serbian villages in Montenegro, there are no Serbian or Montenegrin families like in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo where you have clear ethnic lines between communities. There is no single family in Montenegro that has no people who are identifying themselves either as Serbs or as Montenegrins. It is more an identity and political issue.
As pro-independence protesters were teargassed by police, the new Metropolitan of Montenegro Joanikije II and the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije were flown into Cetinje in an army helicopter, and ushered into the monastery surrounded by officers with automatic rifles. What are the political ramifications of these events for the current pro-Serbian government and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC)?
The SOC won the elections for the then opposition last year. Their campaign and mass processions were the much-needed rallying point that was missing for years. For these reasons they were allowed to choose key people in today’s government. From the Prime Minister to the Head of National Security, Minister of Justice, Education, Science, Urbanism and so forth.
Therefore, the government is now torn between the SOC, the Vučić-controlled part of the ruling majority, and the influence of our Western allies and partners. When it comes to Vučić, they [the current government] are not fully submitting to his demands, nor are they when it comes to the West, even though they are careful not to cross red lines. It seems they are only fully subservient to the SOC, and the enthronement was one of the proofs of that.
The incumbent Prime Minister, Zdravko Krivokapic, called the protests ‘terrorist acts’ by the country’s opposition. Deputy Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic, has accused Montenegro’s opposition parties of organising the protest as a means of introducing ‘permanent destabilisation’. Could recent events in Cetinje strengthen a coalition government that includes both right-wing nationalists and self-proclaimed progressive greens?
The protests are a result of an awakening of a civil society in Montenegro. The opposition joined them reluctantly after great pressure from the public. Former ruling elites are perceived by the majority of the protestors as one of the main culprits for the dominance of the Serbian Orthodox Church today. During the last protests on September 12th, Montenegrin writer Andrej Nikoalidis said in his speech that the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) should be blamed for the current situation too because they have been turning a blind eye to the SOC’s wrongdoings for years just to preserve their three decades-long rule.
Most of Serbian civil society, politicians both in power and in opposition, are trying to portray the protests as a nationalistic movement aimed at defending Djukanović’s legacy, protecting organized crime and so forth. This is complete BS to be very clear. Sure, DPS and other opposition parties play an important role in the protest movement, but genuinely the protests are always organized spontaneously as a reaction to some provocative government decision. It is composed of more than 20 formal and informal organisations coming from different backgrounds: left, right, LGBTQ+ rights organisations, Montenegrin Church, liberals, nationalists. A colourful and, to be honest, not well-organised and coherent movement.
Today’s government has its own issues and they are now experiencing one of the most intense crises since their formation, and it is not related to the protests at all. The problems they are experiencing are mostly power play between the parties in power. Some of them are not satisfied with the current setting and are calling for the reshuffle of the cabinet.
What is the ‘Serbian World’ and can it be linked to the recent events in Cetinje?
The ‘Serbian World’ is a concept loosely based on the ‘Russian World’ and it emerged during the church protests in Montenegro, when most of the Serbs from Serbia, the East Balkan region and diaspora became focused on what was happening in Montenegro. If you listen to the Serbian Interior Minister who is using the term often, the ultimate goal of the concept is a “political union” of all Serbs in the region. If this is the case, then it is nothing more than another rebranding of the “Greater Serbia” idea.
A recent article in Euronews referred to the ongoing tensions in Montenegro as ‘the last Yugoslav crisis’. Daliborka Uljarevic, Executive Director of Montenegro’s Center for Civic Education, says problems that were previously an internal issue for Montenegro ‘have now been spilt outside of our borders.’ How do you think we should view the situation in Montenegro?
The battle of identities was never an internal issue for Montenegro.
Our internal differences were always exploited and induced by the SOC and Serbia. It was not an internal issue in 1991 when Montenegro was completely manipulated into becoming a puppet state of the Milošević regime.
What is happening now closely resembles the late 80’s in Former Yugoslavia, the so-called “happenings of the people”, the revival of Serbian nationalism that pushed Yugoslavia into bloodshed. Same rhetorics, same ideas, same messages coming from Belgrade. Montenegro became part of the Milošević sphere of influence when the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” removed the Yugoslav loyalist Communist leaders from power on an anti-corruption agenda.
Just like today, some of the progressive democratic forces in the country were used and manipulated just to secure Milošević’s full control over Montenegro. When they realized what happened a few years later it was too late to do something.
Politika News would like to thank Mr. Filipović for his time.
Readers can learn more about the protests here.
Article Image Source: Pixabay