PODGORICA — As public structures in Montenegro were being splashed with the red, blue, and white stripes of neighboring Serbia’s flag earlier this year, there was little doubt about the vandals’ motives.
Montenegro’s government had just rushed a contentious new law on religions and faith through parliament in time for the Orthodox holidays, and the Serbian Orthodox Church that has mostly dominated religious life among Montenegrins for a century was furious.
So, too, were many pro-Serbian citizens of Montenegro itself — which had only declared independence from Serbia in 2006 — and Serb nationalists elsewhere in the Balkans.
Such opposition and related street protests have continued in Montenegro.
The Serbian Orthodox Church’s Montenegrin branch and pro-Serb political parties describe the legislation as an attack on their position in Montenegrin society and on hundreds of churches and other property holdings there.
Montenegrin officials like President Milo Djukanovic, who regards the Serbian church and its leadership as deeply hostile to Montenegrin national interests, have rejected the criticism even as they stump publicly for a greater role for a mostly unrecognized Montenegrin Orthodox Church that arose in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, the oversize Serbian “tricolor” has continued to make appearances in the capital, Podgorica, and other communities in Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic of around 620,000 people on the Adriatic coast.
On utility buildings. On soccer-field bleachers. On bridges. And on unfinished brick buildings.
Representations of the tricolor appear to be increasing in Serbia, too.
One building in Belgrade was slathered with red, blue, and white stripes and the words “Srpska Sparta,” a label frequently given to Montenegro by Serbian nationalists who oppose Podgorica’s referendum and 2006 declaration of sovereignty.
It is still unclear whether the graffiti is part of an organized campaign against the Montenegrin legislation, which could include the nationalization of hundreds of churches and other holy sites currently controlled by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
Its opponents include Serbian nationalist parties in and outside the Montenegrin parliament, other pro-Serb groups, and, of course, the Serbian Orthodox Church and its local eparchy, the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral.
Many people suspect the Serbian church is behind the graffiti. But the evidence so far has been circumstantial.
Tricolor flags have been an integral part of protests led by the church. And individuals guarding a huge tricolor-painted wall in a Podgorica suburb who clashed with police in January chanted a slogan that is often repeated at demonstrations against the new law, “We don’t give away our holy sites.”
But a video circulated recently on social media hints at a more formal role of Serbian Orthodox clergy and their faithful.
In the Serbian-language clip, which was shared and viewed more than 11,000 times on YouTube, a handheld video camera shows a Serbian Orthodox priest who tends to worshipers in Montenegro, Radomir Nikcevic.
He appears to ask an audience to donate money for paint in order to adorn public places in Montenegro with the Serbian tricolor.
“We have to provide these young people with money for paint. They come to my church community every day and ask us for 50 or 100 liters, and 100 liters of paint is 100 euros,” the priest says. “They paint red, white, and blue around them — whole playgrounds — and we have to give it to them. And that church blue and white color is the color of historical Montenegro. We have to support it.”
He goes on to say the money goes through “our metropolitan” and encourages people to contribute to the Gracanica Monastery in nearby Kosovo, which itself declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
The date and location of Nikcevic’s appeal is unclear. Attempts by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service to contact Nikcevic were unsuccessful, and other Serbian Orthodox priests declined to discuss the topic.
The new Montenegrin law requires religious entities to provide proof of ownership of their property prior to the controversial 1918 political moves that eventually made Montenegro a part of the Serb-dominated precursor to Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Failure to show such evidence could result in the property in question being nationalized.
The Serbian church is thought to control some 700-800 such sites, although the law gave Montenegrin authorities a year to compile a list of them all.
Occasional protests against the law have continued, usually with the blessing and frequently under the leadership of Serbian church leaders. That has brought thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of the legislation’s critics out into the streets.
Representatives of the Montenegrin government and Serbian church on March 11 held their second round of talks since the legislation was passed and signed into law in late December.
At their first meeting, Serbian church representatives reportedly proposed amendments to the law aimed at shifting the burden of proof of property ownership to the government.
Government officials have suggested there might be room for a mutually acceptable solution. The two sides are scheduled to meet again on March 17.