PODGORICA (Reuters) - Montenegro’s president accused Serbia and Russia on Friday of using the Serbian Orthodox Church to undermine his country’s pro-Western government as it seeks European Union membership.
Milo Djukanovic, who has ruled for over three decades, said that a series of rallies against a religion law which have been led by Serbian Orthodox clerics in the tiny Balkan country were intended “to question Montenegro’s independence.”
Metropolitan Ilarion, a Russian Orthodox Church cleric, has voiced support for the interests of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. Metropolitan Onufriy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is loyal to the Moscow patriarchate, joined protests this week in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.
“If you are asking whether this is a continuity of the (attempted) destruction of Montenegro and obstruction of its intention to continue its path to ... European and Euro-Atlantic integrations, there’s no doubt in that,” Djukanovic told Reuters in an interview.
“Moscow was unequivocal in stating its interests in the ongoing (religion) problem in Montenegro.”
Djukanovic accused Belgrade of reviving the nationalistic concept of a Greater Serbia that contributed to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and former Yugoslavia’s collapse.
“We have no doubt that ... all the mechanisms of the implementation of the Greater Serbian state project ... have been put into motion, and that Montenegro is also a target,” he said.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed Djukanovic’s remarks, saying: “Nobody could possibly undermine his own doings more than himself.”
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic rejected Djukanovic’s comments. Referring to protests he has faced un the country of 620,000, she said he had “a problem in his own country and with he citizens of Montenegro.”
“I am surprised by the rhetoric of President Djukanovic ... Serbia has abandoned 1990s long time ago and turned to the future,” Brnabic said, adding that Serbia was demanding for Serbs in Montenegro only the right to their own language and religion.
The protests that began in December are over a law which would allow the state to take ownership of church property if the church cannot prove it owned it before 1918 - when the-then Kingdom of Montenegro joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia.
The Serbian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion in Montenegro, a country of 620,000 people, and has around 12 million members, mainly in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia.
Serbia and Montenegro are both negotiating entry to the EU. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, but Belgrade is not seeking membership of the defense alliance.
Ethnic Serbs account for around a third of Montenegro’s population. Many Serbians have roots in Montenegro and families in the country, while tens of thousands of Montenegrins reside in Serbia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has said Belgrade will not interfere in Montenegro’s affairs, but also said Serbia will help the Serb minority there.
“Serbia is rushing headlong into a dangerous trap of protection of allegedly endangered rights of (minority) Serbs ... while endangering the sovereignty of other states,” Djukanovic said.
Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber in Moscow; Editing by Timothy Heritage
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