Riots of nationalists in Montenegro and projections on Ukraine

A difficult ministry is awaiting Metropolitan Joanikije. Photo: UOJ

The enthronement of Met. Joanikije of Montenegro and the Littoral in Cetinje caused riots of radical nationalists. We analyze events and draw parallels with Ukraine.

On September 5, 2021, the enthronement of the new bishop of the Montenegrin-Littoral Metropolis of the Serbian Church, Metropolitan Joanikije, took place at the Cetinje Monastery. He became the forty-first Metropolitan who ascended the throne in Cetinje, but this time the ceremony was under serious threat. Montenegrin nationalists, incited by President Đukanović, tried to disrupt the enthronement: they blocked the roads, set fire to tires, and caused real chaos and riots. Patriarch Porfirije and Metropolitan Joanikije had to travel to Cetinje by helicopter. Moreover, shocking shots flew around the world, as the special forces were forced to cover the bishops with shields from nationalist snipers, and the Primate of the Serbian Church himself said that there was a real threat to their lives. What does all this mean for Montenegro and how can it backfire in Ukraine? Let's try to figure it out.

Metropolitan Joanikije of Montenegro and the Littoral. Photo: REUTERS / Stringer

Metropolitan Joanikije (Mićović) was appointed the ruling bishop of the Montenegrin-Littoral Diocese at a meeting of the Council of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the end of May 2021. His predecessor in the seat, Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radović), died from the after-effects of the coronavirus on October 30, 2020. Vladyka Amfilohije led thousands of protests in Montenegro against the anti-church law adopted by the authorities. During these protests, Metropolitan Amfilohije openly called on believers to vote in parliamentary elections against the current government of Đukanović. His calls resonated with the citizens of Montenegro. Opposition parties won the elections with a slight advantage, and Zdravko Krivokapić became the country's Prime Minister, who positioned himself as a believer of the Serbian Orthodox Church and promised to abolish the anti-church law if he came to power. This law has not been abolished until now, but the provisions that threaten the Church have been removed from it. In the course of the mass manifestations against the proposed "Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities", Bishop Joanikije was arrested by Montenegrin police for leading a religious procession and spent several weeks in prison.

Metropolitan Joanikije and the Montenegrin-Littoral Metropolis, and the Cetinje Monastery in particular, where the enthronement took place, have had a long history together. In 1992, he was appointed abbot of the Cetinje Monastery and at the same time a teacher and main instructor in the re-formed Cetinje Seminary. Since 1995, Metropolitan Joanikije served as the rector of this seminary; in 1999, he was ordained the Budimlja vicar bishop of the Montenegrin-Littoral Metropolis and placed as the caretaker rector of the Cetinje Theological Seminary. In the Metropolis of Montenegro and the Littoral, he served until 2001, when the Budimlja- Nikšić Diocese was restored as a separate independent unit of the Church. During the rectorship of Metropolitan Joanikije, schismatics from the so-called “Montenegrin Orthodox Church” (MOC) repeatedly attempted to seize the Cetinje Seminary. In February 2021, Metropolitan Joanikije was one of the candidates for the election of the Primate of the Serbian Church.

Even before the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije, reports of threats from local nationalists began to appear in Cetinje: Vladyka Joanikije was hinted at an attempt on his life, and the believers were threatened with reprisals. The President of Montenegro Milo Đukanović, on whose initiative the anti-church law was adopted in 2019, accused Serbia of politicizing the upcoming enthronement, saying that Belgrade "has been belittling the self-determination of Montenegro for a long time", and demanded that the enthronement take place not in Cetinje, which is the historical and cultural centre of Montenegro, but in Podgorica, the official capital of the country. In response, Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić accused Milo Đukanović of escalating tensions and said that "the President of Montenegro should be held accountable for all citizens, and not just for his voters".

Zdravko Krivokapić himself refused to participate in the enthronement, explaining this as follows: “I will not go, not because I don’t want to or I have no reason. I do not want my presence to provoke negative reactions and become a pretext for unwanted events." Perhaps, this was a balanced decision aimed at calming things down, but Krivokapić was severely criticized. For example, one of the leaders of the Democratic Front political bloc Andrija Mandić said that Krivokapić, having become prime minister, didn’t keep his promises to support the canonical Church.

“It was at the request of the Church that we agreed to give him the first place on the coalition's list. Some people in the Church believed that he would be completely devoted to the Mother Church and would do whatever the SOC expects of him. Unfortunately, Krivokapić refused this. I think that what he is told in some Western embassies is more important to him now than the opinion of the hierarchs of his Orthodox Church,” A. Mandić said in an interview. If we recall that in June 2021 Z. Krivokapić at the last moment refused to sign the Agreement with the Serbian Church, then the opinion expressed by A. Mandić does not seem unfounded. Then the Serbian Church regarded the refusal to sign the agreement as an "act of open discrimination".

