Montenegro’s problematic relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church

Religion brought down another government in Montenegro, whose reformist prime minister paid the price for making “overtures” to Serbia.

Montenegro’s government was toppled at the end of August – just four months after taking office – after reaching a highly controversial agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The agreement regulates relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest in Montenegro, including its ownership of real estate, and the state.

Prime Minister Dritan Abazović, who has vowed to step up the country’s fight against corruption, nepotism and organized crime, reached the “fundamental” deal with the church behind closed doors on August 3 in what Tanya Domi , adjunct professor at Columbia University and a Balkan expert, said was an overture to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.

The Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), a member of the ruling coalition, immediately turned its back on Abazović, triggering a vote of no confidence. The country’s 81-member legislature passed the no-confidence motion by 50 votes to one. Domi says even some Abazović supporters did not support the deal.

Montenegro’s politics have long been marked by divisions between those who identify as Montenegrins, who are largely pro-Western, and the Muscovite-leaning Serbs who oppose the independence of the Adriatic republic. Montenegro separated from Serbia in 2006 but its church remained under the control of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Montenegro has already signed several other “fundamental agreements” with smaller religious communities, the Catholic Church in 2011, and the Islamic and Jewish communities in 2012. But no agreement had so far been reached with the church. Serbian Orthodox.

According to DPS leader Milo Đukanović, who is also the country’s president, the agreement relinquishes “part of Montenegro’s sovereignty”.

Tanya Domi says Đukanović’s criticism may have some substance.

“There are many valid criticisms of President Đukanović regarding corruption, nepotism, political attacks on media freedom. And for these reasons, it is clear that most other political parties will not form a coalition with the DPS,” she said.

“But without a doubt, Đukanović has never bowed to Belgrade since Montenegro’s independence like Abazović did when he bowed to Vučić in that private signing ceremony with the Serbian Orthodox Church.”

Domi adds that Abazović did not listen to what his advisers were saying and instead committed “political self-sabotage”.

New elections or a new government?

Abazović’s government will continue to operate on an interim basis until a new government is formed.

But Domi says his sources say new elections are much more likely.

Abazović’s future is therefore unclear. He championed the deal as a way to end longstanding property disputes with the church and move on to other issues.

Critics say the deal undermines Montenegro’s national interests, describing it as a tool for Serbia and Russia to increase their influence in the country.

Upon taking office in April, Abazović, 36 and an ethnic Albanian, became the first-ever Montenegrin prime minister from an ethnic minority group. An LSE alumnus, he was seen as a promising progressive leader who rose to power through his anti-corruption and pro-European integration rhetoric.

Now, after the agreement with the church, many things are uncertain; even Albanian lawmakers voted to remove him from office. Professor Domi says she doesn’t expect him to return as prime minister anytime soon.

She says she was “amazed” by his remarks in July at a ceremony commemorating the Srebrenica massacre where he said the atrocity was not committed against Bosnian Muslims but against the “people”.

While he later apologized, Domi suggests that Abazović “missed his chance” on the big stage and positioned himself towards Belgrade.

Why is the agreement with the church so problematic?

The agreement with the Orthodox Church of Serbia obliges the Montenegrin state to

register all Orthodox churches and monasteries as church property and begin a process of restitution of church property nationalized or confiscated by Yugoslav communist authorities after World War II.

It also obliges Montenegro to seek permission from the Serbian Church before allowing other Orthodox churches to be built in the country (including by Montenegro’s own Orthodox Church), while Orthodox religious education can be regulated in public schools.

In December 2019, the DPS effectively transferred the ownership of Serbian Orthodox Church buildings and estates built before 1918 (when the Montenegrin State was abolished and united with the Kingdom of Serbia) to the Orthodox Church of Montenegro. It was later partially reversed following widespread protests by Serbian-oriented Montenegrins.

According to a 2011 census, 72% of Montenegrins identify as Orthodox Christians, of which around 70% follow the Serbian Orthodox Church; the others follow the rival Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is not recognized as canonical by other Orthodox churches.

About a third of Montenegro’s population of 620,000 identify as Serbian. Political and religious struggles in the country have slowed European Union integration efforts, although Montenegro became a NATO member in 2017.

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