10 min read

What's up in Montenegro?

Hello, all! Cristina here. It's been a busy news week, with rumors about Taliban infighting, North Korean missile tests, and a feud between the U.S. and France over a new military alliance. As always, you can scroll down to read about what's going on in the world.

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This week I spoke with Ivana Stradner, the Jeane Kirkpatrick Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., about the recent events in Montenegro. Ivana's research focuses on cybersecurity, information operations, and Russia’s hybrid warfare in the Balkans and elsewhere.

A couple of weeks ago, many eyes on the Internet turned towards Montenegro when a large group of demonstrators barricaded the road from the capital Podgorica to the city of Cetinje.  

The demonstrators wanted to prevent the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), Porfirije, from attending the inauguration of Bishop Joanikije as the new head of the Montenegrin branch of the SOC. Many protesters argue that the Serbian Orthodox Church has too much power in their country – which officially gained independence from Serbia in 2006 – and they want their own national church to have recognition and supremacy.

The images that emerged from the country were dramatic. Police fired teargas at protesters, dozens were injured, and religious leaders were helicoptered into Cetinje and ushered into the 15th-century monastery there under cover of a kevlar blanket.  Arguments over how the protests were handled later created political instability.

Meanwhile, observers tried to figure out what the hell was going on. Was it ethnic tension, nationalism, religious strife, a combination of all three, or was something else to blame for the dramatic events?

Ivana, meanwhile, argues that Moscow is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the recent events in Montenegro, and I wanted to hear more about that. You can read our conversation below.

Disclaimer: This is just one interpretation of a very complex situation, and I'm aware that many other analysts, experts, and people on the ground will have their understanding of these events. I'm happy to hear from all of you and to include your thoughts when appropriate. Please email: c.maza@protonmail.com

Cristina: Can you explain in your own words what has been happening in Montenegro over the last few weeks?

Ivana: The Serbian Orthodox Church appointed a new head of its Montenegro branch, which resulted in violent protests among the Serbian Church’s opponents in Montenegro and the police.

Politics in the Balkans have always been complex, especially where religion, culture, and social factors are intertwined. But for many, the protests in Montenegro came as a surprise.

The protests occurred due to the region’s escalating ethnic tensions, which have existed since parliament passed a controversial religious rights law in 2019.

The government in Montenegro has also been divided on various issues, religion being chief among them, and the population is also divided.

Some see President Milo Djukanović and his 30-year rule as a reason for recent violence.  Others blame the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Montenegrin government for promoting pro-Serb and pro-Russian interests in the ruling coalition.

Additionally, isolationism in the West, especially on the part of the European Union, contributed to the current situation because the EU paid too little attention to the rule of law, democracy promotion, and corruption in Montenegro.

Finally, there is an external stressor, Russia, which has been using the Orthodox Church as a soft power tool to polarize an already vulnerable Montenegrin society for its own benefit.

This complex situation in Montenegro does not leave simple answers, and it’s crucial to analyze this situation holistically from different angles.

Cristina: Why is the Orthodox Church politicized in Montenegro?

Ivana: Religion has always played an essential political role in the Balkans.

There are recent examples of religious politicization, exemplified by the wars in the 1990s. The countries that split from the former Yugoslavia are still fractured along ethnic and religious lines, and Montenegro is no exception.

The recent protests in Montenegro were not anomalies but rather the result of numerous divisive events in recent years. For example, in 2019, Montenegro’s parliament approved a law requiring religious communities to prove property ownership dating from before 1918 (the year Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia.)

This controversial law sparked nationwide protests and prompted the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro to decry the initiative as “discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

A year later, during the parliamentary elections, President Milo Djukanović’s party did not secure its position in government. That allowed the newly elected government to propose changes to the previous government's law on religion. These changes sparked more street protests in Montenegro, and these divisions still exist.

Cristina: Is there widespread popular support for the Montenegrin Orthodox Church? And why were people angry that Bishop Joanikije was inaugurated as the new Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church's Montenegro branch?

Ivana: The inauguration of Joanikije, whose predecessor died after contracting coronavirus last year, laid bare a sharp political divide in Montenegro.

