“We are ready to die for our church and that is what we are demonstrating tonight.” This provocative statement was given by Andrija Mandić, the leader of the opposition in the Montenegrin Parliament, on the eve of the recent passage of a controversial law on religious property in the country. This law stipulates that the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), the largest religious institution in Montenegro, must be able to prove ownership of the properties that it currently holds dating back to the pre-1918 era of Montenegrin independence in order to avoid these properties potentially being seized by the Montenegrin government.
Mandić’s seemingly hyperbolic statement was accompanied by forceful action. On the night of the vote, Mandić and legislators from his pro-Serb political bloc Democratic Front (DF) hurled firecrackers and tear gas canisters at their colleagues while the vote was taking place, and attempted to destroy the microphones that were being used during the proceedings. This incident resulted in the arrests of 22 people, including Mandić and 17 other DF members of parliament.
The dramatic events surrounding the passage of this law prefigured the slew of protests, many of them organized and led by Serbian Orthodox clergy, that would soon occur. Since the law’s passage in late December, tens of thousands of SOC supporters have been gathering at least twice a week throughout Montenegro to demonstrate against the law. The fact that so many people have taken to the streets in support of the SOC is no small feat given that Montenegro is a small country with a population of just under 630,000.
On a surface level, the politics of the opposition to this law are fairly straightforward. DF as a political bloc is comprised of four parties, three of which are Serb-dominated parties that advocate for Serbo-Montenegrin unionism and work to actively undermine the Montenegrin state. Additionally, the SOC’s interests in seeing this law rescinded are also understandable, given that it stands to lose property and potentially financial resources and parishioners in turn.
However, things become more complicated when attempting to understand the motivations behind the Serbian government’s role in this crisis. Serbian state-run media outlets have been actively promoting a narrative claiming that Montenegro’s Serbian population is under attack and being discriminated against. This narrative has been embraced by many Serbian nationalists, exemplified by the burning of the Montenegrin flag during an attack on the country’s embassy in Belgrade.
This incident is one of several examples of Serb nationalists across the Balkans adopting the cause of the Serbian Orthodox Church against the Montenegrin state. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia’s presidential body and an avid Serb secessionist, stated that without the SOC “there is no freedom for the Serbian people.” Backing up his words of support for the SOC with action, Dodik recently went so far as to block a state visit to Bosnia from Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović over the church dispute. It is clear that this matter is not solely about religion, but has also become a proxy issue for a wider cultural and geopolitical conflict.
The close ties between the SOC and the Serbian government provide some context for the intervention. In a recent interview with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej said that “the church looks after its affairs and the state too. In our history, it has always been best when symphony ruled between the state and the church.” He also went on to say that the church has a “full understanding” of the state’s needs and that many of the church’s issues are “resolved by the state.”
The SOC’s concern about the religious property law is not solely that it may lose property, but also that if the Montenegrin government seizes SOC property it will then give that property to the SOC’s ecclesiastical rival, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC). The MOC was established in 1993 and mirrors the SOC in almost every way, except for the fact that it is largely unrecognized by the wider Orthodox Christian community.
Despite this non-recognition, the SOC views the MOC as a direct challenge to its authority. The most recent data indicate that a little over 70 percent of Montenegro’s population identifies as Orthodox Christian, with roughly two-thirds identifying with the SOC and the rest with the MOC. Irinej has made the Serbian church’s feelings about its Montenegrin counterpart abundantly clear, having gone so far as to the call it “a parasynagogue or a sect devoid of divine grace.”
There are striking similarities between this case and the formal schism between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that occurred in late 2018. The months leading up to this event were marked by significant tension, exemplified by Russian President Vladimir Putin claiming that this divorce could turn into “heavy conflict, if not bloodshed.” This thinly-veiled threat followed several years of armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, specifically Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in the Donbas, which has resulted in around 13,000 deaths to date.
Similar to the church-state dynamic in Serbia, the close ties between the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church are evident. The Putin regime has become notorious for its use of Orthodox Christianity as a tool for projecting its soft power abroad and has framed itself as the defender of Christianity and traditional values. Additionally, while the Serbian Patriarch claims that it has never enjoyed greater symphony with the Serbian state than it does currently, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill has stated that for the first time in its history the Russian government treats the ROC as “an equal partner.”
