Church, state, and rock and roll

Montenegro’s controversial law on religion is – unusually for Milo Djukanovic – a poorly thought through mistake.

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By David B. Kanin

My son went through a period during which he was in a series of punk rock bands. One was good – really good. It played in garages and then small commercial venues throughout the US and Europe. The group got a recording deal and put out a couple of CDs. It was never going to become the Beatles, but it attracted an audience and was set to do more touring and recording. Then it broke up. There were personal issues, of course, but what struck me about its demise was the sincerity with which its members disagreed over the direction of their music. Like other artists, these people passionately believed in the importance of the emotional and aesthetic content of their sound and their values. This band would not stay together for the sake of whatever success they might attain or even for the sheer pleasure to be had from having arguments. The feeling and the truth of the music mattered too much.

Politics, of course, does not – cannot – work like this. Power broker are brokers because they navigate among interests forever competing for whatever happens to be scarce. Unlike musical lyrics, law, communal lore, and the rhetoric of the Agora provide what stakeholders and supplicants know to be lubricating rationalization for no holds barred competition. A political system can be considered to work well when all sides accept the need for an existing system of structural and allegorical cover, as opposed to a violent conflict to construct and control a different one.

There is danger when politicians attempt to attach prevailing or insurgent religions to their personal stars. Usually, this is not because religious authorities usurp the prerogatives of patronage bosses – no matter Jean Calvin’s Geneva and current-day Iran things often work the other way around. Sometimes those holding secular authority do not take seriously enough the sincerity and passion involved with the value structures of religious believers. They forget that the Faithful are capable of challenging efforts to violate the tenets or venues of their faith even when religious authorities are as cynical, materialistic, or power hungry as their secular counterparts. Believers absorb mundane affairs into the sacred time involved in what to them are very real connections with God and with the valorous and heroic activities of those who came before them. Like artists, their thoughts and passions meld. That is a part of what is going on in Montenegro today. Djukanovic and his lieutenants intended their poorly conceived law on religious freedom as a power grab involving ownership of holy sites and a long-standing effort to undermine the residual influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church in independent Montenegro. The government played on disputes over authority involving clerics in Macedonia as well as Montenegro to put an end to the era of regional Serbian ecclesiastical hegemony put in place by Ottoman fiat around 1830.

Podgorica almost certainly intended this as a self-contained episode in the regime’s ongoing effort to secure all local levers of power against periodic efforts from Belgrade and Moscow to bring Djukanovic’s rule to an end. Protests from Serbian prelates, priests, and believers certainly were no surprise, but the numbers attracted to street demonstrations and the international attention paid to the dispute likely have amounted to more than Djukanovic expected. He has felt compelled to warn members of his own party not to attend protests directed against the new law.[1]

The politicians (and some outside pundits[2]) do not appear to realize these are more than mundane events. This dispute ties into quarrels in Orthodox Christianity that have accompanied the still-ongoing process of replacing the former Yugoslavia. Even the Russians got their hair mussed when they attempted to use Moscow’s “Third Rome” pretensions to orchestrate a power grab in the run-up to the Ecumenical meeting held in Crete in 2016. Arguments going back centuries involving the Patriarchs of Jerusalem and Antioch and residue from the Phyletism controversy at the Great Council of Constantinople in 1872 mixed with contemporary disputes between the Russian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, and other Orthodox Churches to spoil Moscow’s agenda. The disharmonies produced by these synchronic problems from different periods of history proved as decisive now as when each first emerged.

Orthodox believers in Montenegro are not going to simply accept the new law and relinquish the claim that Montenegro is an integral part of a greater Serbian universe, no matter the periodic existence of a separate Montenegrin state. If anything, Djukanovic’s effort to force a concession by Serbian Orthodox clerics to the supremacy of the secular state when it comes to defining religious property rights will strengthen the resistance to Montenegro’s current sovereign status. Being creatures of sacred time, the clerics and their flock will wait Djukanovic and his minions out because they know the political fashions of secular times will change (again).

This trouble has weakened the Big Man’s hold. Djukanovic, who skillfully weathered Moscow’s rather blunt effort in 2016 to oust him and prevent Montenegro from joining NATO, did not have to take the Church on so directly – his decision to do so may indicate his successful resistance to Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, knee-jerk Western acceptance of his less than transparent manner of governance, and deflection of Russian threats to his person and his rule have made him overconfident. Djukanovic is not about to go away – his political opposition remains weak and divided. Nevertheless, whether or not he reverses himself on this law, his less than sure footed approach to the issue suggests he is getting careless.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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