Church crisis as a turning point in Montenegrin politics?
The political landscape of the Western Balkans makes up a mosaic of unique governmental anomalies. It includes an abstruse, identity-determined Bosnian executive administration led by a tripartite presidential organ, the recent struggles of (North) Macedonians to find the least disputable name for their state, and the question of Kosovo’s independent status, which still being denied by almost half of the countries of the world. In such an array of political hallmarks that infamously adorn pages of textbooks on identity and democracy, the main topic of this article, Montenegro, could not just remain unmentioned. Despite a highly challenging competition from its neighbours, Podgorica can boast about having the longest (on a European scale) ruling statesman. Understanding the recipe for the political success of Milo Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), which has been exercising power for the previous thirty years, will be the key to comprehend the sources of the currently ongoing crisis.
At the end of December 2019, the Montenegrin Parliament approved a law that stirred up everyone and led to the scuffles inside as well as outside the building. The legal attempt regarding regulation of church properties’ status was taken unequivocally as a direct attack against religion and its followers. According to the new law, every religious community is obliged to prove the ownership of its properties acquired before 1918. Otherwise, they will be nationalised by the state treasury. The ferment was induced by the fact that Serbian Orthodox Church, being the biggest religious organisation in Montenegro, possesses numerous monasteries and lands that date back to the late Middle Ages, the time when modern deeds of ownership were simply inexistent. Thus, a common fear of losing sacred, material heritage has caused protest and destabilised the country for the past two months, while the fuel for resistance does not seem to be drying up soon. Nevertheless, keeping in mind the experience of ruling elites, proven by their perennial durability and immunity to any crisis, one has a convincing argument to claim that the current emergency is simply one of many that will wither away following some vague agreements and flow of time. On the other hand, I will attempt to investigate and evaluate the extent of which the ongoing church crisis can menace the position of Milo Đukanović and prove to be the turning point for Montenegrin modern history. For this, I would like to mention that current demonstrations go fairly beyond the context of a traditional struggle for power within a single state, whereas the issues of relations with Serbia, the question of Montenegrin identity, and regional geopolitics together make the case extraordinary.
Undoubtedly, maintaining power for such a long period seems to be an impressive achievement. Since the beginning of the nineties, Đukanović managed to steer four different constitutional entities, while smoothly switching stances from communist, to nationalist, to democratic, and perfectly adjusting to the wider context around. The last thirty years were simultaneously marked by an incredible number of challenges including economic embargos, NATO bombardments in 1999, an arduous transition towards independence, and an alleged 2016 coup attempt. Despite these, Đukanović has survived. However, the recipe for success, as it is easy to guess, is far from democratic. In fact, Montenegro did not have even a chance to undergo any form of a political transition, whereas administration measures date back to golden times of Titoist Yugoslavia. A peculiar mixture of obsolete governance with widespread corruption, organised crime, and rigged privatisation explains why the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project called Đukanović the corrupted Person of the Year. With a subordinated judiciary, controlled enterprises, and mechanisms to threaten and detain unfavourable journalists, Đukanović already enjoys immense power, whereas the governmental endeavour to take control over the biggest, well-trusted and independent organisation, namely the Serbian Orthodox Church, makes his actions quite clear in the light of upcoming parliamentary elections this autumn. This time, however, Đukanović has underestimated the potential effect of identity and religion. What is interesting when it comes to the Montenegrin civil society is that the attempt of weakening the church’s position was able to stir much more defiance than any other corruption scandal, electoral fraud or violation of human rights.
