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.