January 13, 2020

Nationwide anti-government protests have been ongoing since late December in condemnation of a controversial law, which the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) in Montenegro claims allows the state to seize some of its properties, including monasteries and churches. The dispute has increased tensions between Montenegro and neighboring Serbia as Serbian authorities view the legislation as an attempted infringement on the autonomy of the SPC in Montenegro for the benefit of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. Demonstrators, led by Serbian Orthodox representatives and opposition politicians, have staged numerous rallies throughout the country, including in larger cities such as Podgorica, Bar, Berane, Bijelo Polje, and Nikšić. Sporadic clashes between demonstrators and police have been reported. The issue has also caused heated rhetoric between Montenegrin and Serbian politicians. Diplomatic tit-for-tat measures between Podgorica and Belgrade and further escalation of the civil unrest remain possible.


About the Law on Freedom of Religion and Legal Status of Religious Communities

St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro

The Montenegrin Parliament passed the Law on Freedom of Religion and Legal Status of Religious Communities Dec. 26, during a highly tense session in which scuffles between members of parliament occurred, resulting in the arrests of several opposition politicians. The law states that the property of religious communities in Montenegro can be seized unless the community can produce evidence of ownership from before 1918. Serbian Orthodox adherents in Montenegro typically view their religious identity as closely aligned with their ethnic-Serbian identity; consequent sensitivities over the new law have engendered widespread dissatisfaction and unrest.


Thousands Attend Demonstrations in Montenegro

Demonstrations have taken place almost every evening since the passing of the law. They have generally been well attended, with several thousand people taking part in protests in Podgorica, Bar, Berane, and Nikšić; reports also suggest that several hundred Serbian citizens have joined related gatherings. Isolated violence between police and protesters has been reported at several events, and demonstrators have blocked main roads in major cities. Police have reportedly used baton charges and pepper spray against protests and have so far arrested several dozen demonstrators. Related demonstrations have taken place in Serbian-majority areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and additional protests are possible in Serbia itself and among Serbian communities throughout the region.


Looking Ahead

Despite inflammatory rhetoric between Podgorica and Belgrade, neither government has taken any concrete diplomatic or economic measures; nevertheless, such actions – possibly including temporary border closures and economic sanctions – are relatively common during such disputes in the Western Balkans and remain possible at short notice.

The protest movement is likely to persist through January and could intensify in the event of pro-government counterdemonstrations. Although none have been reported so far, they remain possible, and sensitivities over the issue increase the likelihood of confrontations between rival protesters. The dispute has the potential for further 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.

Large-scale 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, it is a dispute between 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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