Organization of riots

Before the day of the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije, the nationalists, who, according to the local media, were coordinated by President M. Đukanović, blocked all roads in Cetinje, staged riots and clashes with the police. One of the instigators of the riots was Veselin Veljović, who served as director of the Montenegrin police until December 2020 and is now an advisor to President M. Đukanović. He was arrested by the police, but it is not known whether he will be prosecuted.

Riots in Cetinje. Photo: REUTERS

The police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, but this did not help. The barricades were left, and on the day of enthronement, Cetinje remained blocked. Serbian Patriarch Porfirije and Metropolitan Joanikije had to be transported to the city by helicopter.

Despite the protests, the enthronement did take place. The celebrations were attended by representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Metropolitan Anthony of Boryspil and Brovary and Metropolitan Sergiy of Ternopil and Kremenets.

The delegation of the UOC took part in the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije. Photo: news.church.ua

When presenting the metropolitan crosier to Vladyka Joanikije, Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Porfirije said: “Our Church has elected you. And with this sacred rite, we did not come here to take something away, threaten someone or, God forbid, steal something. We have arrived to perform the sacred rite of your enthronement in the seat of the bishop of this God-saved diocese."

In his speech, Metropolitan Joanikije said that he would pursue a policy of the Church's independence from the state and non-interference in political affairs. Vladyka also apologized for the riots and actions of the radicals, which he defined as “artificial divisions in society”, which will take time to overcome.

Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic commented on the radicals' protests during the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije: “Part of the Western forces in the region perceive the Serbian Orthodox Church as the Russian Orthodox Church in the territory of the former USSR. Just as it is necessary to destroy the ROC on the territory of Ukraine, some Central Asian countries (although this did not work out for them), so the Serbian Orthodox Church must be destroyed."

Videos and pictures from Cetinje, where the commandos were covering Patriarch Porfirije and Metropolitan Joanikije from snipers with special shields covering the view, flew around all the leading mass media. Already leaving Montenegro, the Primate of the Serbian Church confirmed that the actions of the security forces were not superfluous: “I am very happy because we have accomplished the work of the Church, enthroned the Metropolitan by the will of the Church and the people of this episcopate, people who deeply love the Church of St. Sava. But I am more than sad, I am even horrified that there were people in sight who intended to prevent this act of love for all with the help of a sniper rifle."

Patriarch Porfirije and Metropolitan Joanikije, under the protection of special forces, going to the Divine service at the Cetinje Monastery. Photo: radiosarajevo.ba

Reaction of the OCU and Ukrainian officials

In Ukraine, the events around the riots of the Montenegrin radicals were commented unequivocally – they say, the patriots are protesting against the "occupation Church". The fact that quite recently half of the population of the capital of Montenegro has regularly participated in religious processions of these "occupiers" did not bother anyone.

For example, the Ukrainian consul to Montenegro, Mikhail Shmatov, supported the actions of the radicals. The situation in Cetinje, where representatives of nationalist movements and the schismatic “Montenegrin Church” protested with the flags and symbols of Montenegro, reminded him of the 2014 Euromaidan and the fight against the “Russian world” in Ukraine.

“By the way, this is another lesson for Ukraine. How the ‘Russian world’ uses religion, sports, and anything else for its own purposes. Everything is politics when it comes to the aggressor country. We have to fight on every front,” the consul wrote on his Facebook page.

And in some ways, Shmatov was right. Montenegrin schismatics actively participated in the riots and encouraged the radicals as best they could. And this was quite reminiscent of the Euromaidan, where the Uniates and Ukrainian schismatics diligently incited protest moods among the activists. For example, the Montenegrin "bishop" Bojan Bojovic posted on his Facebook a photo where he "heroically" confronts the Montenegrin law enforcement agencies. Isn't it just footage from the Kyiv centre in 2013-2014?

Montenegrin "bishop" Bojan Bojovic confronting law enforcement officers in Cetinje. Photo: Bojovic's Facebook

Bojovic's actions received a warm response among Ukrainian schismatics. "Bishop" Gabriel Kryzyna posted on his Facebook page a video commentary by Bojovic, where the latter called the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije "shame" and "occupation of Cetinje". Kryzyna commented on his post: "The SOC has no prospects in Montenegro, just like the ROC in Ukraine, because you cannot fool people with lies."

The "Dean" of the OCU in Chernivtsi, Ivan Makovei, wrote in the comments to Kryzyna’s publication that he personally knows Bojovic and the head of the Montenegrin schismatics Dedeic; and with them, he "has gone through a lot together".

The spokesperson for the OCU Ivan (Eustratiy) Zoria said that Metropolitan Joanikije allegedly denied the existence of the Montenegrin nation: "The Serbs, under the protection of special forces, are imposing a hierarch on the Montenegrins, who believes that there is no Montenegrin nation." Also, commenting on the arrival of the bishops in Cetinje by helicopter, Zoria asked caustically: "So if ‘there are no Montenegrins’, who is the Serbian Patriarch and his hierarch so tightly guarded against?"

