Montenegro Changes Law That Angered Serbs and Helped Power Shift

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Montenegro changed its law on religion to remove the option of nationalizing church property after months of protests played a part in ending 30 years of dominance by President Milo Djukanovic’s political party.

Lawmakers loyal to the new government, which took office this month following August elections, changed the law. Under the original version, the local branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- the biggest denomination both in Montenegro and neighboring Serbia -- could lose some of its ancient monasteries, churches and land.

The original version of the law was adopted a year ago by Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, who were ousted from power in the elections. It had soured ties with Serbia and deepened divisions within Montenegro.

“This is a triumph of the rule of law,” Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic tweeted after the vote in parliament. “Now all religious communities are equal, without exception.” He accused the previous government of trying to seize valuable church assets.

Changing the legislation, however, triggered new street protests in Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, this time led by Djukanovic’s supporters. A few thousand people chanted “Treason!” in front of parliament late Monday as lawmakers gathered to amend the law. The crowd carried banners accusing Krivokapic’s government of serving Serbian interests.

Djukanovic rose to power in the early 1990s as a then-ally of Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic. He later realigned his support to the West, securing membership in NATO for the Adriatic state of 620,000 people and opening talks to joining the European Union.

He sought to curb the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which maintains close ties with Russia. The president, whose term expires in 2023, blamed Russia for trying to oust him in a failed 2016 assassination and coup attempt.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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