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Montenegro's Church Feud

Tensions during Orthodox Christmas celebrations between pro-Montenegro and pro-Serbia contingents highlighted political divisions within the republic, and within the government itself.
By Milka Tadic

As 20 priests from the Serbian Orthodox church gathered inside the historic chapel in Podgorica, special police from the Montenegrin Ministry of Interior prevented thousands of Montenegrin Orthodox church supporters from celebrating the Orthodox Christmas eve, January 6, in the main city square in the capital. Tension over this incident will be reflected in the Orthodox new year commemorations, January 13, when a pro-Serbian political rally is planned.

Appeals from the bishop of the Montenegrin church, Mihailo, and vitriolic chants of the crowds failed to open the police cordon. Reminiscent of opposition demonstrations while President Milo Djukanovic was an ally of Slobodan Milosevic, the worshippers shouted, "Milo the Serb" and "This is not Montenegro".

The divisions between the two branches of orthodoxy in Yugoslavia reflect political divisions over the future status of the republic. Now, supporters of Djukanovic and a majority of people in Montenegro support Montenegrin independence. The Yugoslav government strongly opposes Montenegrin separatism, as do many Montenegrins who consider themselves Serb. The political reactions to the episode highlighted that such divisions run not only through Montenegrin society but are also reflected with the Montenegrin governing coalition itself.

The Montenegrin Orthodox church, whose independence was revoked in the 1920s by King Aleksandar, was revived in 1993, but has never been officially recognised by the Serbian Orthodox church or the Montenegrin government.

The Montenegrin church opposed the war in the Balkans and continues to counter Serbian nationalism, extremism in the Serbian Orthodox church and the Serbian Orthodox representative in Montenegro, Bishop Amfilohije. The Montenegrin church has attracted a large following among the democratic opposition and pro-independence movement.

Yet that was not enough to ensure that the Christmas celebrants were allowed to pass. Zarko Rakcevic, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a member of the ruling coalition, was among those gathered in Podgorica. Extremely agitated, Rakcevic tried to telephone Montenegrin Prime Minister, Filip Vujanovic and the minister of police, Vukasin Maras, in a futile attempt to persuade the government to permit the thousands gathered in the town centre to celebrate Christmas eve peacefully.

In Podgorica Rakcevic apologised to Bishop Mihailo. Holding the president directly responsible for the incident, he taunted Djukanovic before the assembled TV cameras to make a coalition with his arch-rival, the pro-Belgrade Federal Prime Minister Momir Bulatovic. He declared to television cameras, "Go ahead and make a coalition with him," he said.

Bulatovic, a close associate of Milosevic, is a fierce opponent of the Montenegrin president and the ruling coalition. Hence the confusion when Djukanovic and Bulatovic both sided with Bishop Amfilohije over the Christmas holiday celebrations. Djukanovic extended holiday congratulations only to the Serbian church, ignoring the Montenegrin church altogether.

Bishop Amfilohije is one of the most extreme priests in the Serbian Orthodox church. He made his mark in the 1990s, supporting Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and other extreme Serbian politicians and fighters in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Zeljko Raznatovic, a.k.a. Arkan, the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader indicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal, has paid several visits to Amfilohije at his monastery in the ancient Montenegrin capital, Cetinje.

After his breach with Milosevic, Djukanovic secured the backing of Bishop Amfilohije for his government's programme of economic reform and closer ties to Europe. Although a surprise to many, Amfilohije's support was vital in the feud with Milosevic, as it attracted support from pro-Serbian Montenegrins.

Amfilohije is increasingly flirting Bulatovic and his Socialist People's Party (SNP). Over the holidays, the Serbian church held ceremonies in some 70 towns and villages across the republic in the presence of SNP politicians. Some priests used the occasion to accuse Djukanovic of striking a deal with NATO to "separate Montenegro from Serbia." The party has announced a big rally in Podgorica ahead of celebrations for the Orthodox new year, January 13, which Bishop Amfilohije is expected attend.

Yet the Christmas incident suggests that Djukanovic is keen to maintain his links with the Serbian church. By supporting Amfilohije in the ongoing Orthodox church dispute, Djukanovic is trying to limit the scale of criticism directed at the government at the forthcoming rally. But he also risks losing the support of Rakcevic, whose Social Democratic Party has made a great contribution to the democratic image of the ruling coalition with its long-standing anti-war policy and opposition to the Milosevic regime.

Rakcevic has since announced that his party is considering withdrawing from the coalition. His party has demanded the removal of the minister of religion, Slobodan Tomovic, who has refused to recognise the Montenegrin Orthodox church. (Tomovic is now expected to be replaced in the forthcoming government reshuffle, January 26.) Indeed, since 1993 the Montenegrin Orthodox faithful have gathered in Cetinje to celebrate mass on Chritsmas eve. And every year police have blocked access to the churches.

"I cannot accept the fact that the square in Cetinje, fenced in by a police cordon, is the only place where Montenegrins are allowed to perform the liturgy. Each Christmas eve this square turns into a kind of a camp," Rakcevic complained. "Our fundamental human rights are being violated. The majority in Montenegro cannot freely express their religious feelings."

Religious freedom is only one of several issues on which the SDP disagrees with the two other coalition parties. The SDP has criticised the privatisation programme as well as general corruption and smuggling. It has pushed for structural economic reforms aimed at weakening monopolies within the economy and the media, which Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) appears determined to hold onto.

But what most divides the SDP from its coalition partners is the question of Montenegrin independence. Since its inception, Rakcevic's party has been a fierce advocate for independence. The SDP wants an immediate referendum on the issue. Dragisa Burzan, deputy prime minister and an SDP member, said Montenegro can no longer wait and that the calling of a vote may be a priority for the party in the coming year.

But the other members of the coalition, Djukanovic's DPS and Novak Kilibarda's National Party, take a much more cautious line. Both parties argue there is still room for accommodation with Serbia. Both parties support the Serbian opposition parties and hope political change inside Serbia will make a peaceful agreement with Belgrade possible. Both would prefer that the issue of independence is not brought to ahead before the next Christmas celebrations.

Milka Tadic is editor of Monitor in Podgorica.

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