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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 3/3)
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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 3/3)

As it happened: conflicting narratives on non-violent protests

While the general vibe of these types of events is celebratory, one source assessed the atmosphere as follows: “The sight of the police, with ready rifles, which surrounded the entire circle around the monastery, caused everything except the festive mood.” (9). Considering that there were an estimated 1,800 armed police in attendance for a city of roughly 5,000 (census data for the region is more than a little outdated), it could be speculated that this presence was either a simple case of overkill or that they had anticipated full-scale violence and were prepared to respond to it. However, though the scene around the monastery was central to the action, the scene was recontextualised entirely by what was transpiring elsewhere, on the outskirts.

Due to the efforts of those who had stayed vigilant all night and planned a non-violent response effectively, barricades were raised – actively preventing anyone from entering or leaving Cetinje by road. With high numbers expected from both sides to arrive on the day, assumedly not all with positive and peaceful intentions, it could be speculated that, in hindsight, the barricades were a very tactful act of harm-reduction. When armed police began to amass at these barricades, they were met with the protestors’ simple but salient chant, “Ovo nije Srbija” – this is not Serbia. Meanwhile, near the monastery, a barrage of teargas and flashbangs from police was met with a wave of stones and other small projectiles, tossed by the protestors in retaliation. The streets, and even the apartments nearby, were flooded with noxious teargas.

In a sense, all of this was not entirely to do with the installation of Mitropolitan Joanikije. For quite a number of those on the ground, this was all about the pro-Serbian forces (both from within Montenegrin borders and from neighbouring Serbia) once again refusing to acknowledge the sovereignty of Montenegro – an independent country since 2006. Within the year leading to this weekend, a change of government had allowed those with closer ties to Belgrade access to arrange the functions of Montenegrin society from the top down. With this, there were also several dubious appointments to high profile positions. There was also the inevitable firing of those who would refuse to ‘walk the line.’ In this same vein, the appointment of Joanikije was seen as perhaps the most dubious and outright insulting appointment of all – both in terms of the who and the where – and likely the straw that broke the camel’s back for some, an act of aggressive clerical hegemony. To say there was one single unified set of political wills being manifested here would be entirely incorrect. There was plenty to be angry at, for a broad variety of reasons.


As the papers picked it up

Though there are some reports that protestors ‘fired guns into the air’ (as is mentioned in several prominent regional journalists’ work), this is still a subject of much contention for those who were in attendance. As such, I won’t attempt to clarify this one way or the other, merely state that I couldn’t substantiate the claim. What is for sure is that the new Mitropolitan (along with the Serbian Patriarch) had to be flown in by helicopter – all roads having been blocked and subsequently defended – and summarily escorted into the monastery by an armed guard, behind a bullet-proof blanket. The latter oddity was due to rumours, still unsubstantiated, but actively reported on as factual, alluding to the presence of a sniper in the nearby hills. It is entirely possible, of course, but this could just as easily be another glaring example of the wealth of malicious disinformation that continues to surround the weekend and shape the discourse thereof.

Serbian President, Aleksandar Vucic, congratulated Joanikije after the inauguration, remarking that the protests were not to be unexpected considering, “Cetinje is a town where some 90 per cent of the people are against the Serbian Orthodox Church, where there is hate towards everyone who is not Montenegrin” (10). During the enthronement in Cetinje, the verses of the song (a pro-Serb call to arms, effectively) were heard: “When the army returns to Kosovo”, allegedly sung by both revellers and those with a deeper and more formalised relationship with the church (11). Of course, when reporting on these things, sometimes the best possible approach is to let the imagery of the events themselves tell the tale. In the first two minutes of this clip (12), you will see Mitropolitan Joanikije and Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch, Porfirije, being escorted into the monastery under heavy guard and bulletproof blanket, mentioned above, to the cheers of the few pro-Serbian attendees who managed to somehow make it through the armed guard and Montenegrin protest group. In the background, the ring of the celebratory bells competes with the distant sound of flashbangs for centre stage. Not many metres away from where all of this was playing out, a source that many in Cetinje cite as trustworthy reported the situation as: “Flames are rising from charred car tires, and explosions can be heard down in the city.” – translated (13). Days after, the air in Cetinje was hard to breathe. The closer one got to the monastery; the more tears would involuntarily stream from the eyes. Scorch marks and rubble littered side streets for weeks afterwards. But the scars didn’t only manifest in visible and tangible forms.