Montenegro split with Serbia in 2006, but its church remained under the Serbian Orthodox Church. Many people wanted to have a separate church independent from the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The political scene in Montenegro has been very polarized since the parliamentary elections last year. The newly formed government does not agree with the goals of the President of Montenegro. Both of the main political parties have been accusing each other of the chaos in Cetinje.

On the one hand, President Djukanović, who has been in power for more than three decades, accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of “dismissing Montenegro” and serving the interests of Serbia.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapić, who is close to the Serbian Orthodox Church, has accused President Djukanović of stoking ethnic tensions for political reasons.

Cristina: What happened recently in Cetinje, and what is the significance of this place?

Ivana: The head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, installed Metropolitan Joanikije as the new head of Montenegro’s Serbian Orthodox Church.  The ceremony took place at a monastery in Cetinje. The inauguration was followed by clashes between citizens and police that concluded with teargas to disperse protestors who were attempting to block access to the headquarters of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Cetinje.

Cetinje serves as an important symbol for Montenegrins because it previously served as Montenegro’s capital and because the city is the seat of the local branch of the Orthodox Church. Some Montenegrins also view the city as a symbol of sovereignty.

Cristina: What is Russia's role in all of this?

Ivana: There is no evidence that Moscow was behind the violent protests in Cetinje, but because the Kremlin has traditionally benefited from ethnic tensions, the results of the demonstrations in Montenegro will likely also be advantageous for Russia.

The Russian government is aware that ethnoreligious nationalism played an essential role in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. As a result, it utilizes hybrid-warfare strategies to stoke ethnic tensions to accomplish its goals in the Balkans.

Moscow desires renewed access to the Adriatic Sea, which was limited when Montenegro joined NATO in 2017.

Furthermore, Moscow wants to promote division among the population to secure its influence in Montenegro. The Kremlin’s role, especially regarding this population, is to safeguard the Orthodox Church and its adherents.

Indeed, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has appealed to Moscow for cooperation on religious issues through requests that the Kremlin “protect the Orthodox Church, considering everything happening in Montenegro and the entire region.”

The Orthodox Church is a soft power tool for Russia, long utilized to promote and proliferate national interests globally via the Russian World (Русский Мир).

Polarization within the Orthodox Church in Montenegro is not novel. The church has employed similar strategies in Ukraine.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, falling in line with previous church campaigns, has demonstrated its power through active participation in political processes and influence operations in Montenegro. Despite leaving its union with Serbia in 2006, Montenegro is still beholden to the doctrine of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his support for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, noting that “only by strengthening the unity of the Orthodox people can the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro be strengthened.” Recently, Lavrov has also accused the U.S. of destroying “the unity of world orthodoxy” and providing the Balkans as an example of the attacks on the Serbian Orthodox Church.

With high levels of domestic corruption, Serbian and Montenegrin leaders who benefit from political, ethnic, and religious unrest, Russia is again positioned to polarize further and influence the Balkans region. Left unchecked, the Kremlin’s influence via the Orthodox Church may have devastating consequences.

Many thanks to Ivana for sharing her insights. If you want an even deeper dive into the history behind the events, I recommend this Euronews piece by Aleksandar Brezar, which takes you back to 1852.

What I'm writing:

• As Congressional oversight on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan began this week in the House and the Senate, I wrote about the debate over how to deliver humanitarian assistance without violating U.S. sanctions against the Taliban.

• My colleague Zach Cohen and I wrote about how Congress plans to repeal and replace the 2001 Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF) in the wake of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan.

• I also wrote about bipartisan initiatives in Congress to pass sweeping anti-kleptocracy legislation. Fighting kleptocracy is becoming one of the standout issues that Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree about tackling.

Most of the articles are behind a paywall, so you'll have to subscribe to National Journal to read them!  

What I'm reading:

• A draft bill aiming to lower electricity prices was up for debate in Spain's parliament this week. El Mundo reports that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared war on electricity companies. [OK, but maybe the electricity companies declared war on people's pocketbooks. Everyone in Spain is constantly complaining about how high their bills are, and now people are even protesting the high electricity prices.]

Catalan separatists held their first major rally since the pandemic began, just days before fresh talks began between Spain's central government and regional leaders.

• Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša wrote a letter to EU leaders arguing that Europe needs to back Lithuania in its feud with China. “We must show more proactive and assertive solidarity with Lithuania. We must show China that we stand with each other and that we will not let China threaten any of us,” Janša wrote in a letter to EU heads of state and government. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said something similar during his meeting with Lithuania's Foreign Minister in Washington this week.

Bulgaria will hold its third round of parliamentary elections on November 14, the same day as the Presidential elections, Politico Europe reports.

• Serbia has created a new holiday that involves flag-waving. Yes, really.

• A former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) officer denied war crimes as a special tribunal in The Hague begins investigating allegations of atrocities committed by Kosovo's pro-independence fighters. Salih Mustafa is accused of torturing prisoners during the 1998-1999 conflict with Serbia, Reuters reports.

Ukraine asked Czech authorities to detain Aleksandr Franchetti, a Russian citizen wanted by Kyiv for his activities during Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, and is seeking his extradition. Radio Free Europe has a profile of Franchetti.

• The U.S., Ukraine, and others will start joint military exercises in western Ukraine next week, according to officials.

• Hacks on Belarus’s government by a group of pro-democracy activists called the Cyber Partisans uncovered details of apparent abuses by Belarussian security forces and exposed police informants, the Washington Post reports.

• United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson reshuffled his Cabinet this week, demoting Dominic Raab from foreign secretary. Liz Truss will replace Raab.

• An amendment was proposed to the 2022 defense bill that would pressure the Biden administration to sell or transfer new air and missile defense systems to Ukraine, potentially sending an Iron Dome battery currently operated by the U.S. Army, Politico reports.

• A newly declassified document from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reveals new connections between the September 11 hijackers and Saudi religious officials, Pro Publica reports.

• The Biden administration will withhold some military aid to Egypt over human rights concerns. The money it sends will also have restrictions on its use, Politico reports. Congress has put human rights-related conditions on $300 million worth of aid to Egypt. Still, the Secretary of State can and usually does overrule those conditions to let the support reach Cairo. This appears to be the first time the State Department will not use its waiver.

• Three former U.S. intelligence officers admitted to working as illegal mercenary hackers for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the Justice Department announced. According to court documents, they acknowledged hacking crimes and violating U.S. export laws that restrict the transfer of military technology to foreign governments.

• Germany expressed concern at reports of the possible deployment of Russian mercenaries in Mali, the Associated Press reports.

Speaking with the New York Times, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg threw his weight behind President Biden and pushed back against European complaints that the Biden administration failed to consult its European allies over the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Stoltenberg said that the objections were exaggerated and that NATO gave unanimous approval for the exit as far back as April.

The Taliban is desperate for international humanitarian aid. The UN received two written documents from the Taliban. "One was guaranteeing full humanitarian work of the U.N. and the respect by the Taliban to that full humanitarian work; and the second, that they are able to provide security and even escorts when there are situations of insecurity that would justify it,” the UN Secretary-General said.

• Taliban fighters are tightening their grip on the Panjshir region of Afghanistan by denying residents food and carrying out extrajudicial executions of civilians, the Washington Post reports, citing a tribal leader who fled the area.

The BBC reports that the Taliban is experiencing internal divisions between supporters of Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani. Baradar later made a television appearance to confirm that all is well.

• A group of Afghan Air Force pilots and their relatives – the same ones who fled the Taliban for Uzbekistan – flew out of Uzbekistan last weekend after the U.S. and Uzbek governments reached an agreement on their transfer, the Wall Street Journal reported.

• Members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have no plans to host Afghan refugees, bloc member Kazakhstan said.

• Qatar's Foreign Minister visited Kabul and met Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, the Prime Minister in the Taliban’s new acting government. He also visited former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the National Reconciliation Council, Al Jazeera reports.

• Apple issued software updates for all users after researchers from The Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity laboratory based in Canada, warned that the Israeli spyware company NSO Group developed a way to take control over nearly any Apple computer, watch, or iPhone.

• Guinea’s military rulers will begin talks over the country's future following the military coup last week, the Associated Press reports.

American Green Berets were training local forces in Guinea last weekend when the military (perhaps including individuals the U.S. was training) was involved in a military coup, the New York Times reports.

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You can also contact me for any reason at all by writing to c.maza@protonmail.com.