August 1, 2020 - Montenegro's power games between church and state may be about to create a Balkan explosion - this was the title given to Gawain Towler's comment published on July 31 in the UK broadsheet The Telegraph. Towler visited Montenegro last month, and his general conclusion is that "the state-sponsored persecution of the Serbian church in this scrap of Adriatic paradise could soon see mass civil unrest."
Gawain Towler served as Director of Communications for the Brexit Party until December 2019, and was previously Head of Press for the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group in the European Parliament (UKIP). A former journalist, he has had papers and articles published on European and International Development by the Centre for Policy Studies and elsewhere.
The email arrived in my inbox, breathlessly claiming that the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro is facing a, “state-sponsored campaign of persecution of Christians in the country and the demolition of their Church, one of the oldest in Europe”.
My interest piqued, partly because the very name is redolent of Ruritania; partly because the founder of my school in 1897, one Lex Devine, was half Montenegrin, whose habit of hiding in trees when the creditors came round populated my schoolboy imagination. Mostly, because it highlighted an article from Newsweek from June, co-authored by Steve Baker and Tim Farron, calling for Nato sanctions on the tiny ex-principality for the reasons above.
That these two, diametric opposite MPs were singing from the same song-sheet raised an eyebrow. In recent days negotiations between the Government and the Serbian Orthodox Church have broken down completely. These centre on a row between the Government of 30 years, led by former communist leader, hardman Milo Dukanovic and the church.
Today it is the only civil society focus of opposition to the Government. The epicentre of the dispute is the legal status of property owned by the church within December’s Religious Toleration legislation. The split is bluntly visible.
The leader of the church is the Metropolitan bishop of Montenegro and the Littoral, Amfilohije Radovic. A Serbian nationalist with a fine line in bloodcurdling curses who flings out excommunications with added malice and an interesting view of people to entertain, including Radovan Karadic, and the notorious warlord Arkan. His views on homosexual rights would raise hairs in Tunbridge Wells, let alone Soho.
What’s happening in this scrap of Adriatic paradise? And why are two decent men, on utterly different ends of the UK political spectrum, adding their weight to a cause backed by someone described to me by a former senior director of the Montenegrin secret service, who is no supporter of the Government, as “the most evil and dangerous man in the country”?
Hold on, Montenegro is peaceful, didn’t get involved in the awful bloodletting of the Yugoslav civil war, and most importantly is over 70% Christian, is a member of Nato and wants to join the EU. It would be madness for it to either persecute Christians or demolish churches. What’s going on?
At a loose end, Covid’s grip loosening and with friends who have been trying to get me to visit the place for years, I went. That my flight went via Milan and Warsaw gives an idea that the country, only 1100 miles away, is better reached by boat; the super yachts gleaming in its main marina, testify to this.
Montenegro has a cultural mix that puts any London suburb to shame, though it is almost entirely ethnically Slavic. History has left it with a huge variety of religions, Catholic, Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and the rest. Just over 50% are Serbian Orthodox, about 20% Montenegrin Orthodox, 20% Muslim, 5% Catholic and smaller numbers atheist – a hangover from communism, and other faith groups.
National borders cut right through cultural borders creating a multilayered patchwork, a three-dimensional powder keg. The current row centers on the Religious Toleration bill, which amongst other things requires all faith groups to register as such (or they cannot access state funding and so on, though they can still continue their religious activities), and this is the key point, that they must prove ownership of property built before 1918 or they will be sequestered by the state.
That date is significant, as it was when Montenegro was annexed by the Kingdom of Serbia. This was disputed by the national assembly despite it being convened by the Serbian authorities but was encouraged in its decision by a large detachment of Serbian troops that surrounded the building until the correct decision was reached.
Everybody I spoke to, historians, political activists, representatives of the Government, the various churches and ordinary citizens had one thing in common. Though the legislation was passed in 2019, and the election is next month, at least three quarters of every conversation about politics majors on 1918.
For added spice and comprehension, a variety of dates from 1200 through to the 1860s mostly involving brave Montenegrin warriors, taking on all comers would be included.
