Deputy PM Dritan Abazovic Warns Criminal Structures Are Trying to Raise Tensions in Montenegro

Hundreds of riot police were deployed in the old capital of Montenegro on Saturday ahead of the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, an event which has sparked ethnic tensions in the small Balkan nation.

The ceremony planned for Sunday in Cetinje has angered opponents of the Serbian church in Montenegro, which declared independence from neighboring Serbia in 2006.

On Saturday, hundreds of protesters confronted the police in Cetinje and briefly removed some of the protective metal fences around the monastery where the inauguration of Mitropolitan Joanikije is supposed to take place.

Montenegrins remain deeply divided over their country’s ties with neighboring Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which is the nation's dominant religious institution. Around 30% of Montenegro’s 620,000 people consider themselves Serb.

Thousands protested last month in Cetinje demanding that the inauguration be held somewhere else. The church has refused to change its plans.

Since Montenegro split from Serbia, pro-independence Montenegrins have advocated for a recognized Orthodox Christian church that is separate from the Serbian one.

Montenegrin authorities have urged calm during the weekend ceremonies that will start with the arrival Saturday evening of the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, in Podgorica, Montenegro's capital.

Porfirije is set to attend Sunday's inauguration of Joanikije, whose predecessor as the church's leader in Montenegro, Amfilohije, died in October after contracting the coronavirus.

The Serbian Orthodox Church played a key role in demonstrations last year that helped topple a a long-ruling pro-Western government in Montenegro. The new government now includes staunchly pro-Serb and pro-Russian parties.

Montenegro's previous authorities led the country to independence from Serbia and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. Montenegro also is seeking to become a European Union member.

On Friday, the National Security Council called for a calming of tensions. Parties and civic organizations urged the organisers of the planned protests in Cetinje to refrain from violence.

“There has been propaganda in some media connected with criminal structures, and they are continuously trying to raise tensions. These tensions are being provoked by those who didn’t manage to cause incidents when they lost power [in the elections] last August. I hope citizens will not support them,” Deputy PM Dritan Abazovic on Friday. “I hope that Djukanovic will not be present at the protest,” he added.

Montenegro’s President, Milo Djukanovic, and MPs from his opposition Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, have announced they will attend protests on Sunday by self-proclaimed patriotic organisations in Cetinje, accusing the Serbian Church of working to undermine Montenegro’s independence. [The country quit a state union with Serbia in 2006.]

“The announced religious gathering in Cetinje is an unbearably high-risk event and the government will be responsible for any possible incidents. We believe the authorities will consider all the facts and challenges that the act of enthronement may have for the future of Montenegro,” the DPS said on Thursday.

On Friday, the European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero Hernandez warned that encouraging ethnic and religious intolerance is dangerous to security, while the EU rapporteur for Kosovo, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, on Thursday criticised the former authorities for fomenting tensions in the country. / argumentum.al