How the use of ethnonationalism backfired in Montenegro

The governing DPS inflamed ethnic tensions to take attention away from corruption scandals. Then it lost the elections.

Opposition supporters celebrate after the parliamentary elections in front of the Serbian Orthodox Church of Christ's Resurrection in Podgorica, Montenegro on August 31, 2020 [AP/Risto Bozovic]

On Sunday, Montenegro’s governing party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), lost a closely-contested election after being in power for 30 years. Three opposition coalitions – Peace is Our Nation, Black on White coalition and For the Future of Montenegro alliance – secured 41 out of 81 parliament seats in total and have started negotiations to form a new government.

Although the defeat of DPS, led by President Milo Djukanovic, who has been perceived as increasingly authoritarian, should have been a welcome development, many see his opponents coming to power as an even more dangerous development.

The pro-Serbian and pro-Russian For the Future of Montenegro managed to mobilise its electorate by flaming ethnonationalist sentiments. The 27 seats it won on Sunday were seen as a victory by much of the Serbian community in the country, which makes up roughly 30 percent of the population, and was celebrated by Serbs in Republika Srpska, the Serb-led entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia proper.

Meanwhile, the Muslim minorities in Montenegro, which constitute about 20 percent of the population, felt threatened. In the city of Pljevlja, the Islamic community building was attacked and Bosniak residents were verbally and physically assaulted. Attacks against Muslims were reported in other towns as well.

These developments come just four years after the country faced a coup attempt, allegedly backed by Russia and Serbia. There are now increasing fears that the election results will bring a pro-Russian, anti-Western coalition to power which will threaten the country’s stability, ethnic peace, European integration and independence.

How did Montenegro get here?

Over the past 30 years, Djukanovic has skilfully manoeuvred on the Montenegrin political scene to retain power. In the early 1990s, when he first became prime minister, he was close to the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. In the following years, however, he increasingly distanced himself from Belgrade and adopted pro-independence policies, spearheading the 2006 independence referendum, which led to Montenegro splitting from what remained of Yugoslavia.

The country then started on the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, opening European Union accession negotiations in 2012 and joining NATO in 2017. The latter was opposed by a considerable part of the population, especially the Serb community due to NATO’s bombing during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.

The 2016 coup attempt was reportedly orchestrated to prevent NATO membership, but the DPS government foiled it and proceeded with the integration process.

While maintaining a pro-Western foreign policy, which won him Western support, Djukanovic’s DPS government was increasingly shaken by corruption scandals and growing fears of creeping authoritarianism. In 2015, Djukanovic himself was named “person of the year in organised crime” by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

As public anger over the mass-scale corruption grew, popular anti-government protests erupted in 2019. It was then that Djukanovic started circulating a draft Law on Freedom of Religion and Conviction and the Legal Status of Religious Communities. The law sought to cement the autocephaly of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which split from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1993 and was passed in December 2019, angering the Serb community in the country.

Critics of the government have questioned its timing. By passing this law, Djukanovic diverted attention from his corruption scandals and authoritarianism and played the ethnic card, just like other Balkans leaders frequently do.

Resurgent ethnonationalism

The passing of the law had the intended effect: It took attention from the corruption scandals by inciting greater ethnic polarisation.

The DPS and its partners portrayed the law as the rightful restitution of church property which was taken away from Montenegro after the country lost its independence to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918, which eventually became Yugoslavia. Establishing an independent church was supposed to reassert Montenegrin sovereignty.

The Serbian Orthodox Church, however, viewed this as an attempt by the Montenegrin government to take property which it believed it rightfully owned. The Serb community naturally rejected the law. During the discussion of the bill in parliament, Andrija Mandic, the leader of Democratic Front, now part of the For the Future of Montenegro alliance, threatened to “dig up the buried weapons”, a reference to the massacres of Muslims that took place in Yugoslavia in the 20th century.  

He called on the Muslim MPs, whose support was crucial to maintaining a DPS majority in parliament, not to back the law, saying “if you come after our church, we will come after your homes”.