All this history produces a heady and volatile mix. The Government is not above criticism. The President has been accused of a series of issues - all of which he would deny - like election fixing and corruption. There has been intimidation and murder of journalists attributed to mafia and gangsters. His Government is regularly likened to a criminal enterprise and financial scandals involving his family are rife.
After 30 years, many, including some in his own governing Party of Democratic Socialists, wish for him to stand down. The opposition is weak, and the only institution that has the wealth and scope to oppose him is the Serbian Orthodox church. It is in the Government’s crosshairs, being accused of being in the pocket of Serbian, and thus Russian interests. But it too is no pin up boy for progressive values.
In Orthodoxy, the normal situation is that the church is part of the construction of the state, ‘autocephalic’, or whose hierarchy is independent of any other. But, claims Father Mihail Backovic, “We made Montenegro”.
Backovic, a man of God who served in Serbia’s pre-2006 paratroop special forces, is the Metropolitan’s right-hand man. He represents a church whose primary loyalty is to a different state, Serbia. He regards himself as having loyalty to, 'God, Serbian and Montenegro", just as I am English and British.
The Montenegrin Orthodox church was wound up in 1918, as without a state, it had no function. Now it has reformed and wants access to the churches that it claims are its own patrimony. Their non-canonical leader, Archbishop Mihailo Dedeic, wants access to these old churches, “we fear the disappearance of Montenegro itself if we do not do this,” citing the importance of independent national churches.
Today he sits in his garden, drinking shots of rakia, a couple of hundred yards from the Monastery of Cetinje, the seat of his archopponent. It was rigged to explode when the Turks took it in 1692, rather spoiling their party and killing dozens. A fact everybody repeats with relish.
The row between church and state is not about faith at all, but about power and money. The Government wants it and the church has it.
The monastery of Ostrog alone, an impossibly romantic place halfway up a cliff, raises tens of millions a year. The church is prepared,
I’m told, to put “250,000 on the streets after the election”, which, given the population is 600,000 is significant. Negotiations have broken down completely, despite the Government offering the concession that it would not be up to the Church to prove ownership, but that the onus would be on the state.
The church walked out, muttering darkly. A meeting of Serbian Orthodox bishops and senior clergy was summoned in Podgorica and has been followed up by meetings in dioceses in Serbia, Bosnia and elsewhere, beyond Montenegro’s borders.
The working assumption is that these meetings are to co-ordinate non-Montenegrin aspects of the post electoral protests. They claim to be of the country, but their actions suggest that their loyalties and capabilities are elsewhere. This allows the government to portray them as an asset of a hostile foreign power, Serbia (with the Russian bear just out of sight in the shadows). They do not see why they should be treated like other faith groups given they are the largest. They do not see why they should provide full title to their property, despite others, such as the Catholic church, being happy and willing to do so – because the transfer of property in 1918 was by fiat.
Supporters of the church believe that if property is transferred, a range of stunning monasteries will, in short order, become luxury hotels for cash rich guests, with the profits finding their way into the pockets of government officials and their friends. And all this is the lead up to fiercely contested elections at the end of August.
Many roadside restaurants boast a specialty, “Fish on Fire”. The fear of pretty much everybody in the country is that come September, it will be the country, not the fish that are on the barbeque.
July 23, 2020 - The European Union (EU) today encouraged the Government of Montenegro and the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) to continue the dialogue regarding the Law on Freedom of Religion.
European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero said the EU had consistently recalled the importance of dialogue and welcomed the recent resumption of talks between the two sides.
"We welcome the Government's efforts to find a compromise. Unfortunately, no solution has been found in these talks. We encourage both sides to continue the dialogue," Pisonero told MINA.
Expert teams failed to find a solution in the continuation of negotiations on the Law on Freedom of Religion.
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said that the talks between Government legal experts and those of the dioceses of the Serbian Orthodox Church ended without results, despite numerous concessions made by the Government's negotiating team.
The Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral said that the state, unlike the Church, did not have sincere intentions to reach a mutually acceptable solution in the dialogue, but the invitation to talk served for new blackmail of the Church and current political marketing.
June 28, 2020 - The fact that the main tourist season will this year bypass Montenegro's tourism capital is not the only thing currently on the minds of the citizens of Budva and indeed the rest of Montenegro. In one of only three opposition municipalities in Montenegro, political conflicts have been ongoing for a month now, and have partly spilled over into the streets of Budva. The Montenegrin police are actively involved in the entire process.
