May 22, 2020

Widespread anti-government protests occurred in Montenegro May 12-16 to denounce the arrest of officials of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro (SOCM). The arrests and consecutive protests have reignited tensions with neighboring Serbia, with Montenegrin authorities accusing Belgrade of interfering in the domestic affairs of the country while Serbian authorities accuse Podgorica of discriminating against its ethnic Serb population. Further escalation of the civil unrest, as well as diplomatic tensions between Podgorica and Belgrade, remains possible.


Arrest of SOCM Officials and Demonstrations

The detainees, including a high-ranking bishop, had held religious services despite restrictions imposed on such gatherings as part of the country's effort to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19); several thousand members of the SOCM community attended. The decision to hold the officials in custody for 72 hours prompted demonstrations throughout Montenegro, with several dozen people initially using vehicles to block regional roads in the north of the country. Large groups later gathered in Berane, Nikšić, and Pljevlja, where demonstrators clashed with security forces, prompting several dozen arrests. 


Why This Matters

The demonstrations can be viewed as an extension of the dispute regarding the controversial Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Legal Status of Religious Communities, which the Montenegrin Parliament passed in December 2019, prompting major protests throughout the country. The SOCM has accused the Prime Minister of implementing an anti-Christian agenda and claims the law allows the state to seize some of its properties, including monasteries and churches. Demonstrators, led by Serbian Orthodox representatives and opposition politicians, staged numerous well-attended rallies throughout the country, with several thousand people attending demonstrations in major cities such as Podgorica, Bar, Berane, and Nikšić in early 2020. Related protests also took place in Serbian-majority areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, several cities in Serbia, including Belgrade and Novi Sad, and Serbian communities elsewhere in the region during the same period. The demonstrations were halted due to the restrictive COVID-19 measures, leaving the conflict unresolved; further escalations, perhaps manifesting as major demonstrations and civil unrest, are likely in the short-to-medium term. Diplomatic retaliatory measures between Serbia and Montenegro, such as temporary border closures and economic sanctions, are also possible at short notice and are relatively common during disputes in the Western Balkans. However, despite inflammatory rhetoric between Podgorica and Belgrade, neither government has yet introduced any concrete diplomatic or economic measures. 

The protesters have shown a willingness to protest in large numbers despite government restrictions. Reports indicated that most did not wear facemasks or follow social-distancing regulations. If demonstrations persist, authorities will likely use force to disperse crowds. This authoritative response could be exploited by the demonstrators to support their narrative of targeted discrimination. While low rates of COVID-19 infection have led the government to ease certain restrictions, if cases numbers rise as a result of the demonstrations, the government could reintroduce further measures. A reintroduction of restrictions could prove problematic during the summer season,  given the dependence of the Montenegrin economy on the tourism sector. 


Looking Ahead

The protest movement is unlikely to dissipate in the near future, as a resolution to the ongoing dispute will prove difficult to reach. The issue has the potential for wider escalation due to the possible involvement of regional political leaders. So far, the Serbian and Montenegrin governments have shown restraint, but belligerent statements by individual politicians aimed at appeasing their domestic support bases could further exacerbate social divisions and ignite additional, potentially violent, civil unrest. Inflammatory rhetoric is especially likely before the parliamentary elections currently scheduled for June 21 in Serbia and no later than October 1 in Montenegro. Protests will likely cause moderate business and transport disruptions, particularly in the event of counterdemonstrations or if protesters attempt to block major routes. Clashes between opposing demonstrators, or between police officers and disruptive crowds, could break out with little warning. Although the issue is sensitive, the dispute involves segments of Montenegrin society, and activists are highly unlikely to target foreign nationals for harassment or assault; any person in the vicinity of violent unrest would nonetheless face a significant indirect physical threat.


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