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Montenegro government falls over ties with Serbian Orthodox Church

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By Euronews  with AFP
Montenegro's Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic reacts during the parliament session in Podgorica, Montenegro, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Montenegro's Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic reacts during the parliament session in Podgorica, Montenegro, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Risto Bozovic   -  

The Montenegrin government fell in a no-confidence vote early Saturday that followed a rift over relations with the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church.

Lawmakers voted 50-1 to oust the government of Prime Minister Dritan Abazović just weeks after he signed an agreement regulating the position of the church in Montenegro.

The issue is sensitive for many in the small Balkan nation of 620,000 people that split from its much bigger neighbour Serbia in 2006. The Serbian Orthodox Church, or SOC, enjoys the biggest following in Montenegro, but the nation is divided over the church's dominant role and the country's ties to Serbia.

Critics have argued there was no need for a special deal with the SOC separate from other religious communities. Pro-Western groups in Montenegro also have described the agreement as a tool for Serbia and Russia to increase their influence in Montenegro amid the war in Ukraine.

Abazović has defended the agreement as the way to put behind the long-standing church dispute over its property and other rights in Montenegro and focus on other important issues.

It was not immediately clear whether the fall of the government would lead to snap parliamentary elections or if the parties would try to form a new governing coalition.

Political bickering in Montenegro has blocked progress toward integration into the European Union. In 2017, Montenegro defied Russia, with whom the country had strong economic ties in past decades, to become a member of NATO.

Religious issues, which are very sensitive in the small Adriatic country that became independent from Serbia in 2006, are one of the main reasons for the fall of the last two governments.

A third of the 620,000 inhabitants identify themselves as Serbs, and some nationalists deny Montenegrins a separate identity. 

The SOC is the dominant religious institution -- along with a minority Montenegrin Orthodox Church not recognised by the Orthodox world -- but its opponents accuse it of serving Belgrade's interests.