A brief summary would not do justice to the complexity of the situation, so here we will provide you an overview of the most important events that have marked the beginning of a "hot political summer" in Montenegro.
Budva Municipality logo
Sixteen councilors sign the proposal, three from Crnogorska, 11 from the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), one from the Social Democrats (SD), and independent councilor Stevan Džaković.
May 27: Members of the Democratic Front (DF) in Budva file a criminal complaint against an alleged organized criminal group that, as they claim, agreed to replace the government in Budva, with the million-dollar corruption of independent councilor Stevan Džaković. The criminal charges were filed with the Special State Prosecutor's Office and the Chief Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić.
The report addresses an unidentified person, who is said to be influential in the DPS, "associated with high-level crime and a bank in Montenegro", and an organizer of a criminal organization. In the application, the DF mentioned many persons from the political, public, and business milieu.
May 28: All 12 councilors of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) Budva come to the local parliament (scheduled for June 30) and vote for the removal of Mayor Marko Carević and the President of the Municipal Assembly Krsto Radović.
At the Ministry of Finance's request, the Commercial Court issues a temporary measure blocking all accounts of the Municipality of Budva to the tune of 29.3 million euros, the amount the German-Austrian company WTE / EVN withdrew from the state account in December 2019 by activating the guarantee. The Municipality of Budva claims that this is a state guarantee, given by the Government of Montenegro for a wastewater project. The contract defines that the local government is not obliged to pay the sum to the state in case of activation of the guarantee.
May 29: The Democratic Front (DF) in Budva announces that the DPS, together with Crnogorska and independent councilor Stevan Džaković, has a plan to "brutally violate the law, statute, and rules of procedure and hold a parallel quasi-session of the Budva municipal assembly to try to remove current government ".
"The freeze on all accounts of the Municipality of Budva best proves this is a joint venture of state bodies, primarily the Ministry of Finance and the Commercial Court, supporting DPS to undo all positive effects of the local fight with organized crime and corruption, "said the DF.
Police officers secure the local parliament session in civilian clothes, causing esentment among the Democrats and the DF members. After the end of the meeting, the police remove independent councilor Stevan Džaković from the improvised hall, waiting for the increasingly disaffected crowd gathered in protest against the violation of the electoral will.
May 30: A session of the local parliament is held in Budva, at which the dismissal of the President of the Municipality, Marko Bato Carević, is discussed. The member of the Democrats of the Municipal Assembly (MA) of Budva, Dragan Krapović, stated that the law had been clear and that the deadline for voting on the removal of Carević had expired.
The next session is scheduled for June 29.
June 3: The Municipal Assembly of Budva does not decide on the dismissal of its President, Krsto Radović, after the legal deadline of 30 days for a declaration expires at midnight.
The Chairman, Gojko Liješević (Democratic Montenegro), schedules the continuation of the session for June 29.
Krsto Radović and Marko Bato Carević, Source: cdm.me
June 5: Seventeen councilors of Budva's Assembly address the Ministry of Public Administration and ask for their opinion on the occasion of two sessions of the local parliament in Budva, held to discuss initiatives for dismissal of Mayor Marko Carević and President of the Municipal Assembly of Budva Krsto Radović, states the DPS.
June 6: The Municipal Board of DPS Budva files a complaint against the responsible persons in the Municipality for violating the law, the Statute and the Rules of Procedure of the Municipal Assembly of Budva, states the President of the Budva Coard of DPS Predrag Jelušić.
June 7: The Budva Committee of Democratic Montenegro announces that it is preparing criminal charges against the President of the DPS committee in the city, Predrag Jelušić, and "other people responsible for the Port of Budva." They are also preparing criminal charges for several other cases, which, as they state, involve Public Enterprise Morsko Dobro and Jelušić as its Director.
The Democrats react to Jelušić's statement that the DPS in Budva was filing charges against those responsible in that Municipality, adding that the DPS "knew very well" that the President of the Budva municipal assembly, Krsto Radović, had complied with all legal deadlines and statutory and business obligations.