The official Islamic Community in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina strongly protested against what they saw as a call for another genocide. After the ethnic cleansing and genocide campaigns by the Serbian leadership of Serbia and Bosnia, Mandic’s comments cannot be taken lightly, especially as he is known to have been a supporter of the convicted war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Vojislav Seselj.

This anti-Muslim sentiment is rooted in what American historian Michael Sells called “Christoslavism,” a peculiar blend of Orthodox Christianity and South Slavic nationalism, which sees Slavic Muslims as traitors. In this expansionist nationalist ideology, Slavic Muslims are seen as apostates from Christianity.

Mandic’s rhetoric, along with official statements by the Serbian Orthodox Church, galvanised the Serb population, which took to the streets to demand the government rescind the law.

Led by the Serbian Orthodox clergy, thousands protested against the law in major Montenegrin cities for months. While the protests were largely peaceful, they also produced roadblocks that were reminiscent of similar tactics employed in the build-up to the conflicts in the 1990s.

Officially, the Serbian government also opposed the law and put pressure on DPS to annul it. But unofficially, as Vesna Pesic, a Serbian human rights and anti-war activist, has pointed out, Djukanovic and his Serbian counterpart Alexsandar Vucic, both benefitted from the tensions and were more in agreement than they appeared to be.

For Djukanovic, the political gain he was pursuing was strengthening Montenegro’s position vis-a-vis Serbia by marginalising the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has opposed his rule. For Vucic, the endgame is the ethnic division of Kosovo and, eventually, Bosnia and Herzegovina and pulling Montenegro back into Serbia’s orbit.

Major miscalculation

Thus the Religious Freedom Law was no more than an attempt of the corrupt ethnonationalist elites to stay in power and to continue their nationalist agendas. But it was also a major miscalculation by Djukanovic.

The Serbian Orthodox Church and supporters of the Greater Serbia emerged as the winners in this contest for power. The priests used religion to mobilise the Serbian population, tapping into the Serbs’ notion of historical victimhood. It was this voter mobilisation that ultimately swayed the vote in favour of the opposition.

Djukanovic not only lost, but he also missed a precious opportunity to create a truly civic identity in Montenegro. By turning to ethnonationalism, he has proven to be no different from the majority of the leaders that have unfortunately thrown the region into a neverending loop of divisive nationalist rhetoric.

What next?

A government formed by the three opposition blocs is far from stable. Dritan Abazoviq, an ethnic Albanian and the leader of the United Reform Action and Black on White citizens platform, emerged as an unlikely kingmaker. Staying true to his commitment to reform and opposition to Djukanovic, he provided enough seats to form the majority and potentially end Djukanovic’s three-decades-long grip on power.

At the same time, he is heavily criticised for joining efforts by For the Future of Montenegro to form a cabinet due to their anti-NATO, anti-Western, pro-Russian and anti-minorities rhetoric.

Even though the new ruling coalition pledged to uphold the existing international treaties and European integration, it is unclear how this will be reconciled with the burning of the NATO flag, and threats against minorities during the electoral campaign. Abazoviq insists on the formation of a government of experts and has pledged to withhold his support if the emerging coalition takes a strong pro-Serbian stand.

All this could make the proposed ruling coalition unstable and create a space for Djukanovic to entice smaller parties in the new coalition, such as United Reform Action, to leave. This would trigger either a formation of a new coalition or would lead to new elections. While his corruption is well documented, Djukanovic is still a better option, as the alternative would push Montenegro into Russia’s orbit.

His participation in government would ensure Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration and should be supported by the West, which can also exert strong pressure on Djukanovic to commit to anti-corruption reforms and perhaps even resign. The other possible scenario is for smaller parties to not join either of the two coalitions. This could result in a constitutional crisis or could lead to new elections, with uncertain outcomes.

In the end, the choice is between a coalition led by a corrupt leader with a strong commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration, and a coalition that currently affirms Montenegro’s treaties but whose major component has a strong history of pro-Serbian, pro-Russian and anti-minorities tendencies. Looking at recent violence against the Muslim minorities in Montenegro, the second option would destabilise Montenegro. This is something the United States and the EU should work hard to avoid.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.