Montenegro’s Elections: Great Serbia, Third Time the Charm?

Montenegro national flag
Credit: Lena Helfinger / Pixabay

After the Aug. 30 elections, Montenegro’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) lost power for the first time since 1991. The new government, satirically called “apostolic” due to its close connections to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), was formed on Dec. 02, 2020. Even though DPS officials were frequently accused of corruption and theft, those allegations never sufficed to push the DPS out of office.

The main reason behind DPS’s loss was Montenegro’s adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion, which mandated that all Serbian Church-owned property illegally taken away from Montenegro in 1918 be reclaimed. The move ignited mass protests and a Serbian-endorsed SOC campaign to overthrow the DPS-led government in the Orthodox-majority nation, finally opening up an opportunity for a third renewal of the “Greater Serbian” Project — Serbian annexation of neighboring states, historically attempted by assimilating neighboring peoples and ethnic cleansing.

Serbian Orthodox Church, Montenegro, and Serbia: A “Hate-Hate” Triangle

These three actors share an incredibly complex history with roots dating back to the 13th century. The Serbian Church is based in Belgrade, Serbia, and has a Metropolitanate (regional outpost) in Cetinje, Montenegro. The SOC is the only officially recognized Orthodox Church in Montenegro, giving it a religious “monopoly” over both Orthodox Montenegrins and Serbs, who comprise over 70% of the population.

The center in Belgrade was long under the control of the late Patriarch Irinej who was effectively a tool for the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić. The Metropolitanate was led by the late Metropolitan Amfilohije, who though he opposed Vučić, and had a lot of autonomy from Belgrade was still subordinate to the SOC.

Amfilohije also fiercely opposed the Montenegrin president and DPS leader, Milo Đukanović, who had even received Amfilohije’s endorsement during a tight 1997 presidential race.

However, after Montenegro regained independence from Serbia in 2006, the mountainous country took a radical foreign-policy turn: it looked to the West, became a NATO member, and the most prospective EU candidate.

And, ever since Montenegro recognized Kosovo’s independence, a region politically and religiously important to Serbs, tensions between the Montenegrin government on the one side, and the Serbian one and their Church (and Russia) on the other, intensified.

Though Vučić and Amfilohije shared strong disagreements, a common interest in ousting Đukanović’s DPS and installing the pro-Serbian Democratic Front (DF) instead, united them, leading to a collaboration between the SOC’s seat in Belgrade, its Metropolitanate in Montenegro, and Serbian president Vučić to achieve just that.

The Strategy of the Serbian Church: And then God said: “Let there be… protests?”

On Dec. 27, 2019, the Montenegrin government adopted the Law on Freedom of Religion. Threatened by the law, which would effectively eliminate the SOC’s influence in Montenegro, Amfilohije, demanded the Montenegrin government revoke the law, or else face an overthrow.

When the Montenegrin government refused to concede, the SOC instigated mass protests in almost all Montenegrin cities, starting in late December 2019 and lasting until the August elections, pausing briefly during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Initially, over 60,000 people, 10% of the country’s population, took to the streets. The SOC called the protests “lities” (a religious ritual in Eastern Orthodoxy where the Church holds prayers on the streets due to war, natural disasters, etc.) to mask their political intentions. During Summer 2020, in addition to instigating yet another wave of protests, SOC officials openly campaigned for the DF-led coalition “For the Future of Montenegro.”

The depth of the DF-SOC bond was so great that the SOC even chose DF’s candidate for the PM, current Montenegrin PM Zdravko Krivokapić. DF leaders frequently flew to Belgrade to meet with Vučić and Patriarch Irinej, on official Serbian government airplanes.

An avalanche of anti-Montenegrin, pro-SOC news articles was launched by Vučić-controlled media, over 10,000 pieces in a single year. In a Russian-style information war, the internet was flooded with fake news about the protests. 

These ranged from using fake images from unrelated protests in Washington to report that “hundreds of thousands” are protesting in Montenegro, reporting that the Police beat babies during the protests, all the way to reporting that Montenegrin and Kosovar armies were going to be deployed on the streets.

