December 27, 2019

Balkan Tensions Flare as Montenegro Angers Serbs Over Church
(Bloomberg) -- Lawmakers in Montenegro passed a controversial bill on religion that may strip its biggest denomination -- part of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- of vast assets, and fan passions in a region still reeling from ethnic conflict.The former Yugoslav republic ignored objections from Russia and former ally Serbia as it adopted the law early Friday. The legislation requires religious communities to prove ownership over land and places of worship or see the property become assets of the state. At stake are hundreds of churches and monasteries, many built in the Middle Ages.Opponents of the bill held street rallies in several Montenegrin cities. At least 18 opposition deputies were detained by police for inciting violence, most of whom were released by Friday evening, while hundreds of opposition supporters took to the streets of capital Podgorica and other cities in the Adriatic republic, state broadcaster RTCG reported. Police were also deployed around the parliament to keep angry opposition activists away from the building.“This law will cause a great rift in Montenegro and a war among its citizens,” opposition lawmaker Slaven Radunovic said during debate over the legislation, which ended in a brawl among parliamentarians as they voted. Parliament speaker Ivan Brajovic said he banned lawmakers of the pro-Serbian Democratic Front for 15 days for causing the fight.The legislation is backed by the political party of President Milo Djukanovic, who has dominated the tiny Adriatic nation of 620,000 for three decades, evolving over that period from a Communist to a pro-Western leader who brought the country into NATO in 2017 despite opposition from Russia. His government says it merely aims to sort out ownership rights.Serbian TiesBut it has outraged the faithful, clergy and opposition groups, which have held prior protests demanding protection of religious rights and closer ties with Serbia, from which Montenegro separated peacefully in 2006 after other parts of the former Yugoslavia broke up in bloodshed. The country’s pro-Serbia clergy has blasted Djukanovic as an atheist bent on a Communist-style crackdown.In a sign of worsening relations with former ally Serbia, Djukanovic’s ruling party described the opponents as “outdated leftovers of the retrograde, aggressive Serbian nationalism,” according to a statement.Serbia is concerned over the fate of “sacred sites” in Montenegro but will stick to diplomatic means to protect its ethnic kin and their heritage in the neighboring country, President Aleksandar Vucic said at an event broadcast on TV, reiterating earlier calls for restraint.More than 70% of Montenegro’s population is Orthodox Christian, including a minority loyal to a separate Montenegro Orthodox Church that was formed in 1993 and isn’t recognized by other Christian communities. The local branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church controls most holy sites, some of which attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and the resulting revenue streams.While Montenegro and Serbia aspire to join the European Union, the latter has no intention of being part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which bombed their territory in 1999 during the Kosovo War, and has sought to maintain warm ties with Russia. Montenegro said in 2016 that it had foiled a Russia-backed coup aimed at killing Djukanovic and preventing his nation’s accession to NATO.Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has called for respect of the “legitimate rights” of the largest religious group in Montenegro.(Updates with comment from ruling party in seventh paragraph, Vucic in ninth)To contact the reporter on this story: Misha Savic in Belgrade at msavic2@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Irina Vilcu at isavu@bloomberg.net, Torrey Clark, Jake RudnitskyFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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