The interesting thing about all this is that the OCU longs for recognition from the Serbian Church. When Patriarch Porfirije became the Primate of the SOC, Sergei Dumenko immediately sent him his congratulations, which were repeated by the Embassy of Ukraine in Serbia on all its social media accounts. Moreover, Dumenko even went to humiliation after the scandal with the same Bojovic, who was identified in Montenegro in photographs from the OCU “divine service” in Kyiv. Sergei wrote a letter to Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral (Joanikije’s predecessor) where he apologized for "concelebrating with the Montenegrin schismatic", explaining this incident by "negligence and inattention".

Nevertheless, as we see, the OCU has already forgotten about the scandal with Bojovic and eagerly support their Montenegrin “brothers”. Have they really given up the longed-for recognition by the Serbian Church?

What's next?

What does this all mean for Montenegro? Why did such tough and relatively numerous protests become possible in a country in which not so long ago up to half of the population went to religious processions in support of the Serbian Orthodox Church?

First, the national radicals do not get too hung up on the question: do the majority of citizens support them or not. They work out their agenda without paying attention to how their actions will be perceived by society.

Secondly, the current President M. Đukanović, who openly supported the riots and even personally joined the protesters, is very concerned about his personal prospects of being in the presidency. According to the Constitution, Montenegro is a parliamentary republic and the President in it has mainly ceremonial powers, but this post allows him to influence politics through political parties. This is exactly what has been the case for the last 30 years before the recent elections: M. Đukanović was the de facto ruler of the country, without having nominal powers. But in 2023 his presidential term will expire and there will be a serious struggle for the opportunity to be elected for a new term. Therefore, it is extremely important for M. Đukanović to keep his electorate in good shape and from time to time to declare himself with loud actions and statements.

Thirdly, the position of the country's Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, vested with real powers, is very shaky. He does not represent any party but was elected by a broad coalition of parties that united against M. Đukanović. This coalition has only one vote over the supporters of M. Đukanović in the Parliament. Therefore, any unrest, any destabilization of the internal political situation can destroy this coalition and lead to the revenge of the nationalist forces in Montenegro. Moreover, Z. Krivokapić is now being criticized by both the opposition and his own associates. The former – for allegedly pro-Serb and pro-Russian policies, and the latter – for failure to fulfil their promises, including support for the Serbian Church.

This instability of the ruling coalition contributes to the fact that a hard political struggle will continue in Montenegro. Nationalists will undermine the situation and try to destroy the ruling coalition. Unfortunately, it is the Church and the religious feelings of citizens that are used to destabilize the situation. It remains to be hoped that with God's help, the new Metropolitan of Montenegro and the Littoral Joanikije will be able to keep the Church from being drawn into political confrontation.

There are even opinions that the riots in Cetinje are an attempt to arrange a kind of Montenegrin Maidan, and the enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije is just a pretext. In any case, blocking roads, burning tires and threats of physical violence is a political action by nationalist forces that can lead to both positive and negative results for them. Everything will depend on the reaction of the Montenegrin authorities, Z. Krivokapić and his Cabinet of Ministers. If they bring all participants in the riots to justice, the position of the nationalists will significantly weaken while a purge of the bureaucratic apparatus of M. Đukanović's adherents can also be carried out. If this does not follow, and there are many moments that point that way, the national radicals will feel their impunity and will continue disturbances.

Parallels with Ukraine

The church situation in Montenegro has a direct projection onto Ukraine. Both here and there, the authorities created schismatic organizations: in Ukraine – the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in Montenegro – the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Both here and there, the authorities, with the help of anti-church laws, are trying to deprive the Church of its property. Both here and there, national radicals are organizing acts of intimidation. True, regarding the recognition of schismatics by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Ukraine is far ahead of Montenegro. It should also be noted that the mass protests of Orthodox believers against the anti-church law in Montenegro served to a certain extent as an example for Ukrainian believers. And the fact that as a result of these protests, the political team of M. Đukanović lost power, gave food for thought to those in power in Ukraine: will the oppression of the UOC turn out to be a defeat in the next elections.

The harshness of the actions of the Montenegrin radicals, unfortunately, will serve as an example for the Ukrainian radicals. Therefore, the probability of any provocations against the bishops, clergy and believers of the UOC increases. We should expect an increase in the “hate” addressed to the UOC in the information field. But we repeat once again, the situation with the unrest in Montenegro has not yet been exhausted, it is not yet clear how serious the reaction of the authorities will be, and all these circumstances will have a certain impact on the situation in Ukraine. In any case, the believers of the UOC should be ready to stand up for their Church and provide support to Her by all legal means. 

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