The other aspect, essential for understanding the church crisis, concerns the history of Montenegro being inextricably connected with Serbia. To put it simply, Montenegro always tends to stand on the Serbian side of any political issue that includes common defiance and mutual aid against Ottoman rule, support for unification and state building of first and second Yugoslavia, or the outright loyalty to the Milošević regime during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. The extent of the relationship can be noticed in the case of the Petrović-Njegoš dynasty from the XVIII and XIX centuries that, beyond ruling semi-independent Montenegrin tribes, served as Serbian orthodox bishops. As a consequence, both nations share nowadays a bulk of cultural heritage, enshrine common protagonists and heroes, and celebrate similar traditions. One of the most important reasons for final detachment from the federation with Serbia in 2006 stems already from the burden put by the centralist policies of Milošević who practically excluded Podgorica from the decision-making process in Belgrade. Costs of embargos, isolation, NATO bombings and Serbian internal instability after the fall of Milošević in 2000 finally outweighed the unionists and encouraged a small majority of 55% to advocate for independence in the 2006 referendum, believing that a smaller entity had more potential for a quicker economic redevelopment. Peaceful separation was followed by a series of serious rifts with Serbian national interests through the recognition Kosovo’s independence in 2008 and joining NATO in 2017. Whereas the two previous cases were passively approved in Belgrade, deemed as lost a priori and not worth a long haul, this time Serbia would not withhold that quickly. Beyond providing detriment to the Serbian political interests, church law simultaneously exasperates Belgrade by tacking such issues as the future of sizeable and valuable lands and mansions, and the status of rights of people who declare Serbian identity. Unsurprisingly, intensified presence of Serbian politicians in Montenegro led to accusations of infringement on national integrity and sovereignty while mutual relations were affirmed to be the worst since the 2006 referendum. President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, must bear in mind though that the Montenegrin game has two sides, whereas pushing the limits in destabilising and weakening the power of Đukanović can menace his own personal position in Belgrade. Although, it is hard to imagine that any measures might be taken soon, Serbia has to be aware of being accused of mingling in the internal affairs of a NATO member, thus infringing on the cornerstone of the defensive alliance. Secondly, Vučić and Đukanović are gambling on the same scenario of conducting a corrupted and captured state, not once supporting and legitimising each other in undemocratic endeavours, while a potential wave of revolution after the fall of Đukanović might ultimately hit Serbia as well.
Let us have a look now on the issue of a separate Montenegrin national identity. It remains a tricky concept that is passionately argued by nationalistic politicians, newspapers and academics, while the number of arguments easily suffices to support or deny the claim. Applying the theory of cultural nationalism provides a hard nut to crack for supporters of Montenegrin identity while sharing with Serbia a common religion, language, customs and history. The degree of politicisation of the Montenegrin national idea is accurately demonstrated in censuses from both Yugoslavias. Whereas for the sake of the unitary first Yugoslav state a common identity was promoted, over 80% of people living in Montenegro declared themselves as Serbs, twenty years later when the new communist authorities preached the existence of Montenegrin identity, the same 80% of people right away turned into Montenegrins. For Đukanović, acting as the main architect of national identity, the takeover of the Serbian church is a natural process in his state building project. Although artificial separation of language or renationalisation of history and public education were passively accepted, impetuous reaction towards the church laws showed the enormous role that Serbian church is still playing as well as the little support for potential autocephaly that would follow the Ukrainian scenario.
The last point worth mentioning is the international position of Đukanović. One of the key strategies DPS has been performing since repainting its slogans into pro-Western and pro-European ones regards successful convincing the EU and US of the alleged dichotomy of domestic political stage. Đukanović has been playing the same card for almost twenty years, legitimising his decisions in the eyes of Western diplomacy, based on the choice between his pro-European stance, and pro-Serbian and pro-Russian unpredictable demons willing to establish a hostile confederation with Moscow. For the price of dragging the country into the arms of NATO, Đukanović gained legitimacy to turn his country into a private, kleptocratic grange, defined by Open Democracy in terms of a Montenegrin Putinism that aptly reveals the scale of Western hypocrisy. This time however, Đukanović cannot enjoy such a convenient position as previously. After an unprecedented common plea resonating from Moscow, Constantinople and the Vatican to withdraw the church laws, the EU impartially restrains itself from the turmoil and solely encourages a peaceful dialogue.
There is a lot of claims to argue that the current emergency in Montenegro is different. Indeed, the extent of public resistance and dramatic relations with Belgrade, hazardous manoeuvring with identity politics or his lack of international support put Đukanović and his DPS in a tricky condition on the verge of the electoral campaign. His skills and experience should determine whether the ongoing church crisis can turn out to be a turning point in Montenegrin modern history.