The controversial law could backfire badly.
In many Slavic Orthodox countries, religion and politics are closely intertwined. This is the case in Montenegro, which is making international headlines with its controversial law on church property. It has been three years since Montenegro caught international attention when news surfaced about an alleged “Russian-backed” coup plot when Montenegro was on the verge of joining NATO. This time, the event is not any less contentious. The latest law, passed on December 27, is raising eyebrows across the region. Religious communities will have to provide evidence for ownership of their property – churches, monasteries, shrines etc. – that were built before 1918, when Montenegro lost its independence and became a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (and later took the name of Yugoslavia).
More than 70 percent of Montenegrin society is Orthodox Christian. However, this community is divided into two camps. About 70 percent of Orthodox Christians follow the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) whereas 30 percent follow the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC), founded in 1993 after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Although other Orthodox Churches do not recognise the MOC, it considers itself as the sole representative of Orthodox Christianity in Montenegro. It also claims that all Orthodox Christian property on Montenegrin soil should be its own, even though the SOC currently controls the majority of these properties. The rift between the two churches increased after 2006 when Podgorica gained independence from Belgrade following a narrowly-won referendum, which reflected then the deep divisions within society.
Although the Montenegrin state does not adopt an official religion, it has close ties with the MOC. In parallel to its nationalist discourse, Montenegrin authorities support the MOC against the SOC, as they consider the former more aligned with the state objectives. Hence, the opposition argues that the new law aims to weaken the SOC by transferring its properties to the MOC, labelling this legislation as a significant blow to freedom and human rights. Since its independence, Montenegro has been following a pro-Western path at the expense of its historical allies, Serbia and Russia. The Balkan nation joined NATO in 2017 and is in line for European Union membership.
The latest move of the Podgorica cannot be understood without considering the international implications of the issue. The state sees the SOC as a threat to its pro-Western and nationalist policies. According to Milo Dukanovic, who has been ruling the country since 1991, the SOC is undermining Montenegro’s statehood by promoting pro-Serb policies. Although relations between Montenegro and Russia are strained, large sections of Montenegrin society view Moscow’s policies favourably. In Montenegro, about 30 percent of the population is ethnically Serbian, and half of the total population are adherents of the SOC. This swath of the population is generally more sympathetic to Russia and Serbia than it is the West.
On the other hand, the SOC also follows controversial policies, which unsettles Podgorica. SOC Patriarch Irinej’s remarks in his recent visit to Montenegro drew a strong reaction from the Montenegrin officials. Irinej said, “We are one nation, although we are divided” referring to Serbs and Montenegrins as one nation, which is something that the Montenegrin government rejects. The SOC also enjoys close relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is viewed as a foreign policy tool of the Russian state with its nationalist and state-oriented policies. Russian President Putin is often on the receiving end of praise from the Russian Orthodox Church and the SOC. In Serbia, he even has a church named after him. Hence, SOC’s close collaboration with the ROC makes it an essential ally for Russia to exert influence not only in Serbia but also in Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia since Orthodox communities in these countries are also historically tied to the SOC.
Therefore, even though Montenegro has become a member of NATO, it is still a battlefield for influence between the West and Russia. This is evidenced by Russia’s harsh stance about Montenegro’s accession to NATO. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry stated that Montenegro’s NATO membership goes against historical traditions of friendship between Montenegrins on the one hand, and Serbs and Russians on the other side. The statement also said that half of the country’s population was opposed to NATO membership, highlighting the deep societal divisions on the issue. In fact, the Russia-Montenegro rift extends beyond political and media rhetoric. According to Montenegrin officials, Russia plotted a coup to overthrow the government and replace it with a pro-Russia one.
A close look at the Russian media also shows that Moscow is not happy with the latest church law. The Russian News Agency TASS reported a pro-Russian Montenegrin journalist and political commentator Igor Damjanovic’s statements saying that the latest law was “imposed on Montenegro by the United States.” Also, an op-ed in RT found the new law as a “vile lawless travesty.” The op-ed also criticised the US and the EU for staying silent on a bill that would oppress a religious community. It is clear that the Montenegrin government feels threatened with the SOC’s vast influence in the country and that the new law is aimed to curb its power within Montenegro’s borders. However, this new law will likely deepen polarisation in Montenegro, as the opposition will not accept the seizure of church properties.