The politics of worship in Montenegro

Historical context

Since 1997 the ruling elite had embraced the main tenets of Montenegrin nationalism and worked on reconstituting Montenegro as a sovereign and independent state, thus, re-establishing the continuity of statehood with the medieval proto-state formations of Doclea and Zeta. That continuity, they argued, had been broken when in 1918 Montenegro was annexed by Serbia following the gathering known as the Podgorica Assembly of the Serbian People in Montenegro. Reconstituting the CPC had been the essential part of this state-building process which reached its goal following the results of the May 2006 referendum on independence. Both the SPC and those who voted in 2006 against independence never recognized Montenegro’s new status, bitterly complained about its international recognition and referred to the CPC as a Satanist Cult.

The historical document relating to the pre-annexation status of the CPC, however, tells us a different story. Prior to the Podgorica Assembly and the subsequent annexation, the CPC was independent and autocephalous. It is listed as such in the Sintagma catalogue of Easter Orthodox churches (1851) and in a Catalogue published by the Patriarchate of Constantinople (Athens, 1855). Article 40 of the Constitution of the Principality of Montenegro (1905) proclaims Eastern Orthodoxy to be the state religion and the CPC to be autocephalous. Before 1918 the CPC had been led by the Holy Synod, and on the bases of the Constitution of the Holy Synod in the Principality of Montenegro (1903), The Constitution of the Eastern Orthodox Consistories in the Principality of Montenegro (19804) and the Law on Parish Priesthood in the Principality of Montenegro (1909).

Before the annexation, the state had the right of ownership over the church buildings and adjacent lands while the church had the right to use those. As was the case with his predecessors, Prince Nikola I Petrovic enjoyed such a right until the introduction of reforms in 1868. Following the annexation, the ruling elite in Serbia and the SPC justified their acquisition of church buildings and lands in Montenegro by characterising the Podgorica Assembly as a revolutionary act, and by referring to the meeting of Easter Orthodox dignitaries in the newly formed Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SHS) in May 1919.

The meeting known as the Gathering of All Serb Eastern Orthodox Archbishops decided that every Serb Orthodox eparchy should unite into one unit. That decision served as the basis for the June 1920 decree by the Regent Aleksandar Karadjordjevic announcing the unification of all Eastern Orthodox eparchies in the newly formed Kingdom which preceded the request to the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Constantinople for the elevating of this unified church to the level of Patriarchy.

The document issued on February 22, 1922 and signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Melentije IV, clarifies that the action taken was more in line with church economy (opportunism) than with canonical rules. The Royal Government of the Kingdom SHS had paid the fee of 1.5 million golden francs to the Ecumenical Patriarchy in Constantinople. It is unclear if the current government of Montenegro is either contemplating making a payment for the Tomos confirming the autocephalous status of the CPC, or if such a payment would have any pacifying effect on the ongoing crisis.

Timing and method

The most important question, however, is about timing and method: why now and why so hastily? The most obvious answer would be that this is an election year and political actors are trying to strengthen and stabilize their respective electoral bases. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition DF have, nevertheless, lost some of their political capital in the current crisis. For the ruling coalition, adopting a law in the parliament after the entire DF Caucus had been placed under arrest is not the shiniest example of democratic standards.

For the DF, encouraging violence, issuing threats to and hurling insults at political adversaries, and destroying furniture inside the main parliamentary chamber shows political desperation and emotional fragility. The DF have, without doubt, lost the greatest amount of political capital. They self-branded as radical opportunists whose political ear has for some time been turned towards Belgrade, and whose actions have been designed in coordination with the ruling elite from a neighbouring state. Moreover, the leadership of the SPC in Montenegro has denied the DF any future opportunity to fully articulate the popular discontent of the Serbs from Montenegro, which has isolated this political coalition even further.

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