During the election year, Vučić also invested 1.5 million EUR in several Serbian associations in Montenegro, most of which was used to fund DF’s campaign. And, the SOC and Vučić had hundreds of bots patrolling the internet, leaving bitter, anti-Montenegrin comments everywhere. Days before the elections, outside SOC’s largest temple, Krivokapić led the Lord’s prayer and gave anti-DPS speeches. A car-rally in support of the Serbian parties in Montenegro was also organized in Serbia, with participants driving all the way to the Montenegrin border. President Vučić’s son, Danilo, was among the participants.

What Does Serbia Want: Greater Serbia, Third Time the Charm?

While their immediate purpose was to block the return of illegally seized church property to Montenegro, the SOC and Serbia have been meddling in Montenegro for over 170 years.

As the secret Serbian foreign policy plan from 1848, “The Draft,” reveals, Serbia’s ultimate goal is to reconquer the territories of the short-lived medieval Serbian Empire and gain Adriatic Sea access. 

Following the idea’s failure after WWII and in the NATO-led intervention during the brutal Yugoslav Wars of the ‘90s, Serbia renamed the idea of Greater Serbia as the “Serbian World” and continued pursuing it after Trump took office, due to his lack of understanding of the Balkans. This was implicitly confirmed by the Serbian Defense Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, who said that he “believes and hopes it is true.”

The more explicit confirmation of this comes from the Serbian intelligentsia based in the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. They have openly called for ethnic engineering in Montenegro ahead of the country’s 2021 census, paving the way for Serbian-Montenegrin reunification. 

The goal is to inflate the number of Serbs from 28% to over 50% by assimilating Montenegrins, who are projected to decrease from 45% to 25%.

Vučić announced that Serbia will interfere with the Montenegrin census to “encourage the Serbian people to declare as Serbs,” stating that the census is even more important than the elections. Recently, he denied the accusations, stating that Montenegro instead meddled in Serbian affairs by recognizing Kosovar independence. Yet, he implicitly called for Montenegrin constitutional reform to give Serbs special rights.

The SOC plays a key role today in realizing this re-unification process, as recognized by the Georgetown-founded CSIS Institute. CSIS called the SOC a Russian military instrument, because of its aggressive, anti-Western influence, that destabilizes the Balkans by working directly for Serbian and Russian interests.

The Success of the SOC: “Apostolic Government” Installed

After Amfilohije, with his immense influence, forced all the winning parties (led by DF) to support the new government in a secret meeting with the winning parties’ leaders at a monastery, the new government was successfully formed on Dec. 02, 2020.

Zdravko Krivokapić, the SOC-installed candidate, was chosen to be the PM. Most Ministers in his cabinet are intricately tied to the SOC. The pro-Montenegrin media called the government “apostolic” as a reference to this close connection, and an attempt to ridicule Krivokapić’s statement that the new government will have 12 Ministries, “just like the 12 apostles.” 

The new government announced it will change the law on church property, something analysts believe will prepare the way for assimilation ahead of the 2021 census, as “a stepping stone to the disappearance of Montenegro.”

Therefore, even though Serbia and Russia failed to realize their goals of making Montenegro exit NATO, just like their failure to assassinate Đukanović in a failed Russian-organized coup attempt in 2016 (to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO), the new government is still a major success for both Serbia and especially the SOC, in their attempts to create the “Serbian World.”

Just like having the SOC in Montenegro is an immense advantage to Serbia, so is having it in Kosovo and Bosnia, giving Serbia immense, destructive influence over these nations. This shows why the recognition of an independent Ukrainian Church was important to curb Russian influence and why the pending Macedonian one will be too. The strength of the Church in the Orthodox world is unparalleled. It is especially convenient to be used as an anti-Western tool, as demonstrated by the case in Montenegro.

Given the EU’s apparent lack of interest, the only hope left for the Montenegrins is the arrival of the Biden administration, seasoned in the messy Balkan geopolitical scene due to their contribution to ending the ‘90s Yugoslav wars, and a renewal of the American focus on the Balkan region.

America has stopped the creation of a “Greater Serbia” 30 years ago. Only the following few years will tell if it can stop it once again.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.