The Montenegrin parliament, in a repeat vote, passed on January 20 a crucial Law on Religious Freedoms which President Milo Djukanovic refused to sign a month ago, now forcing him to either concede and sign or violate the constitution.
The original law drafted by Djukanovic early last year triggered a wave of protests across Montenegro and ended his DPS party’s 30-year-old parliamentary rule, the longest in Europe. His initial idea, which cost him dearly, was to enact the law to strip the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church of its vast assets across the tiny Adriatic littoral country.
The church rose up and for the most of the last year held masses and processions across the country of some 630,000 people led by the late Archbishop Amfilohije, one of the most influential figures in the Serbian Orthodox Church, who paid with his life for snubbing the COVID-19 pandemic rules of social distancing and wearing protection masks during the protests and rites. The Serbian Orthodox Church then paid an even steeper price – the Patriarch of the Church, Irinej, followed him soon after by catching the virus at Amfilohije’s funeral.
Djukanovic failed to secure a majority seats in the autumn elections. He lost by one seat. The 81-seat Montenegrin Parliament ushered in, last December, a new conservative, pro-Serb coalition government, which surprisingly stuck to the foreign policy course created and pursued by Djukanovic, i.e. NATO membership and a non-withdrawal of Kosovo’s recognition.
The only departure from Djukanovic’s path so far is the aforementioned Law on Religious Freedoms, which has now been amended to allay the fears of the Church, and passed before Christmas and which he then refused to sign and returned it to the Parliament for another vote.
Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said that the adopted Law on Religious Freedoms means security for the Serbian Orthodox Church’s assets and property in Montenegro.
“This law does not need to treat property issues, that was the error in the previous version of the Law. Djukanovic must sign it now after being passed twice”, he said.
Indeed, if Djukanovic really wants to infuriate his political opponents further, his nationalist DPS party – adamant opponents of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the law – has one recourse left open: to file a petition to the Constitutional court for final legal judgement.
However, sources close to his cabinet claim he will sign it and put the matter, which forced a hiatus in his unquestioned rule, to rest for a simple reason in that it actually suits him that someone else does the dirty work for him. “There is no way he can be seen signing the law, which caused such a furor among the Montenegrin nationalists and the promoters of an independent Montenegrin Church,” a Western diplomat said.
An extremely savvy and cunning pro-Western politician, Djukanovic lost the elections in a wave of acrimony and allegations of corruption, nepotism and crime. He, who transformed himself from Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s favorite prodigy to his arch-nemesis, survived the fallout of this close relationship, evaded criminal charges against him in Italian courts, made quiet deals to spare his country from serious bombardment in the 1999 NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo and reconfigured the country from a Russian semi-satellite to a NATO member that is on a solid track to become a member of the EU.
After losing by a single seat, he then stoically relinquished power to his opposition, enduring, albeit red-faced, the inaugural session in the Parliament which was an ordeal in character assassination by his political foes. But apart from words, there were no sticks or stones to break his bones – no criminal charges, no persecution of any kind that was so widely promised and cheered during the elections and the days that followed the inauguration of the new government, which strangely enough, for still-yet-unexplained reasons, took months to happen.
Indeed, there are now a lot of signs to see for those who know where and how to look for an answer whether Djukanovic’s power has genuinely diminished or not. The answer, for now, is a resounding “no”.
During the more than one month of cohabitation, Djukanovic has blocked several crucial steps by the government, proceeding from the Law on Religious Freedoms, to allow changes in the military, police, judiciary, or diplomatic service. Everything and everybody else who matters, remain in their positions, as if Djukanovic’s DPS is still in power – the feared state prosecutor, the police, the army, the judiciary – all remain untouched. Some die-hard pro-government insiders still argue: “for the time being”.
A prominent businessman, who fell afoul of Djukanovic and left the country for the safety of UK, assumed with the changing of the government he would victoriously return home. It did not happen, and in the meantime, he was stripped of all his assets in the country, worth millions.
In another, far more serious, example with far-reaching consequences, Foreign Minister Djordje Radulovic directly helped Djukanovic to show who is still the boss in Montenegro. He is Djukanovic’s Trojan Horse”, Dalibor Kavaric, a prominent local lawyer said.
Radulovic’s claim to diplomatic fame stems for his recent position of DCM in the Montenegrin Embassy in Bucharest in contrast to scores of veteran diplomats with better schooling and many more years of experience. He has already stirred up a hornet’s nest with the inexplicable recall of several ambassadors on the unfounded grounds that they were working against the state, which resulted only in the further embarrassment of the government, especially when most of them refused to return home, Kavaric noted.
Another indication that behind the scenes, Djukanovic still pulls the strings and his cronies in the government apparatus, police and judiciary he set up over the past 30 years have not all abandoned him, is the case of Serbian Ambassador to Montenegro, Vladimir Bozovic.
Just days before the handover of power, Djukanovic’s outgoing Foreign Ministry accused Montenegro’s native son, Bozovic, of “interfering in Montenegro’s internal affairs” and ordered his expulsion on November 28 in contravention of the Vienna convention.
Not wanting to make things worse, Serbia’s government did not follow suit expecting the new Montenegro government to rescind the decision. It still has not happened, despite initial promises by the new authorities. In the meantime, those assurances are getting quieter, while the relations between Serbia and its erstwhile ally, Montenegro, are gradually worsening.
Insiders claim that Serbia will not recall Bozovic and still considers him its Ambassador to Montenegro for at least next three years. Instead of scrapping the flawed decision, the new Foreign Minister insists that the old protocol must be respected. The new prime minister and his deputy seem powerless to rein in the civil servant they ostensibly appointed.
In truth, however, they can’t. The well-mannered and soft-spoken Bozovic is intensely disliked by Djukanovic, chiefly because he was very close to the latter’s nemesis – Archbishop Amfilohije. They were born in the same little central town and in the traditionalist and conservative Montenegro, that bond bears serious weight and mutual commitment.
This, in turn, accounts for the fact that no visits were exchanged as yet despite the Montenegrin Prime Minister’s vow to first visit Serbia after he gets sworn in – because Serbia insists that any talks must be attended also by their Ambassador Bozovic. In meetings with foreign diplomats in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, Radulovic uses this as an excuse to blame Serbia for not wanting to improve relations.
It also impairs the forming of the mini-Schengen area in the West Balkans which will enable free flow of trade, goods, people and services, an idea supported both by the EU and US, but opposed in the region by Pristina and its ally Djukanovic.
While many hoped or believed that Djukanovic after losing elections, would flee the country and his DPS party would dissipate, it is obvious that he is still calling the shots. With the only one rock he ever struck in the 30 years of navigating the treacherous waters of Balkan politics, the Law on Religious Freedom, out of the way, he now only has to wait for this coalition government to make one mistake and fall apart.
For Djukanovic, getting back that one seat in the parliament should be a walk in the park and it is up to the current government to show whether that would be good or bad for the region. Unfortunately, if the book is to be judged by its cover, expectations for a good read are pretty low, observers say.