While most countries in the world are struggling with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic and social consequences, the youngest NATO member, Montenegro, is dealing with other problems.
Those “problems” are its own citizens, Montenegrins and Serbs, Orthodox Christians, followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who make up the majority of population in this country and who have been protesting since December 26, 2019 against the adoption of the Montenegrin Law on Religious Freedom, which practically allows the confiscation of the canonical Serbian Orthodox Church’s property, and ceding it to a the non-canonical and unrecognized “Montenegrin Orthodox Church”.
While the Montenegrin authorities haven’t really demonstrated much capability in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, they did show that they have a great potential for carrying out their western bosses’ orders. Namely, while Russian and Chinese experts helped Serbia deal with the coronavirus outbreak and its consequences, the Montenegrin authorities wouldn’t even consider asking Russia for help. Instead, they turned to NATO, which they joined in 2017, without holding a referendum. They also refused an offer from Serbia, which, despite its own problems with the procurement of medical equipment, suggested donating three respirators to this country during the pandemic. In return, they didn’t receive any of the much-needed medical equipment from NATO, only an offer for “taxi services”. This was also confirmed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who in April, answering a question about NATO’s assistance to Montenegro, said that they offered the service of transporting equipment from China.
However, the inability to fight the virus, certainly didn’t mean that they weren’t able to fight against their own people and so-called political dissidents. Thus, on April 12, they arrested the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Amfilohije, for holding a liturgy in a practically empty church where a small number of believers gathered following social-distancing rules. On April 23 they arrested the leader of the Democratic Front party Andrija Mandic for attending the funeral of a famous historian Vladimir Jovicevic. Maybe the real reason behind this arrest lies in the fact that the deceased was the father of the former Minister of Police Andrija Jovicevic who later became one of the biggest opponents of the Montenegrin president and oligarch Milo Djukanovic.
The terror against the Orthodox believers and the clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church continued, even after easing of restrictive measures introduced due to the coronavirus outbreak was announced. On May 12, after the ban on large gatherings was lifted, the people in the northern town of Niksic organized a peaceful procession on their own initiative, in order to show their disagreement over the purge of the SOC. A few hours after the procession, the Montenegrin police arrested Bishop Joanikije along with eight priests, for allegedly disrespecting the rules during the procession. This caused an even greater revolt among the people, so on May 13, several liturgies and rallies in support of the arrested priests were organized throughout Montenegro. Tens of thousands of citizens attended rallies in Niksic, Budva, Pljevlja, Berane and other towns. The Montenegrin police responded to this with unprecedented brutality. In Niksic, they even arrested minors, and beat up a 16-year-old girl who was just trying to find her brother in all that chaos. In Podgorica, a man was arrested for having Serbian tricolor flag with him. In Pljevlja, seven policemen beat up a man, and a minor was injured during the conflict. At the same time, a Montenegrin analyst Bosko Vukicevic was arrested for supporting the protests.
They detained a journalist of the Belgrade newspaper “Novosti”, Velisa Kadic, whom the police previously pepper sprayed and forced to delete all the recorded material from his mobile phone. Bishop Joanikije was released from custody after 72 hours of the continuous protests in front of the prosecutor’s office building in Niksic. Political analysts interpret this situation and the excessive use of force as the growing nervousness of the leader of that country, Milo Djukanovic. Even the faith of the talks, initiated by Prime Minister Dusko Markovic before the pandemic, between the Montenegrin authorities and the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church is now uncertain. Although these talks did not yield any tangible results, they nevertheless represented and gave hope for a peaceful way of resolving the crisis and de-escalation of tensions. But after such an excessive use of force by the police towards the people, the road to uncertainty and possible escalation is now open.
In short, the crisis in the country began as a church crisis, but it turned into a democracy crisis, because Milo Djukanović persistently ignored the will of the majority of the people who protested peacefully.