The party announces criminal charges against "all those responsible and involved in corruption and the buying of support of councilor Džaković, as well as for false reporting."
June 8: The Assembly Service of the Municipal Assembly of Budva receives a request to convene a session by the newly formed majority in the local parliament, consisting of DPS, SD, Crnogorska, and independent councilor Stevan Džaković. Sixteen councilors sign the request, with 11 signatures needed for its adoption.
June 9: The Ministry of Public Administration assesses that the President of the Municipal Assembly of Budva, Krsto Radović, acted contrary to the provisions of the Law on Local Self-Government and the Statute of the Municipality because he did not allow councilors to vote on the proposals submitted.
The Mayor of Budva, Marko Carević, requests an urgent meeting with Minister of Finance, Darko Radunović, to solve the problem of the million-dollar freeze on the city treasury.
June 11: A new majority in the Municipal Assembly of Budva fires Mayor Marko Carević and President of the Municipal Assembly Krsto Radović. They hold a session in the tourist resort Slovenska Plaža. All 17 councilors of the new majority, consisting of councilors from DPS, SD, Crnogorska, and independent councilor Stevan Džaković, vote for the removal of Carevic and Radovic. Vladimir Bulatović (Crnogorska) is appointed acting President of the Municipality until the election of a new president, and DPS councilor Snežana Kuč is appointed interim President of the Municipal Assembly.
June 16: "Regarding my departure from the position of Mayor of Budva, several legal problems are intertwined. The Constitution of Montenegro states that the will of the citizens is guaranteed. I came to power by the will of the citizens, and now they want to remove me with an election law that violates Montenegro's Constitution. The method of personal mandates is an old tactic of the DPS that has been corrupting councilors for decades and changing the citizens' electoral will by buying them," said the dismissed mayor of Budva, Bato Carević.
The Special State Prosecutor's office investigates the allegations of criminal charges against the officials of the Municipal Assembly of Budva and the Mayor, the Chief Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić states at a press conference. He explains that they are acting on corroborating reports from Budva politicians and a statement released by one non-governmental organization.
Carević files criminal charges against three inspectors of the Administrative Inspection, as well as against DPS board member Snezana Kuč and the leader of the Budva Board from Crnogorska, Vladimir Bulatovic, for "abuse of official position, creation of a criminal organization for the violent takeover of power and intrusion into official premises."
Officials of the Administrative Inspection of the Ministry of Public Administration are prevented from filing a decision of the new parliamentary majority in the governmental service of the Municipality of Budva, by which Carević and Radović were dismissed, after which the inspectors ask for police assistance.
June 17: Budva Mayor Marko Carević, his son and brother, Budva Municipal Assembly President Krsto Radović, and five other associates are arrested for failing to allow police to bring administrative inspectors into the municipal building.
The Manager of the Municipality of Budva, Milo Božović, the Secretary for Investments, Mladen Mikijelj, the Head of Carević's cabinet, Nikola Jovanović, and Carević's Advisor, Đordje Vujović, are also arrested.
Municipal officials and citizens gather early that morning outside the Municipality of Budva, as a dozen police vans arrive in Budva. The entire city is under police siege, according to Vijesti.
Citizens of Budva Offering Food to Police, Source: RTCG
On June 16, the Administrative Inspection of the Ministry of Public Administration issues a decision ordering that the new majority be granted access to the Municipality and documents. Carević and Radović do not recognize those decisions. They claim that they are illegal and do not allow the newly elected officials to enter the Municipal building and have access to documents. They state that the political crisis in Budva has come after councilor Stevan Džaković, who was on the list of the Democratic Front, decided to support the opposition, which in that Municipality consists of the Democratic Party of Socialists and the Montenegrin Party. The sacked leadership claims that this is political corruption.
The Vijesti portal states that the police applied an inappropriate degree of force and tear gas against the municipal officials and citizens and that the windows on the municipal building were broken. The most significant reastions from the media were caused by the recording of the police's actions towards the former Secretary for Investments of the Municipality of Budva, Mladen Mikijelj.
Carević, Radović, and other officials of the Municipality of Budva are released later in the afternoon. Radović states that the entire public could see that Montenegro does not have a Constitution and that legislation and the rule of law have been suspended and subordinated to the greatest dictator Milo Đukanović.
