Bosniak citizens of Montenegro say fear and anxiety pervades their communities after a series of attacks and vandalism targeted the minority population following the country’s parliamentary election, which ushered in a new majority government dominated by right-wing nationalists.
The intense election campaign pitted President Milo Djukanovic’s pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) against the right-wing “For the Future of Montenegro” (ZBCG) bloc, comprised mainly of Serb nationalist parties that seek closer ties with Belgrade and Moscow.
ZBCG, combined with two other opposition alliances, achieved a razor-thin majority grabbing 41 out of 81 seats in parliament, bringing the DPS rule to an end after leading the NATO-member country for 30 years.
The campaign largely focused on a dispute over a law on religious rights introduced in late 2019, staunchly opposed by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC).
The SPC argued the law allows the state to confiscate its property in order to set up a separate church, sparking protests over the last 10 months supported by the opposition. The government has denied the allegation.
Attacks and provocations against Bosniaks began as soon as exit poll results were released last Sunday and opposition supporters began celebrating on the streets.
Bosniaks are the third largest ethnic group in the small Adriatic nation of 622,000 after Montenegrins and Serbs.
Two Bosniaks, a young man and his father, were attacked at a cafe in the city centre of Pljevlja on Sunday evening.
Abid Sabanovic, 22, from the town of Pljevlja told Al Jazeera some far-right supporters drove through Bosniak neighbourhoods with the sole aim of provoking residents there.
“These parts of the city aren’t situated on the main roads so there was no reason to go there,” Sabanovic said, adding the supporters were singing ultranationalist Chetnik songs about Draza Mihajlovic – a World War II-era Chetnik Serb figure .
“Such lyrics have nothing to do with the election, rather they represent an expression of nationalism,” Sabanovic said, adding there is “fear, anxiety” among Bosniaks.
Mihajlovic was the leader of the Serb nationalist Chetnik movement, many members of which collaborated with Nazi forces. According to historians, Chetnik forces killed tens of thousands of Bosniaks, Croats and other non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.
History repeated itself in the early 1990s when Serb forces identifying with the Chetnik movement committed genocide and war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, killing Bosniaks and Croats to make way for a Greater Serbia.
Bosniaks in neighbouring Pljevelja, situated 40km east of the Bosnian border, were not exempt from violence either. In 1992, with the outbreak of war in neighbouring Bosnia, Bosniaks were persecuted, tortured and killed in and around Pljevlja.
By July of that year, more than a dozen Bosniak villages near Pljevlja were “ethnically-cleansed”, and in September a series of 27 explosions targeted Bosniak stores and homes. Mosques were destroyed.
“It’s not surprising [they were singing ultranationalist songs] considering that both the SPC and the leading opposition party nurture ultranationalism and the Chetnikism,” Sabanovic said.
On Tuesday, unknown assailants broke the windows of the Islamic community’s local office in Pljevlja and left a note reading: “Plevlja will be Srebrenica”, referring to the genocide against Bosniaks committed by Serb forces in July 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia.
ALARMING: Attacks on premises of the Islamic community in Pljevlja, Montenegro, by Serbian nationalists with the message of hate: “Pljevlja will be #Srebrenica!”#MontenegroElections #Montenegro #izboriCG pic.twitter.com/p1Yg0iZxe5
— Mirnes Kovac (@MirnesKovac) September 2, 2020
The attacks continued until Thursday when the head imam in Pljevlja posted photos on Facebook showing graffiti scrawled on the brick wall and windows of a property reading “Turks” and “Srebrenica”.
Also drawn was the 4S cross, an old Serbian symbol used by Serbian far-right nationalists.
The situation in #Montenegro's #Pljevlja won't calm down. New nationalist and insulting messages towards city's Muslim #Bosniaks were sprayed on their venues last night. "Srebrenica", "Move away, Turks" are just some of the nationalistic messages… #awful pic.twitter.com/A82U1uGhUa
— Nedad Memić (@NedadMemic) September 3, 2020
Photos were shared on social media of messages written on roads and signs in a village near Pljevlja reading: “Move out Turks”, “Srebrenica”, 4S and “92”.
Evo ko je htio na ćirilici. Selo Odžak. pic.twitter.com/kKrMapYO3Q
— Ецце Хомо (@0takuCreep) September 3, 2020
“Some are really afraid. We often hear from elders how this all reminds them of 1992 when the terror against the Bosniak population of Pljevlja reached its peak,” Sabanovic said.
“Some are avoiding going out on the streets, which is understandable because there were a few instances where security for Bosniaks or their properties were threatened. It’s purely an expression of power.”
Policy analyst Ljubomir Filipovic from Budva told Al Jazeera the violence makes not only Bosniaks, but all progressive people worried about the future of Montenegro.
“The biggest group in the opposition is a xenophobic and Islamophobic community, which was supported by a 10-months long campaign that was portraying ethnic and religious minorities as the ‘regime collaborators’, thus creating a prelude to the violence that is taking place in the Montenegrin streets these days,” Filipovic said.
On Wednesday, leader of ZBCG Zdravko Krivokapic stood with priests of the SPC in front of Pljevlja’s main mosque and site of attacks, holding a banner reading: “We don’t give up holy sites!” in support of the mosque, regional media reported.
— Serblish (@SRBinENG) September 2, 2020
Regarding the attack on Pljevlja’s mosque, Krivokapic said at a news conference the same day, “We will defend mosques just as we defended monasteries.”
He added the opposition was not behind the Islamophobic attacks, rather it was “the result of the work of the regime system”, referring to Djukanovic’s DPS, Serbian media reported.
But Sabanovic said as long as pro-Serb leaders do not distance themselves from Chetniks and their ideology – which aims for a homogenous Serbia without minorities – their “defence” of Islamic holy sites cannot be taken seriously.
“An MP of the Democratic Front [part of the ZBCG bloc] has the title of a Chetnik ruler … We know [the SPC’s most senior bishop in Montenegro] Amfilohije spoke publicly about friendship with [Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal] Radovan Karadzic, the executioner of Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Sabanovic said.
“In 2014, [Amfilohije] spoke about how Islam is a false religion and Muslims are false people [and] that Montenegrins are a creation of communism.
“For the SPC, their banner in front of the mosque has no significance if the genocidal ideology which nearly exterminated the Bosniaks of Pljevlja villages and other parts of Sandzak and eastern Bosnia … is not condemned,” Sabanovic said.
“They only turn out to be hypocrites who obviously only care about scoring cheap political points.”