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Oil Well Hunt in the Shadow of Ethnic Clashes in Montenegro

The inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was met with protests and accusations that the Church is a tool for Russian interests

Serbian Orthodox Priest outside Cetinje Monastery. Photo: Alamy

Oil Well Hunt in the Shadow ofEthnic Clashes in Montenegro

The inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro was met with protests and accusations that the Church is a tool for Russian interests

Montenegro, the tiny, mountainous Balkan nation on the Adriatic Sea, is being rocked by religious and ethnic tensions a year after an election unseated the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) that had ruled the country for three decades. 

While the country is no stranger to questions of national identity, the latest upset took place on 5 September, as nationalist and far-right groups protested the enthronement of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country. 

Joanikije II, whose official title is Metropolitan of Montenegro, was enthroned in the historic city of Cetinje. However, the day before the inauguration, hundreds of self-proclaimed patriotic organisations led by the DPS leader and Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic set up barricades to block access to the city. 

Djukanovic has been eager to curb the Serbian Orthodox Church’s influence in Montenegro, and instead build up an independent Orthodox church in the country. Many of the protesters belonged to the canonically unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

It was on Djukanovic’s initiative that a controversial bill forcing religious communities to provide a register of everything they own, as well as evidence of ownership from before 1918, was adopted in December 2019. 

The law effectively deprived the Serbian Orthodox Church of ownership of church buildings and estates, provoking mass protests that lasted for several months. The protests led to Djukanovic’s DPS losing the parliamentary elections in 2020. Despite his defeat, the country maintained its pro-EU and pro-NATO geopolitical orientation. Montenegro is a NATO member. 

Alongside the nationalist demonstrators were thousands of ethnic Serbs who had gathered in front of the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in the capital city of Podgorica to greet Metropolitan Joanikije alongside the Head of the Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije. 

The police reportedly used tear gas to disperse the protest. 


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Russian Interests

The Serbian Orthodox Church leaders, who are allegedly backed by Russia, arrived into the Cetinje monastery in what was believed to be a military helicopter.

Former Pentagon Official Michael Carpenter said in early 2020 that “the Serbian Orthodox Church was used as a tool of ‘soft power’ for the promotion of Serbian and Russian interests in the region.”

The move has provoked concern that a military helicopter of a NATO state was used to transport Russian allies at a time when Russia remains under sanctions following the invasion of Crimea in 2014. As soon as protests in Montenegro erupted, several pro-Western analysts and advocates were quick to blame Russia for its alleged attempt to destabilize the Balkan nation. 

Russia already has numerous connections to Montenegro. It was the first country to recognize Montenegro’s independence in 2006 and its oligarchs played an important role in the capital city Podgorica ever since. 

The late Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov purchased plots of prime land in Montenegro, while Oleg Deripaska, one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and the one closest to the Kremlin, owned the aluminium smelter and bauxite mine that produced most of Montenegro’s exports. 

Russian visitors to Montenegro also prop up its tourism industry which makes up 20% of its national economy. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, in 2019 Russians accounted for 29.1% of all overnight stays in the country. 

In response to the 2014 sanctions, Russia added Montenegro to the list of countries from which it banned food imports but never banned charter flights to the country – a measure that would have a serious impact on the country’s tourism. 

Russia also remains heavily involved in Montenegro’s energy sector, in spite of the sanctions. 

In 2016, Montenegrin authorities signed a contract with a consortium of Italy’s Eni and Russian gas firm Novatek, awarding it a 30-year concession for oil and gas exploration in the Adriatic Sea. 

Five years on, and the two companies have started drilling operations in waters offshore Montenegro. The collaboration shows that Russia and the West – often portrayed as bitter geopolitical rivals – manage to act like partners whenever they have a common interest. 

The results of oil and gas exploration off the Montenegrin coast could play a major role in the country’s European future. The country hopes to join the European Union by 2025.

It is therefore unsurprising that both Russian and French ambassadors to Montenegro were seen in Podgorica at the ceremony for the enthronement of the new Metropolitan. 

An End to Djukanovic’s Influence?

Several Western embassies in Podgorica have strongly condemned “all forms of violence” in the wake of the protests, saying that “individuals will need to be held to account for their actions.” 

Montenegro’s Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic confirmed that Djukanovic’s security adviser and former Director of the Police Directorate Veselin Veljovic was arrested in Cetinje having been accused of organising riots in the town.

The response could be another signal to Djukanovic, following his election defeat that the game for him is finally over.

During the three decades that DPS was the ruling party in the country, Montenegro’s position within the region had shifted multiple times. 

After 1992, it was a republic within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It then became a member state of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro up until 2006, when it became an independent country. 

Its complex history means it has a multi-ethnic society of people who consider themselves Montenegrins, those who identify as Serbs, and various other smaller groups. 

Of the population, those who identify as ethnic Serbs make up around one-third of the country’s 630,000 population. The majority of citizens also consider themselves members of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

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