The Vice President of the Democrats and councilor Dragan Krapović calls on the citizens to remain persistent and stay, and calls on representatives of all parties to come to Budva. As he states, democracy is being defended there.
He says that the municipal officials in Risan hospital were found to have injuries inflicted on them by the police during the detention, but that they were generally well.
Krapović sends a message to the international community to take into account of what is happening in Montenegro. "Do not keep silent on the unpleasant scenes of Milo Đukanović's military junta," he said.
June 20: There are almost eight million euros in the account of the Municipality of Budva, but the money cannot be used as long as the temporary measure of the Commercial Court is in force at the end of May at the request of the Ministry of Finance. However, during the political crisis, when there are "two authorities" in the city, which have started a dialogue to overcome tensions and calm passions, resolving the account blockade will have to be a priority. During the talks, political representatives are forbidden to make any political statements and thus raise tensions, and prevent an agreement. The Commercial Court has not yet ruled on the objection lodged by Marko Carević's administration against the interim measure, blocking bank accounts.
June 22: Snezana Kuč schedules consultations with the presidents of the committee groups on Thursday, June 25, on the occasion of the next session of the parliament, on the current political situation.
In the invitation to the councilors' groups, it is stated that the topic of the meeting is consultations related to the work at the next session of the Municipal Assembly of Budva and the conversation regarding the current political situation.
The leader of Montenegro, Vladimir Bulatović, leaves the building of the Municipality of Budva, where he talks with the DPS councilor Snežana Kuč and President of the Municipality, Marko Carević. The meeting ends without an agreement. The Municipal building meeting is briefly attended by the President of the Municipal Assembly, Krsto Radović.
Civic Protests in Budva, Source RTV BN
On that same day, deputies and councilors of Democratic Montenegro break through the cordon of private security in the Municipal Assembly (MA) of Budva, who had been hired the day before by the acting President of the Municipality, Vladimir Bulatović.
The President of the Municipal Assembly of Budva, Krsto Radović, invites those who want to resolve the political situation in Budva to come to the Municipal building. He tells people gathered in front of the Municipal building that the leader of Montenegro, Vladimir Bulatović, "confirmed that he had ordered" his arrest and that of President of the Municipality, Marko Carević. Radović calls on those gathered to remain peaceful and not to attack the police.
Marko Carević, Krsto Radović, leader of the Democrats, Aleksa Bečić with eight deputies, as well as four deputies of the Democratic Front, Slaven Radunović, Marina Jocić, Milun Zogović, and Jovan Vucurović, are in the building of the Municipality, as well as municipal officials and councilors, and police inspectors.
June 23: Carević and Radović state that they have received word from the police that no one will be able to enter the building of the Municipality of Budva, and ask the gathered citizens to disperse.
Representatives of the local government and representatives appointed by the new majority of councilors a few days earlier as acting presidents of the Municipality and the President of the municipal assembly, will not be able to enter the municipal building. Carević asks the police to provide him with a document stating that the Municipality was closed.
The legal representative of the Municipality of Budva, Vladan Bojić, says that something that unforeseen had happened that day, that the Municipality had been turned into a police station.
"For the first time, the police are closing down the local government and unconstitutionally preventing workers from coming to their jobs. It is a sure way to ruin an unreasonable decision that is direct to the detriment of citizens. This is a violation of the Constitution because workers are forbidden to come to work." said Carević.
The Municipality of Budva is not provided with official information based on which the police forbid everyone to enter, which was also confirmed by Vladimir Bulatović, who tells Vijesti that he has not received any document.
June 24: On the occasion of the invitation of the DPS and Montenegro for mediation in Budva, the EU Delegation to Montenegro tells "Vijesti" that they have nothing to add to the statement of the EC spokesperson Anna Pisonero Hernandez.
She states that the EU welcomes the dialogue in Budva and calls on all political actors to show respect for the rule of law and democratic principles and to show political maturity to find a sustainable solution to the current situation through dialogue and mutual respect.
The leader of Crnogorska, Vladimir Bulatović, sends a letter to the security service asking security to prevent all employees from entering the building of the Municipality of Budva, except those listed. Bulatović, who has signed as acting President of the Municipality of Budva, bans councilors from entering until further notice.
