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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 2/3)
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Shaping Discourse: Rising Political Tensions in the Western Balkans (Part 2/3)

Overlapping demographics, with a multitude of differing wills.

Moving to the current, the numbers that are in play here are more than enough to enact the will of those in charge – that is, if they hold enough sway and have mastered the all-important skill of harnessing the media for their own ends. An estimated one-third of the population of Montenegro identifies as Serbian, which far surpasses the frequently quoted 3.5% (4) of any population deemed the base requirement to overthrow any government. If it were ever to be boiled down to a mere game of numbers, that would be that. But don’t allow me to lead you into thinking that these demographics work as well-defined factions, separate from one another and isolated from alternate viewpoints entirely. Within any given family unit, it is entirely possible to have one cousin who identifies as a true Serb, whereas another may consider themselves a thoroughbred Montenegrin. Groups of friends, when tensions are low (they mostly are), will also contain a verifiable melting pot of cultural, religious, and ethnic identities.

To return to the specific conditions in Cetinje, which is often described as almost akin to a state-within-a-state, the percentage of the populace that refers to themselves as Serb falls to as low as 3.9% according to census data dating from 2011 (5). To further add complication to the process of figuring out who is who and how political power is gained and expressed, the religious and political spheres of the country are inseparable – one feeds into the other in an ouroboric fashion. But surely the church and the state, working in unison, should provide some stability, no? Well, it depends on what ends exactly the Serbian Orthodox Church is working towards. This is not to overlook that there was at least a vague sense of stability in the region up until recently – an attempted assassination attempt in 2016 on the former Prime Minister by a group containing both Montenegrin and Serbian citizens, aside (6).

 

From stability to potential collapse

Stability. The condition attached to this relative stability was that it came at a great cost to the Montenegrin people, as widespread allegations of corruption amidst poverty tarnished the former premier’s reputation. Today, widespread corruption is still a part of life in the Western Balkans, and with those charged with enforcing the law on meagre salaries, there isn’t likely to be much change on this any time soon. It is for exactly this reason that several EU member states have expressed their reluctance to entertain the idea that Montenegro could one day join the union, leaving the country somewhat stuck waiting for Godot. Compounding that, many of the countries in the region “are slipping down democracy and anti-corruption indices” (7), with Montenegro being no exception. In recent times, huge investments into the infrastructure of Montenegro, by the Chinese government and in the form of loans, have resulted in the country’s debt reaching 80% of its GDP. Though these investments may have created opportunities in the short run, some note that there is also the chance that the range of political possibilities moving forward could effectively be limited due to dependency on the comparatively goliath state.

Now, to prelude the events of the weekend of September 5th: On 4 December 2020, the new technocratic cabinet, headed up by Zdravko Krivokapić, was formed. Seen by Montenegrin nationalists as a cabinet that was overtly sympathetic to the wishes of Belgrade, tensions rose almost immediately in Montenegro. Between September 2020 and May 2021, the Ministry of Interior Affairs registered 152 pro-Montenegrin protests and gatherings.

 

Cetinje: Sep 4th and 5th, 2021

The premise for these events is remarkably simple to grasp if one chooses not to analyse it too deeply, getting far more complex the deeper you dig. The head (Mitropolitan) of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Cetinje, Amfilohije, had passed on from Covid and a replacement thus needed to be appointed and installed. Depending on the cultural backdrop, an event of this type is bound to be a relatively mundane event that will either carry a pleasant and wholesome set of celebrations into the streets or simply be conducted behind closed doors. However, in this case, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the political sphere are not to be thought of as separate entities. Many have claimed that the Serbian Orthodox Church effectively engages in feeding the hungry, while also serving up propaganda advocating for the expansion of Serbian territory with a view to consuming Montenegro. As one reporter put it, “the Serbian Orthodox Church is a political actor, with some of its representatives spreading extreme Serbian nationalism.” (8). Given that this is a widely held belief among the population of Cetinje, and that this incumbent Mitropolitan habitually fails to respect the sovereignty of Montenegro, it is understandable that many weren’t exactly moved to welcome him with open arms into the Royal Capital. Of those who were in opposition to his appointment, the first aim was to simply have the inauguration relocated from Cetinje to elsewhere, where it would have transpired with minimal resistance. However, as time rolled by, it became increasingly apparent that this would not come to pass.

Having been on the ground in the lead up to these events, the atmosphere can only be described as tense. Almost daily demonstrations at the monastery and plenty of heated debates outside the many bars along the pedestrianised thoroughfare, Njegoševa, loomed ugly and overbearing over the picturesque centre. The 24/7 presence of armed police at the monastery didn’t do much to alleviate the climate of apprehension, either. Given the reality that peace in the region is not to be taken for granted, many were outwardly fearful about what was to develop in the coming days. On many occasions, I was advised to leave the country. The ‘invading force’ was coming, and there were rumours abound that many intended to bring out their weapons and defend their place in the world. Notably, there is no shortage of arms in the country. As one person I suspect may have desired to do exactly that solemnly declared, “war is coming.” Others among the crowds planning their move in the streets and bars had a different plan, however.

The result of this ‘plan’ has been the source of much debate ever since – with opinion masquerading as fact throughout both Serbian and Montenegrin publications alike – depending on which way they lean. As such, the best I can do is to draw out the sentiment from news publications on both sides for analysis, countering and attempting to verify this with what I can glean from those who were in attendance.

Continued next week…

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