Also, like the conflict in the Balkans, the schism between the ROC and OCU sparked demonstrations and provoked nationalistic sentiments. During a December 2018 rally leading up to his unsuccessful reelection campaign, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised his supporters that they would have a church “without Putin . . . without Kirill . . . a church that doesn’t pray to the Russian state and the Russian army.” As with the Serbia-Montenegro ecclesiastical dispute, this one between Russia and Ukraine is part of a wider cultural and geopolitical conflict.
While it is apparent that religion can play a significant role in geopolitical conflicts and promote intense reactions from nationalists regardless of their country of origin, the question still remains: Why does it play such a role? The scholarship of the late British historian Eric Hobsbawm sheds some light on this matter. In his seminal work, Hobsbawm called religion “an ancient and well-tried method of establishing communion through common practice and a sort of brotherhood between people.” This sentiment echoes the work of his late colleague Benedict Anderson, who emphasized the crucial role that the so-called “religious community” plays in national identity formation.
Notably, Hobsbawm specifically references the roles of the SOC and the ROC in their respective national contexts as exemplars of this phenomenon. He discussed how the former preserved the historical memory of the old Serbian kingdom “in daily liturgy of the Serbian church which had canonized most of its kings,” and how historically belonging to the Russian nation was understood as being synonymous “with being a ‘true believer’ or Orthodox.”
It is worth clarifying that while Eastern Orthodoxy is the particular Christian sect being discussed here, it is not the only one that has been appropriated by political elites. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban consistently invokes the country’s Roman Catholic roots to justify his conservative social and immigration policies, and the important role that evangelical Protestantism has played in modern American politics is well-documented.
However, Eastern Orthodoxy is uniquely suited to have a fundamental role in national identity formation due to its autocephalic governance structures and the fact that each country has its own ecclesiastical institution. These institutions are governed exclusively at the national level by patriarchs at the head and tend to dominate a country’s religious landscape. This system stands in stark contrast with Roman Catholicism, which has a completely centralized and universal governance structure with the Pope as its leader, and Protestantism, which has no single centralized authority but rather numerous separate denominations that are institutionally disparate.
The historically important role that both the SOC and ROC have played for the Serbian and Russian people respectively provides at least a partial explanation for the close ties that both of these institutions have with their national governments. Following the collapse of both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the political elites of newly-independent Serbia and Russia needed a compelling national narrative upon which to legitimize their statehood.
The national churches of these countries filled that void. They were symbols of independence that predated communism, and were thus thought to have preserved the true essence of the nation throughout the communist era—hence their contemporary ties with their national governments.
Such relationships work to confer moral legitimacy on the regime. A clear example from the Serbian Orthodox Church occurred this past October when it bestowed President Vučić with the Order of St. Sava, its highest honor, for “his active love for the mother church, unwavering commitment to the unity of the Serbian people, and the tireless struggle for the integrity of Serbia.” This mirrors when the Russian Orthodox Church presented President Putin with an award in May 2013 for supposedly making Russia “a powerful and strong country that has self-respect and is respected by others.”
The key role that religion plays in national identity formation and legitimizing political elites, along with Eastern Orthodoxy’s unique effectiveness in this process, makes it clear why the leaders of Montenegro and Ukraine desire the full autonomy of their own national churches. Đukanović has explicitly made this point, stating that “we are driven . . . by an indisputable need to complete the spiritual, state, and social infrastructure that will strengthen citizens’ awareness of their own identity.”
The full independence of the Montenegrin and Ukrainian churches is not only understood to be a means of cementing the national identities of their respective countries’ citizens, but also as a way to counter the irredentism espoused by foreign ecclesiastical bodies. Again, Đukanović has explicitly made this point, calling the Serbian Orthodox Church “among the most important instruments used by the ideologists of a ‘Greater Serbia’ nationalism against Montenegro, against Montenegrin independence, against its national, cultural, and religious identity.” In fact, Đukanović has framed this entire ordeal as “a continuity of the (attempted) destruction of Montenegro and obstruction of its intentions to continue its path to . . . European and Euro-Atlantic integrations.”