Economic crime inspectors enter the building of the Municipality of Budva and begin control of the members of the security.
In Budva, police deploy tear gas after a warning is issued to citizens who have surrounded the police station to disperse.
Special Police Forces in Budva, June 24, Source: Vijesti Online
After being arrested earlier that day, Carević and Radović, as well as DF councilors Đorđije Vujović and Đordje Pribilović, and SNP councilor Krsto Radjenović are released. Among those detained are the Vice President and councilor of the Democrats, Dragan Krapović, the Head of Carević's Cabinet, Nikola Jovanović, and the Manager of the Municipality, Milo Božović. Not far from the police station, famous boxer Nikola Sjekloća is also arrested. The Head of the Protection and Rescue Service, Dragan Božović, and the Head of the Utilities Collection Service, Ninoslav Kaludjerović, are also detained.
After 5.30 pm, tear gas is thrown outside elementary school "Stefan Mitrov Ljubiša", and then at the crossroads, where riots break out. Stones are thrown at the police station, and tear gas is thrown into the hall of the Sports Center during children's training.
Members of the Special Police Units come to the official parking lot of the Municipality of Budva before and after citizens have gathered because the end of working hours was approaching. They await the departure of acting presidents of the Municipality and the Municipal Assembly, Vladimir Bulatović and Snežana Kuč, from the Municipality premises.
June 27: A new majority of councilors in the Municipal Assembly of Budva elect DPS MP Nikola Divanović as the President of the Municipality of Budva.
Andjela Ivanović (Crnogorska) is elected President of the Budva municipal assembly by 17 councilors - 12 DPS councilors, three Crnogorska's councilors, one Social Democrat (SD) councilor, and Stevan Džaković, an independent councilor.
The decision is not recognized by a coalition of the Democratic Front (DF), Democratic Montenegro, the Civic Movement URA, the Socialist People's Party (SNP), and the Social Democratic Party (SDP).
The session is marked by chaos, including physical clashes between political opponents, which lead to five opposition councilors being taken to the police. Vijesti states that DF councilor Milan Šoljaga tried to enter the session, but private security did not allow him to do so.
The media are not allowed to attend the Municipal Assembly of Budva session at which Divanović and Ivanović are elected. However, the rules of procedure of the local government body prescribe that the meetings are public and must be open to journalists.
Police Forces in front of the Municipality of Budva, June 27, Source: Vijesti Online
The Media Union of Montenegro (SMCG) strongly condemned the actions of the private security team that was engaged in the building of the Municipal Assembly of Budva, which during the session of the local parliament forcibly and inappropriately expell Pobjeda journalist Đurđica Ćorić from the municipal premises.
The Budva Board of the Democratic Front (DF) states that Nikola Divanovic (DPS) is the self-proclaimed President of the Municipality of Budva and that the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) in Budva have shown the kind of democracy from the golden age of the regime of former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu.
DPS MP Nikola Divanović claims that he is the legitimate President of the Municipality of Budva because the parliamentary majority had voted for him. He says that he will start working on solving the problem on Monday, promising that there will be no revanchism and that everyone who wants to work has a place in his team.
June 26, 2020 - The EU-Montenegro Intergovernmental Conference, at which the chapter is to be officially opened, will be held on Tuesday, June 30, at ambassadorial level.
The permanent ambassadors of the European Union member states in Brussels confirmed the decision to open Chapter 8 - Competition with Montenegro, TVCG’s correspondent in Brussels has learned.
The EU-Montenegro Intergovernmental Conference, at which the chapter is to be officially opened, will be held on Tuesday, June 30, at ambassadorial level, reports RTCG.
Earlier, representatives of the 27 member states in the EU Enlargement Council Working Group (COELA) spoke positively on Tuesday about opening the last negotiation chapter with Montenegro.
The decision to open negotiation chapter 8 with Montenegro was made during the last week of Croatia's presidency of the EU Council, which Germany will assume on July 1st.
Chapter 8 - Competition, is one of the most demanding negotiation chapters that always opens and closes among the last, according to the official website of the Office for European Integration of Montenegro.