Montenegro Violence Was Reckless Gamble by Country’s Former Rulers

Last weekend’s street battles show the former ruling DPS won’t shrink from taking the whole country down with it, if it feels its interests are vitally threatened.

For what it’s worth, many ordinary Montenegrins are as confused as everyone else about what just happened in their country. The violent scenes in Montenegro’s old capital, Cetinje, had little to do with the enthronement of Joanikije II as the Serbian Orthodox Church’s Bishop of Montenegro and the Littoral. They did, however, have everything to do with the former ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, and its desire to mobilise support by radicalising divisions.

They send a warning message to the current ruling parties that the DPS and its leader, state president Milo Djukanovic, will take Montenegro down in flames with them should they feel their interests threatened.

Ever since it was announced in August that Joanikije II would be enthroned as Metropolitan at the beginning of September in Cetinje Monastery, the centuries-old seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, the DPS and a range of allied groups have been inflaming tensions.

During August, the political, religious and security atmosphere was brought to fever pitch with hate-mongering statements that claimed that Joanikije’s enthronement amounted to Montenegro’s humiliation by Belgrade and would be the “crowning moment of Greater-Serbian assaults on Montenegro”. Calls for peaceful protest were mixed with ominous warnings, sounding more like threats, that, unless the enthronement was moved elsewhere, there would be violence.

The stage was set for that violence when, on August 15, Veselin Veljovic, the former police chief and now advisor to DPS leader and President Djukanovic, wrote an op-ed calling on Montenegrins to rally in Cetinje in early September against Joanikije’s enthronement. In carefully worded language that amounted to a call to mutiny, Veljovic also called on his former police subordinates to disobey any orders to use force against the protesters.

Adding to the fire, Djukanovic himself declared on August 28 that, unless Joanikije’s enthronement was moved, he himself would be present at the protest in Cetinje on September 5, the day of the enthronement, to join the defence of the “honour and dignity” of Montenegro.

Fanning the flames over weeks

As September 5 loomed, along with the arrival of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Porfirije, numerous bishops, political leaders and ordinary faithful, the Montenegrin government and security officials warned repeatedly of the risk of violence surrounding the event.

Pressure built on the Church to reschedule or relocate the enthronement. In an attempt to reduce the risk of violence, it opted for a more low-key ceremony, abandoning a plan for a mass gathering of the faithful and political leaders.

Yet the DPS leadership and allied “patriotic” organisations continued with demands to scrap the enthronement itself. A day before the ceremony, barricades – some with rocks and burning tyres – were erected on roads leading to Cetinje by the party’s supporters. In the old capital, fences erected by the police near the Monastery were removed.

Government and Church officials spent a sleepless night between September 4 and 5, when, at one point, it seemed to have been decided that the enthronement would be cancelled, before reversing this decision.

On the morning of September 5, video footage released by the government showed Veselin Veljovic leading a group of violent demonstrators – many allegedly linked to the criminal underworld – in charging a cordon of police protecting Cetinje Monastery. Running battles between thugs and police firing teargas raged in the morning hours, with peaceful protesters often caught in the middle.

Amid scenes of burning barricades and violent clashes between police and thugs organized by the DPS, Joanijije and Porfirije had to be helicoptered into the Monastery grounds, running to the Monastery under the cover of an armoured blanket, reportedly intended to protect them from the threat of sniper fire.

Public presented with false dilemma

Ahead of the enthronement and the violence which accompanied it, Montenegro and much of the region was divided between those who saw Djukanovic and the DPS to blame for the violence, and those who blamed the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Montenegrin government, or Serbia.

Jovana Marovic, a former civil society activist and now vice-president of URA, the smallest, civic-minded member of the Montenegrin ruling coalition, was quoted saying that, ahead of the enthronement, an atmosphere had been created in which part of the Montenegrin public expected their government to choose between upholding the constitutional right to freedom of religion and that of freedom of assembly. Her own party had called on Joanikije and the Serbian Church to abandon the enthronement in Cetinje.

In reality, this was a false dilemma. The Church had every right to enthrone its Metropolitan in Montenegro in its ecclesiastical seat – Cetinje Monastery. Those opposed to this had the right to peaceful protest. The government’s only obligation was to ensure the peaceful exercise of both rights – and prevent violence.

Tea Gorjanc-Prelevic, a human rights activist from Podgorica, put it succinctly when she noted that the European Court of Human Rights had established the principle that the right to protest against a religious community does not mean the right to obstruct religious ceremonies, noting that the latter was a criminal act in Montenegro.

So, what was it all about?

After three decades in power, the DPS leadership could not have been ignorant of the difference between constitutional rights and criminal offences. So why did they take the lead in a violent attempt to prevent Metropolitan Joanikije’s enthronement?

Gorjanc-Prelevic is right in arguing that “a political need to radicalize national and religious divisions prevailed” in the DPS’s thinking. Behind the many smokescreens erected over the last few weeks, several motivating factors can be discerned.

Ever since it was ousted from power following the August 2020 elections, Djukanovic and the DPS have fought a rearguard action to retain the support of their core followers. As part of this, they have strongly played the card of Montenegrin nationalism. Time and again the DPS has sought to paint the heterogenous ruling coalition – made up of pro-Serbian and civic parties – which replaced it in power as lackeys of Serbia, undermining the country’s independence. By contrast, the DPS stood tall as the true defender of Montenegro and the Montenegrin nation.

In this context, Joanikije’s enthronement in Cetinje came at a perfect moment for the DPS. Local elections in the old Montenegrin capital – a stronghold of those identifying as ethnically Montenegrin rather than ethnically Serb – are due in autumn. What better way for the DPS to fire up its supporters ahead of these elections – and any early parliamentary elections – than by putting itself at the helm of local opposition to Joanikije’s enthronement and making a stand in defence of Montenegro in the old capital?

Stoking tensions in Cetinje also served to rock the boat of the fragile ruling majority. The DPS hoped that its attempts to prevent the enthronement of the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan would put URA, with which it competes for some votes, in a tight spot. If URA opposed Joanikije’s enthronement in Cetinje, it would antagonise its two more or less pro-Serbian ruling partners; if URA failed to do so, it would antagonise some of its own pro-Montenegrin supporters in Cetinje and throughout Montenegro. Rock the unstable ruling coalition hard enough and – so DPS logic went – you might sink it.

Yet most of this could have been achieved with a peaceful protest. The threats of violence, calls for police to defy orders, burning barricades and the spectre of the former head of police leading a charge by thugs and apparent criminal underworld figures against a cordon of police, all suggest that much more is at stake for the DPS.

On September 5, Djukanovic, the DPS and various fringe allied organisations brought Montenegro to the brink of a violent precipice, into which the country narrowly avoided falling. Over the last year, the new government has worked hard to reform the country’s judiciary and prosecution as a precondition to initiating investigations and prosecutions into the corruption affairs and ties to organised crime of senior figures within the DPS.

The show of violent force by Djukanovic and the DPS leadership in Cetinje sends a clear warning to the current government that Montenegro’s former rulers are quite capable of taking the rest of the country down with them if they smell any risk of being prosecuted or imprisoned.

Time will tell whether the police’s seizure of 1,000 kilogrammes of cocaine near Podgorica, ten days before this weekend’s violent carnage, was a coincidence or not.

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