Likewise, Poroshenko framed the importance of the independence of the OCU as an element of Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia: “Unity is our main weapon in the fight against the Russian aggressor. This question goes far beyond the ecclesiastical. It is about our finally acquiring independence from Moscow.” While treating ecclesiastical disputes as matters of national security may seem extreme to some observers, it is only logical given that the influence of the SOC and ROC are part and parcel with Serbia and Russia’s programs of irredentism against their neighbors.
The obvious similarities between the SOC-MOC and ROC-OCU disputes, which until now had been confined to the remarks of observers, have begun to inspire action by some of the parties involved. Metropolitan Onufriy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate—a constituent part of the Russian Orthodox Church—recently led a mass demonstration in Podgorica against the religious property law in support of the “persecuted” Serbian Orthodox Church. Onufriy going to Montenegro in order to lead this protest is a clear indication of the Russian church siding with the Serbian one.
The Russian Orthodox Church’s decision to make common cause with its Serbian counterpart has significant implications. On the one hand, it reveals a certain level of anxiety and vulnerability. This decision is a recognition of the precedent that would be cemented if the Montenegrin church was to in fact become the dominant spiritual force within Montenegro and eventually gain wide recognition within the Orthodox world. The Russian church took a blow to its legitimacy as the de-facto leader of Orthodoxy when the Patriarch of Constantinople decided to grant autocephaly to the OCU, an episode that it does not want to see repeated by another breakaway church.
Despite the defensive posture that the ROC seems to be taking with Onufriy’s trip to Montenegro, it can also be seen as a geopolitical maneuver in multiple ways. For one, it builds upon the already strong ties between the Russian and Serbian governments, and further plays into Russia’s narrative as the leader of the Slavic Orthodox nations. Moreover, it is a continuation of Russia’s effective soft power strategy in the Balkans, central to which is a strong affinity for Russia amongst the Serbian people.
The geopolitics of this move are even more evident when looking beyond the Russian-Serbian relationship and putting it in the context of Russia’s recent history in Montenegro. The relationship between the Montenegrin and Russian governments has been frayed ever since Russia supported a coup in Montenegro in 2016 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the country from joining NATO, for which two GRU agents and two Montenegrin opposition politicians were recently found guilty by a Montenegrin court.
While this failed coup attempt is undoubtedly the most outlandish example of Russian malign influence in Montenegro, it is hardly the only one. For the past several years, Montenegro has been a hub of illicit finance from Russian oligarchs and various money laundering schemes at the hands of their patronage networks. Additionally, Montenegro to this day is a target of Russian disinformation campaigns aimed at creating public disorder, weakening trust in the country’s institutions, and sowing chaos, the latter of which is the hallmark of the Kremlin’s strategy in the region.
None of the above should be understood as an endorsement of the utilization of religion by political elites to cement national identity. On the contrary, anytime that a single identity marker, such as religion, ethnicity, or language, is promoted as the defining feature of a citizenry, it risks alienating and implicitly condoning mistreatment of any minority groups within the polity that do not share the identity marker. In general, civic national identities are preferable as they tend to be more inclusive.
Nor is any of the above an endorsement of the use of religion by political elites to give their regimes moral legitimacy. All the leaders I’ve discussed have presided over notoriously corrupt regimes with little regard for civil society or the rule of law. Such leaders often use religion as a cudgel to sure up support within their countries, even as they operate sophisticated and corrupt patronage networks at the expense of the very citizens to whom they use religion to appeal.
Despite all of this, the fact remains that both Montenegro and Ukraine should be entitled to have their own independent and recognized national churches as a matter of territorial sovereignty. That is not to give carte blanche approval to however Montenegrin and Ukrainian leaders may use these national churches in support of their respective regimes, but it is to say that these countries are just as entitled to their own national ecumenical institutions as Serbia and Russia are. Montenegro and Ukraine are facing significant threats to their national security from irredentist forces either internally, in the case of the DF in Montenegro, or externally, in the case of Russia’s ongoing illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. As long as this status quo persists, the geopolitical role of their ecumenical disputes will only grow in importance.