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Montenegrin PM secretly signs controversial contract on church property

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By Aleksandar Brezar
Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije and Montenegrin PM Dritan Abazović sign the property contract in Podgorica, 3 August 2022
Serbian Orthodox Church Patriarch Porfirije and Montenegrin PM Dritan Abazović sign the property contract in Podgorica, 3 August 2022   -   Copyright  Government of Montenegro

Montenegrin government and the Serbian Orthodox Church signed a controversial property agreement on Wednesday, sparking protests and demands by the opposition for an immediate parliamentary vote of no confidence.

This could see the government led by Prime Minister Dritan Abazović and his liberal green party, URA, fall just six months after coming to power. 

The contract enables the Serbian Orthodox Church to take ownership over what it claims is its property in the small Balkan country, including valuable plots of land but also churches and monasteries ethnic Montenegrins believe belongs to the canonically unrecognised Montenegrin Orthodox Church.

Despite earlier claims that he did not know when the contract would be signed, Abazović met with the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Porfirije, in the capital Podgorica in secret, local media reported.

Abazović notified the public of the signing on his social media after the fact.

In a video posted to the government’s Facebook page, Abazović, sitting next to Porfirije, said that he was “proud” the contract might put an end to a long-standing issue.

“I believe this sends a message of peace and tolerance,” the prime minister said.

Porfirije, who is said to have secretly arrived in Podgorica on a Serbian government-owned aeroplane earlier on Wednesday, thanked Abazović and said that “it’s a luxury to waste time on our differences”.

A tense government session quickly followed the signing, with Minister of Foreign Affairs Ranko Krivokapić one of the cabinet members vocal in his disagreement with Abazović's act. 

The country's top diplomat said the prime minister had "as much right to ratify the agreement as my own grandmother," and that the Montenegrin parliament was the only body with legal powers to negotiate the deal.

According to Krivokapić, the agreement "was [signed] at the expense of all pro-European citizens of Montenegro," and "it was not nice or appropriate to welcome someone breaking into your house with a silver platter." 

Protesters gather as opposition vows to topple Abazović

Meanwhile, dozens have gathered in front of the Villa Gorica where the signing took place to voice their concern with the contract.

One of the main opposition parties, President Milo Đukanović’s DPS, has demanded a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Other parties, such as Democrats and SDP, have stated they would back Abazović’s dismissal.

If successful, this would mean that the country of some 600,000 would end up with a fourth government in fewer than three years.

The parties also vowed to suspend the contract, with the Liberal Party demanding the Constitutional Court weigh in on its legality.

In recent times, Montenegro has gone through a tumultuous political period triggered by Đukanović’s proposed law on religion, intended to effectively reverse the takeover of what was once Montenegrin church property and return it to the state. 

The original law proposed by DPS passed in late December 2019 — dubbed the 'Law on Religious Freedoms' — pledged to return all property granted to the SOC after 1918 unless they had proof of ownership prior to that year.

This sparked a series of major protests dubbed “litije,” led by senior members of the Serbian Orthodox Church and ethnic Serb political actors.

The protests, which continued throughout the pandemic, saw the rise of Zdravko Krivokapić, a university professor who quickly became the next prime minister of Montenegro.

Abazović served as deputy PM during Krivokapić's mandate. 

However, the government ended up being toppled by Abazović and other coalition members in February, who cited Krivokapić’s lack of progress on vital reforms and the country’s EU membership path, as well as alleged nationalist stances and general obstructionism.