Europe’s Longest-Serving Leader Now Wants His Own Church
(Bloomberg) -- Built into an almost vertical cliff face overlooking a valley, the spectacular Ostrog Monastery is one of the biggest shrines in the Balkans. Dating back to the 17th century, it survived the wars and upheaval that have defined Europe’s most unsettled region.
The complex of churches and dormitories is now emblematic of another battle over cultural identity and in the world of Christian Orthodoxy, it’s inevitably about power and nationhood.
The monastery belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church, though is located in Montenegro, the smallest of the six states of former Yugoslavia. President Milo Djukanovic wants to establish a separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church and pull his country further away from Serbia and Russia’s orbit. The government may take over church properties including Ostrog as part of the plan. The faithful, though, have made it clear where their allegiance lies.
Angry protests are growing across the tiny nation of 620,000 people in a rare show of defiance against a man who transformed himself from an acolyte of Slobodan Milosevic into Europe’s longest-serving leader. Montenegro has pivoted west, joining NATO in 2017 and pursuing European Union membership, but turning its back on the Serbian church is one step too far for many.
“Never in history has an atheist and communist created a church,” Jovan Radovic, a priest in Ostrog, said on the terrace outside the well-stocked gift shop. “It’s unbelievable how dedicated he is to this task. The role of a church should be to save people from sin, not create new nations.”
Power struggles and mutual suspicion have long been hallmarks of the relationship between church and state throughout European history. In the blood-and-soil world of Balkan politics, the church is a badge of a nation along with language and borders. Unlike the Catholics and the supremacy of the pope, Orthodox churches have their own individual patriarchs.
Djukanovic, 58, a self-confessed “non-believer,” has run Montenegro as prime minister, president or party chief for three decades. He emerged from the Yugoslav Communist Party to lead the country into democracy and then independence from Serbia in 2006. Along the way, he ditched the old currency, the dinar, and unilaterally adopted the deutschemark and then the euro. Now he’s eyeing what would be the jewel in his father-of-the-nation crown.
His drive follows a split by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow Patriarchy in 2018 after more than three centuries. It became part of the disintegration of Ukraine from Russia following the frozen conflict over Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the war in the east. Ukraine’s president at the time talked of “a church without Putin.”
The Ukraine schism was endorsed by the Eastern Orthodox Church’s patriarch based in Istanbul, Bartholomew I of Constantinople. It formalized an existing de facto separation, whereas Djukanovic must either persuade clerics to come on board or create a new organization from scratch. A separate Montenegro Orthodox Church formed in 1993 has gained little traction in the country. Patriarch Bartholomew is reportedly against Montenegro’s latest push.
The government dominated by Djukanovic’s party pushed through parliament a bill in December that requires religious groups to prove ownership over land and places of worship they had before 1918, or see the property become state-owned.
While the law applies to all religious communities, almost three-quarters of Montenegrins are Orthodox Christians and the date is critical: It’s when Montenegro and Serbia became part of Yugoslavia in the wake of World War I. Their churches, with places of worship dating back centuries, were reunited shortly after under the Serbian Orthodox Church.
“Now is an important time for the emancipation of Montenegro,” Djukanovic said in January. He called for the “further development of Montenegrin society, including the restoration of an autocephalous orthodox church.” That would help fend off Serbian nationalism and efforts by the Belgrade-based church to undermine his country’s sovereignty, Djukanovic said.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said Montenegro can do what it likes after the peaceful split 14 years ago, asking only for protection of the heritage and rights of ethnic Serbs. He suggested that the move is also because of suspicion among western powers that the Russian Orthodox Church has influence over the Serbian church.
Montenegro’s faithful also appears to be skeptical of the motives. What matters, churchgoers say, are deep historic ties, shared religion and common language among the Balkan neighbors. Tens of thousands have been taking to the streets of the capital, Podgorica, and several other cities twice a week, demanding that the law be revoked.
“Church property is sacred and no government should try to take it away,” said Predrag Scepanovic, the chief priest in Podgorica as he led a protest march. “The authorities want to weaken us by seizing what’s been ours for 800 years.”
Montenegro’s Premier Dusko Markovic has offered assurances that churches and monasteries won’t be used any differently even if the state becomes the nominal owner. The clergy says that’s a ploy and wants the authorities to return church assets confiscated during communism.
Politically, the scale of the reaction has surprised the government, according to western diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But the government had to curb the influence of Russia, which does have close ties with the Serbian clergy, they said.
A Montenegrin court convicted fourteen men last May, including two local opposition activists, two Russians and several Serbians, for preparing a 2016 coup to overthrow the government, kill Djukanovic and prevent the tiny state from joining NATO. The plot failed, but Russia is still a threat, according to Montenegro’s defense minister.
The Serbian church is complicit in efforts to undermine Montenegro because it “doesn’t really recognize Montenegro as a sovereign state,” said Milos Nikolic, a lawmaker and top official of Djukanovic’s political party. “It sees our independence as something temporary and that, sooner or later, Serbia and Montenegro will be together again.”
For Gorica Ivanovic, a 57-year-old retiree in Podgorica, the church holds more sway than her once-favorite politician. She’s upset that Djukanovic would turn against the religious community to nationalize church property.
“It makes no sense and it hurts my heart,” she said, clutching an icon with Christ’s image as she took part in a protest march. “The holy sites mean everything to us.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.