Due to the crisis that arose after the arrest of Bishop Joanikij and all the events related to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, representatives of Serbian political, cultural and intellectual circles requested a conversation with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. After the talks, the President of Serbia said May 14 that Serbia cannot interfere in any way but “will remain by our people and the church as much as we can”. Vucic said that the Serbian representatives from Montenegro conveyed their fears regarding the future of the Serbian people in that country:
“During the conversation, a concern was voiced – that someone might plan to solve the problem in the same way it was solved in other parts of former Yugoslavia. I do not believe, nor do I want to believe that someone’s planning it, but I’m still worried as the president of Serbia”, said Vucic.
What did the representatives of the Serbs in Montenegro mean when they expressed fear that some might want to “solve the problem” the same way as in other countries of the former Yugoslavia? What they had in mind is the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia during the Croatian military operations “Storm” and “Flash” (in 1995), when about 250,000 Serbs were expelled from their homes, and more than 2,000 civilians were killed or are still listed as missing.
It is interesting to note that the Montenegrin leadership claims that there has not been a single case of coronavirus infection in this country for almost two weeks now, and that since the beginning of the pandemic they’ve had only a total of 324 infected, 9 have died and 311 have been cured. Whether these are accurate data or not we cannot know at the moment, but we know that Montenegro is the only country in the Balkans that refused Serbia’s help, and never even asked it from Russia, a historical ally of this Balkan country. In return, they received nothing from their West. With the help of Russia and China, Serbia is successfully fighting against the coronavirus and its economic consequences. On the other hand the Montenegrin authorities are not doing anything to suppress the economic consequences. They have not helped the private sector or the economy as a whole, and they do not have a well-thought-out strategy for the country’s recovery. With an attitude like this, they are putting in danger the already uncertain tourist season. The head of the State Duma committee for the development of civil society and issues of public and religious associations, Sergei Gavrilov, stated that due to repressive measures in Montenegro, it is not certain that Russia will resume air traffic with that country.
All this can cause additional dissatisfaction among the people and lead to a worsening of the economic and social environment. Financial flows in Montenegro have two sources – a legal and an illegal; tourism being the legal and drug trafficking the illegal one. The population lives from tourism, and smuggling remains the source of income for the pyramidal ruling apparatus in Montenegro. Since the tourist season will probably collapse due to the pandemic and internal destabilization, a great dissatisfaction can be expected among the population. As for the other source of money, during the previous months, its ground is currently shaky. An example of this is the seizure of 500 kilograms of cocaine in Hamburg from a ship owned by Montenegro, which, although leased, is certainly an indication that something is happening in Montenegro in that regard. The case of the seizure is being investigated by the European police, as well as some American agencies. If the income from that side is cut off, there will be less money for the maintenance of the governing apparatus. So, everything indicates the start of an overall crisis, not only considering the church, protests, the security aspect, and the opening of a series of investigations into scandals, but also the worsening of the economic and social environment. Since Montenegro proclaimed independence in 2006, it has been almost entirely in the service of the United States. In 2008, under American pressure, they recognized the independence of the so-called Kosovo, and in 2014, the authorities of this country were among the first to impose sanctions on Russia, although Russia was the largest investor in Montenegrin tourism and economy after 2006.The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro remains by far the only institution that the puppet regime failed to bring under control after the declaration of independence and after joining NATO, according to some estimates, against the will of about 85% of the citizens. The adoption of the Law on Religious Freedom in December 2019 was the final blow to the church and Orthodox believers in this country.
It is difficult to predict the further development of the situation and the fate of Serbs and Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. But one thing is clear. The coronavirus pandemic showed that western countries had little or no solidarity during the crises, and they demonstrated little capability to cope with the pandemic. At the same time, Western Balkans countries would hardly be able to cope with it without Russian and Chinese aid. After all this, we can only observe the weakening of the western influence in the Balkans, not only in Serbia but also in other neighboring countries, which is why the Montenegrin authorities feel that they might be in big trouble. Internally, the land and resources have been sold to the West, and externally, they have been in a vassal position throughout their rule. Unable to solve any real problems, faced with the consequences of the virus and dissatisfaction of its citizens, they are resorting to repressive measures against their own people. Judging by the number of citizens that can be seen in the streets every day, it seems that they have little chance of success. It remains to be seen whether this might turn out to be the one of the final steps in the collapse of Western influence in the Balkans.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.