Aftermath: statements from government officials, polarised media sentiment

In the wake of these events, several prominent Montenegrin government officials ended up accusing the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), of staging a coup attempt in the old royal capital. Deputy Prime Minister, Dritan Abazovic, went as far as to claim that “initiators … were … in favour of a scenario that was supposed to have fatal consequences. It was an attempt to introduce Montenegro into permanent destabilization with elements of dissolution” (14). However, this viewpoint represents a very pro-Serbian line of inquiry into the matter. The accusation goes that former government figures, alongside the police themselves, staged the widespread and prolonged clashes with the police on the weekend of Sep 5 (bizarre, I know). And yes, there were some central political figures in attendance. Milo Đukanović, the long-standing president of the DPS and former Prime Minister of Montenegro, for one, was pictured amongst the crowds. But, what’s the other side of the coin? Why would a city of a mere 5,000 inhabitants decide to attempt to halt the installation of a new Mitropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church? If we’re to just crunch the numbers here, Serbia has a population of almost 7 million, whereas Montenegro’s is just a little above 600,000. Surely, purposefully destabilising the country and actively visiting violence upon a force that dwarves their own isn’t exactly the most practical and logical of tactics.

Instead, one could assert that the actions of the protestors were those of merely taking a stand for their right to sovereignty and self-determination – in a manner as peaceful as the situation would allow for. Again, this is up for debate. Let’s have a look at the other side of this same coin. Given that Milo Đukanović, the former Prime Minister, is seen as having a prominent role in the protests by the Serbian-leaning media, in the interests of fairness, it is only right that I begin with his outlook. I should note that not all protestors present on the day wished to be in any way affiliated with him and his political beliefs and were quite frankly outraged that he should attempt to use the situation to gain clout.

So, for Đukanović, the main pain point he had been expressing was that the church was operating as an ideological-political organisation, as opposed to serving solely for purposes religious. To quote the president directly, he asserts that the Krivokapic (then Prime Minister, ousted in a motion of no confidence on Feb 4, 2022) administration was in the “service of the Church of Serbia, which is an instrument for implementing the Greater Serbia Project” (15). For those not familiar with the Greater Serbia Project, this is an ideology that aims to bring all areas of the Balkans deemed of historical importance to the Serbs back under their flag and control. As I alluded to earlier, Cetinje is of great historical importance to the Serbian people, and there was certainly an element present that would actively seek means to make progress toward realising the Greater Serbia Project’s goal.

Effectively, there is a sense that the worst that could have happened throughout this weekend would have been for a shot to be fired from a Montenegrin weapon. Such retaliation would have undoubtedly opened the floodgates for a response in kind. Yet, despite being pelted with rubber bullets, flashbangs, and tear gas, the protest group never escalated to the point of incorporating potentially fatal force. Ultimately, the peace in Cetinje (and most likely in Montenegro at large) was maintained this time. Though both protesters and police (20 officers and 30+ civilians) were hospitalised due to injuries sustained by rubber bullets and projectiles, and a cloud of teargas lingered over the city for days after the event, this had been a lucky escape from a situation that could easily have been a catalyst for much worse. To paraphrase The Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro at the time, Dritan Abazović: ‘citizens should be aware that the events of September 4 and 5 may have provoked large-scale conflicts that would have spread to other cities’ (16). Effectively, these events were again brought about by the meeting of two irreconcilable currents, bringing the region to the brink of civil war – and one that, for the most part, the rest of the world was blissfully unaware of.


Looking to the future: political uncertainty

No event happens in a vacuum. Likewise, events such as these can’t simply exactly be swept under the carpet and forgotten about after the dust has settled. There is a sense that these events didn’t exactly create new divisions in the tiny Balkan country. Instead, extant divisions were brought to the fore and exacerbated. With the Krivokapić, Bečić, and Abazovic led technocratic government having been ousted by a vote of no confidence as recently as Feb 4, 2022, political uncertainty seems to be the new norm for the time being. Effectively, there are quite a lot of unique voices right now, each just vying to be heard and to have their seat at the table. And, with the events recently in Ukraine/Russia, certain political desires and motives have become less concealed. Extreme nationalistic sentiments are often brought to the fore when events elsewhere occur wherein parallels can be drawn. Should such sentiment express itself here in its unadulterated purity, it would add further fuel to the embers of a fire that has yet to be extinguished. As recently as February 24th, thousands of protestors blocked 17 key roads in Montenegro in a show of support for the pro-Russian Democratic Front (17). As part of their reasoning for doing so, they insist that they will do “everything in their power” to prevent the DPS from returning to power. As it stands at the time of writing, there has yet to be a resolution that resembles anything approaching a manifestation of the will of the public.

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