On September 5th, riot police in Cetinje, Montenegro fired tear gas on protesters on and dismantled barricades erected the day before.
Citizens organized an effort (now failed) to block the inauguration of the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in their country. At least 20 people were injured and none died in the clashes.
Montenegro’s state TV RTCG showed footage of Serbian Patriarch Porfirie and Bishop Joanikije arriving by helicopter at the monastery.
The two were surrounded by heavily armed riot police who held up bulletproof vests to protect the two religious leaders, an indication of state involvement in their transport by helicopter as well as the discontent on the ground in Cetinje.
Joanikije was inaugurated as the top Montenegro cleric later on September 5.
Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006.
Since then, some Montenegrins who are supportive of their nation’s independence have backed the formation of a new Orthodox Christian Church distinct from the Serbian one. Cetinje, the site of clashes over the weekend, is a former capital of Montenegro.
The situation turned volatile on September 4 as hundreds of protesters gathered to confront police around the Cetinje monastery in a bid to prevent Joanikije from officially becoming the new head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
Protesters had set up barricades consisting of tires and trash bins and threw fireworks and bottles at police as they tried to block the main road to government and religious officials coming in for the inauguration.
They chanted “This is not Serbia!” and “This is Montenegro!” While the night was relatively quiet, some spent the night on the barricades.
Montenegro’s population remains deeply divided over the country’s relationship with Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church. Nearly a third of the country’s population of 620,000 identifies as Serbian.
At the heart of the dispute over the inauguration are larger questions about what kind of country Montenegro is to be and what direction it wants to go in. President Milo Djukanovic, who led the country into NATO, went to Cetinje and said he was not taking sides as he is president to all Montenegrins.
But he also praised the protesters for safeguarding the national interest.
Separately, the Montenegrin opposition was accused of attempting to carry out a coup.
Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic claimed that former government of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and police officials incited the protests in order to destabilize and even destroy the country.
The DPS “initiators … were … in favour of a scenario that was supposed to have fatal consequences. It was an attempt to introduce Montenegro into permanent destabilization with elements of dissolution”, Abazovic said.
On August 15th, Veselin Veljovic, the former police chief and now advisor to DPS leader and President Djukanovic, wrote an op-ed calling on Montenegrins to rally in Cetinje in early September against Joanikije’s enthronement. In carefully worded language that amounted to a call to mutiny, Veljovic also called on his former police subordinates to disobey any orders to use force against the protesters.
In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic congratulated Joanikije on his inauguration and praised the government for proceeding with the event. Vucic told TV Prva in Belgrade that Serbia has “only the closest and best relations” with Montenegro.
The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, has put out a statement urging all sides to deescalate.
“Religious freedom and the freedom of expression, including to peacefully assemble, must be respected,” the statement said.
MORE ON THE TOPIC:
- Push For “Autocephalous” Montenegro Church Failed, It’s Now North Macedonia’s Turn
- Montenegro’s Opposition Turns Out To Also Be Pro-West, But What About The Church?