A dispute involving a church and government in a mountainous European country of 600,000 people, is hardly the stuff that is normally deemed relevant in the context of global politics. However what has been going on in Montenegro in the past two months should be an indicator of how governments, in their attempt to cling on to power, can and will weaponize their legal systems and post-2016 narratives about foreign interference and fake news to crush not only political opponents, but anything with their societies (including a religious organisation and alternative media) that can upend their rule.
The 29 year-long saga of Montenegro’s current ruling elite, headed by President Milo Đukanović and his (nominally socialist, in reality neoliberal) party DPS, is a story of what you can get away with – from cigarette smuggling to strange electoral behaviour – if you are smart in the way you choose powerful friends from abroad and are ruthless at home.
However it is its most recent chapter, which started in December 2019, that is probably the most alarming indication of what an authoritarian regime in Europe can still do in fighting for its survival.
This chapter starts during the dead of the night on 27 December 2019, when the DPS-dominated government decided to ram a strange law through the parliament. The law in question, cynically named „Law on the Freedom of Religion“ effectively allows nationalisation of most valuable property currently in possession of the Serbian Orthodox Church, under the guise of regulating the work of religious communities in the country.
The law, criticsed for these provisions by local legal experts and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, goes against basic legal principles and practices of putting the burden of proof on the entities which claim ownership (in this case the Montenegrin government) rather than current owners (in this case the SOC) and was effectively written and enacted to target Montenegro’s largest religious group, going against the principles freedom of religion and separation of church and state (ironically enshrined both in the law and the Montenegrin constitution).
The fact that the SOC will be the only religious organisation in Montenegro by the law is not only due to the fact that it was effectively denied for getting the status all other major faiths (the Catholic Church, Muslim and Jewish Community) reached with the Montenegrin Government as early as 2011 and 2012, but the Government representatives, including the President openly spoke about their plans to nationalise the property and even interfere in the Church structure. In several interviews President Đukanović himself spoke about the need to create a separate, self-governing, Montenegrin Church, using unsubstantiated revisionst history, to pursue a nationalist goal of severing all the deep historic cultural ties with Serbia and putting this powerful social force within own power.
The relationships between Montenegrin and Serbian identity, as well as the Chruch and State in Montenegro, are very complicated ones, ever more so since DPS’s direct predecessor, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (from which it rebranded) came to power after WWII. Thankfully, like DPS’s history, these stories, as interesting as they are, are not that relevant to the story.
„The Law on Religious Freedom“ to Curb Religious Freedom
The law, enacted as it was, in the dead of the night, ahead of the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, after all dissenting opposition MPs were taken by the police from the Parliament, caused a massive popular push back. The SOC started organising (peaceful) religious processions across the country to make the Government walk back on the law. These processions, which have been going on from December and are present all across the country, now regularly attract more than a hundred thousand participants, which given Monetnegro’s size is between 1/6th and 1/3rd of the country’s entire population.
All is Fair in Love and “Hybrid War”
Although the EU and other Western countries (as well as the foriegn media), normally sensitive to religious and ethnic discrimination in the Balkans have remained strangely silent on the issue, it was the Government that decided to try to get them involved as early as possibl to crush those fighting for the freedom of religion and property rights.
From the beginning, the hovernment it tried to get foriegn attention by using the old trusted narrative of fighting foriegn intereference, from the usual suspects Russia and Serbia.
Even though the it was ironically Đukanović and his Government who cultivated strong ties with Putin’s Russia in early 2000s which resulted in many Russians holidaying, investing and even living in Montenegro, ever since 2016, the Government made a U-turn and has been using Russia as a go-to boogeyman – from the strange case of alleged attempted coup in 2016 to daily stoking of fear – in order to paint anyone who apposes it as a Russian stooge and a potential spy. Serbia’s pro-EU (and generally NATO-neutral) government has also been used a constant threat for Monetenrgin indepenednce, trying to tie it to the narrative of „greater Serbian aggression“ of 1990s. This is again, ironic given that that DPS and Đukanović himself, actively participated in the frenzy of Yugoslav wars, by sending troops to loot and bombard Dubrovnik in 1991, as well as spreading chauvinist anti-Croatian sentiment.
The next step by the government was to operationalise this Red Scare narrative by openly saying that it is in „hybrid war“ against Serbia and Russia, and starting to actively go after freedom of expression. The current government has a long track record of oppressing the media – whcih included attacks on journalists investingating corruption – however it now took it online by trying to attack outlets covering the processions and criticising its moves. In late January, after a trumped up charge for spreading „fake news“, the editor of newsportal IN4S, Gojko Raičević was taken by the police for questioning. The police also started questioning and fining opposition politicians and members of the public for their posts on social media. This included one man in the city of of Nikšić being fined EUR 500 for making fun of Monetnegros top Police Offical, Veselin Veljović, by writing that he is „a farting fart“ that should „stop farting“.
This bizzare move prompted a negative reacion from the US Embassy in the country, which led the government to (temporarily?) stop literally policing the social media. However, the use of the police to pressure opposition leaders and their families continued. One opposition politican, Marko Milašić, was arrested after arriving from Serbia where he spoke to media about the situation in the country, while the police decided to also arrest the mother of Milan Knežević (an opposition leader who is charged in the strange coup plot case) and violently seach his home.
The government’s attempts to tar authentic local protests as with “hybrid warfare” brush have, however, have continued and have also been voiced by some analysts who going so far as to talk about the possibility of invoking Article 5 of the NATO’s founding treaty, normally used when one of the countries has been physically attacked (the only time Article 5 was invoked was after September 11 attacks on the US).
Censorship and pressure on dissenting local and foreign media have also continued. Borba.me website was hacked in late January, while in early February the government decided to ask cable providers to censor programmes made by Serbian TV stations that are normally critical of the Montenegrin government under the guise of stopping “hate speech”.
Despite all these attacks from the government, as well as from “concerned” (mostly Đukanović-linked) political figures from Serbia and former Yugoslavia, over a hundred thousand Montenegrins are on the streets several times a week asking for protection of their property rights and religious freedoms.
The inefficacy of the Monetnegrin government’s attempts to increase its choke hold on free speech, lie in part in the fact that Monetnegro is a very close knit society and the mass media have a smaller role to play, when your social network can transfer information much more accurately. Furthermore, the cause championed by the SOC is strong enough that it even attracted non-believers and even members of other religious groups, who see the processions as the only thing stopping Montenegro from sliding into a full Stalinist autocracy, where property rights are suspended and religion is put under state control.
However, what is going on in Montenegro should concern anyone, especially those in alternative media, as they show how the increasingly popular (and increasingly conspiratorial) tactics of dismissing inconvenient facts a results of “foreign interference” and non-conforming voices as “useful idiots” and “Russian stooges”, can be weaponised to create an authoritarian system.
While of course it is highly probable that there is some interest from Russian and Serbian actors in this situation (although no solid proofs have yet been presented), the problem is that, given the nature of online media space, the narratives of “hybrid warfare” allow for any (over)reaction by the government, in the same way martial law allows for greater repression in case of real emergencies. This is why it is worrying to see the increased use of these highly loaded allegations, especially when there is all probability that they are used in bad faith. Finally it is worth remembering that, thorough-out history, all repressive regimes in history have used the language of protection and help to expand their power and that the more we allow any government’s encroachments on fundamental rights to be taken at face value, the more our freedoms and rights are likely to be endangered.