OPINION - Déjà vu: Assessing the recent political tensions in Montenegro

The protests represent a continuation of Djukanovic’s time-tested strategy of polarizing Montenegrin society and of raising the specter of greater Serbian nationalism to rally ethnic Montenegrin and minority voters behind him

Dr. İdlir Lika   | 17.09.2021
OPINION - Déjà vu: Assessing the recent political tensions in Montenegro

The writer is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Gelisim University


Montenegro was rocked by a wave of violent protests and clashes during the weekend on September 4-5, 2021. The immediate spark to the protests was the enthronement ceremony of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s new Metropolitan Joanikije II, an event that was held in the monastery located in Montenegro’s old royal capital of Cetinje. Cetinje was also the seat of the last Montenegrin dynasty of Petrovici before the country was forcefully annexed by Serbia in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and has been throughout a stronghold of Montenegrin nationhood. Hence, choosing the Cetinje monastery as the site for the Serbian Orthodox Church’s enthronement ceremony was considered by Montenegrin nationalist and opposition groups as an affront to the country’s hard-won independence from Serbia and its political sovereignty. Hundreds of protesters tried to stop the enthronement ceremony by setting up roadblocks and burning tires along the road that leads to Cetinje, and they engaged in violent clashes with the police. The Serbian Orthodox Church eventually canceled the citizen gathering for the ceremony, Montenegrin Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic announced that he also would not attend, and Metropolitan Joanikije II had to be transported by army helicopters to the Cetinje monastery, where the enthronement eventually took place.

The opposition led by the former ruling party of President Milo Djukanovic, Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), strongly supported the protesters, accused the police of applying excessive violence, and most importantly, lambasted the ruling coalition of trying to undermine Montenegrin independence. The government, on the other hand, charged that Djukanovic’s DPS was trying to stage a coup by stirring up inter-ethnic tensions in the country. Under pressure from the dominant coalition partner, the Serbian party Democratic Front (DF), Premier Krivokapic accused the interior minister and police chief of hesitating to break up the protests. This in itself caused a crack within the ruling coalition as the smallest coalition partner, the small Montenegrin civic party URA (led by the Albanian Dritan Abazovic, who is also the deputy prime minister), threatened to bring down the government if the interior minister and police chief were dismissed. Finally, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic also accused the Montenegrin government of weakness in confronting the protesters. What to do with all this? Who is to blame for the most recent escalation of inter-ethnic tensions in the tiny former Yugoslav republic?

To start with, it bears emphasis that the most recent tensions in Montenegro have nothing to do with religion. It should not be difficult for seasoned observers of Montenegrin politics to conclude that these protests represent a continuation of Djukanovic’s time-tested strategy of polarizing Montenegrin society and of raising the specter of greater Serbian nationalism to rally ethnic Montenegrin and minority (Albanian, Bosniak/Muslim, and Croat) voters behind him. Now that the DPS has lost its parliamentary majority in parliament for the first time in 30 years (in the most recent August 2020 general election), this strategy has become more useful than ever for Djukanovic. Indeed, DPS had actually been inflaming political tensions in the country weeks before the enthronement ceremony in Cetinje. Its former police chief and current advisor to Djukanovic, Veselin Veljovic, publicly called on Montenegrins to block the enthronement ceremony since mid-August. Quite significantly also, many of the protesters who clashed with the police and erected roadblocks were thugs and DPS henchmen.

DPS’ interest in stirring up inter-ethnic tensions in the country is clear. It aims to cause cracks within the ruling coalition and take the country to early elections, from which it aims to re-emerge triumphant. The ruling coalition is already very fragile and has only a razor-thin majority over DPS and its allies in parliament (41 to 40 seats). The position of URA (with only four parliamentary seats) among the two Serbian coalition partners is very uneasy and makes the government prone to collapse at any time. As already stated above, the recent events in Cetinje have already generated ill feelings between URA and its two Serbian partners over the police response to the protesters, and it is now widely believed that only a reshuffle of the Cabinet can avert early elections in Montenegro. Judging from this, Djukanovic’s gamble seems to have paid off.

However, DPS should have learned from the last August 2020 election that the polarizing strategy can also backfire. Indeed, DPS lost its parliamentary majority in that election largely because of the popular mobilization of the Orthodox population over the controversial 2019 “Law on Religious Freedom” – that allows the Montenegrin state to take over the property of any religious community that cannot prove ownership of its assets before 1918. For the first time, the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro publicly threw its weight behind the then opposition coalition led by DF and this proved crucial in ending DPS’s uninterrupted 30-year rule. In a nutshell, there is no guarantee that the recent political tensions generated by the violent clashes in Cetinje will be a winning card for Djukanovic in the event Montenegrins vote in snap polls.

All this is not to absolve the ruling coalition of any fault. To be sure, the greater Serbian ideology of the dominant party within the coalition (DF) and its close links with Belgrade are also great sources of instability in Montenegrin politics. A good case can be made that Serbian President Vucic also cashed in on the recent violent clashes in Cetinje. By accusing the government of weakness in confronting the protesters, Vucic wants to have a greater say over Montenegrin politics. Commenting on the events in Cetinje, prominent Montenegrin political analyst Ljubomir Filipovic even tweeted that “Montenegro is under occupation. After today’s and yesterday’s events, it is clear that the Church of Serbia and the Serbian government share power over the decisions of the Montenegrin government. This government has to go!” I believe there is a good dose of exaggeration in these comments, but they are not entirely groundless.

To conclude, the recent violent clashes in Cetinje are mainly Djukanovic and DPS’s fault. It is important to note that the DPS thrives on domestic and regional instability, as well as the potential revival of greater Serbian ideology. However, instability perfectly suits the interests of Belgrade and its satellite entity in Bosnia also, Republika Srpska. Despite the outwardly hostile rhetoric among them, what unites Vucic, Djukanovic, and Milorad Dodik is a common interest in perpetuating regional instability.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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