Russia’s Weaponization of Tradition: The Case of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro

This article is part of the CSIS executive education program Understanding the Russian Military Today.

The Law on Freedom of Religion passed by the Parliament of Montenegro on December 27, 2019 upturned politics in the Balkans, inciting violent incidents in the parliaments of Montenegro and Serbia, and igniting a series of protests organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in different towns in Montenegro, Serbia, and the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The law provides for broader state insight into the finances of religious communities, but the most controversial points are those that provide for the nationalization of church property if the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) cannot provide proof of ownership before 1918, when Montenegro became an integral part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The Montenegrin Church had autocephalous status between 1905 and 1920.
Among Montenegro’s estimated 622,000 inhabitants, about 72 percent of the population identifies as Orthodox, 19 percent as Muslim, and 3 percent as Roman Catholic, while around 45 percent identify as Montenegrins, 29 percent as Serbs, 12 percent as Bosnians, and 5 percent as Albanians.
There are two competing Orthodox factions within Montenegro. The most influential is the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, which is part of the Serbian Orthodox Church and is strongly influenced by Russia. The patriarchal seat of the Montenegrin Metropolitanate has always been in Serbia, not in Montenegro. The church’s legal status is therefore in Serbia and the church is not subject to any laws in Montenegro—only in Serbia. In March 2018, a Montenegrin public opinion poll found that the Serbian Orthodox Church was the most trusted institution in the country, with 62.3 percent of Montenegrins reporting a high or mostly high confidence in the Serbian Orthodox Church. The SOC is frequently involved in anti-NATO and anti-Western rallies and protests and is known to promote the Russian line on a variety of political and social issues. For example, the SOC was heavily involved in pushing for the rejection of Montenegro’s NATO membership. The second church, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC), does not have canonical recognition and has operated as a nongovernmental organization since 1993. Polling from March and December 2018 found the MOC to be the least trusted of 14 public institutions surveyed.
Unsurprisingly, the harshest reactions to the Law on Freedom of Religion have come from the SOC and the Serbian government, as well as from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian government.
Since the end of the last December, the SOC has organized a litija, a type of church prayer in which a procession of believers led by a priest walks around the village carrying the church flag with a picture of a saint, every Thursday and Sunday. These protests in the form of litijas have occurred on a scale not seen in Montenegro since independence from Serbia in 2006.
In response, Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia, asked Russia in June “to protect the Orthodox Church, considering everything that is happening in Montenegro and the entire region” and accused the MOC of an attempt to obtain a religious monopoly in the country. He charged that the MOC would seek autocephaly for the “church of Montenegro” as occurred in Ukraine.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his support to the SOC in Montenegro and pointed out that “only by strengthening the unity of the Orthodox people can the position of the ROC in Ukraine and the SOC in Montenegro be strengthened.” The Holy Synod of the ROC called on all local churches to support the canonical SOC in Montenegro. The hierarchs of the ROC called the Law on Freedom of Religion “an act of supporting the schism by weakening the canonical Church and trying to put it in a humiliating and dangerous dependence on the state.”
In May, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, accused the United States of having “an obvious intention to bring a schism into the Orthodox world, to destroy the integrity of the spiritual space in the Balkans,” and of dividing the Montenegrin population.
Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the pro-Kremlin Russian biker group called the Night Wolves, voiced his support for pro-Serbian protesters in Montenegro in a video published on Facebook in January: “We won’t give up the holy places.”
On February 27, 2020, Russian-backed Metropolitan (Bishop) Onuphrius of Ukraine led a litija in Podgorica, the Montenegrin capital, organized by the SOC.
The political and historical cleavages exposed by the law provided fertile ground for a disinformation campaign in the region aimed at fomenting division, with echoes of practices already detected in Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia. Since the dispute began, Sputnik Srbija, a Serbian-language news outlet financed by the Kremlin, has reported in detail on the protests under the title “Orthodoxy Is Defended in Montenegro,” defining the MOC as a fake church and schismatic” and the SOC as the only one in the region that represents the Orthodox religion. Two other false reports from Serbian media claimed that NATO was cyberattacking cities that disobey the Montenegrin presidents rule and that the Montenegrin government planned to invite 250 members of Kosovos special police unit, ROSU, to help ensure order on Christians Eve.

Russian Interference in Montenegro

The combination of disinformation campaigns and the use of the ROC as a soft-power tool by the Kremlin is a hallmark of ongoing Russian malign influence in Montenegro. The Kremlin’s efforts have accelerated following its support for a failed pro-Russian coup d'état during the Montenegrin parliamentary elections in October 2016, as well as anti-NATO campaigns in 2017, the year Montenegro became the twenty-ninth member of the alliance. In fact, Moscow, following the Soviet tradition, uses kombinatsia (“combination”), an instrument of active measures for political influence, the most important of which are disinformation, penetration, provocation, and reflexive control. Reflexive control is the term used to describe the practice of predetermining an adversary’s decision in one’s favor by altering key factors in the adversary’s perception of the world.
There is a clear parallel in the attitudes of the SOC and the ROC to the Orthodox churches of Montenegro and Ukraine. Both the SOC and ROC deny the existence of a Montenegrin or Ukrainian identity, and therefore of the Montenegrin or Ukrainian nation and state. The role of these narratives is to justify Serbian nationalism and the process of Russian re-imperialization.
To understand the nature of Russian malign influence in Montenegro, it is necessary to examine two dimensions: first, the role of the Orthodox Church in the legitimization of power and how and why the Kremlin uses the ROC as an instrument of soft power; and second, the core motives and objectives of Russian foreign policy in Montenegro.

Religion as a Source of (Geo)political Legitimization and Soft Power

In all post-communist countries, religion serves as a means of reclaiming lost identity and regaining forgotten heritage and historical memory—all of which form national identity. However, in countries where most believers belong to the Orthodox Church, religion plays a key role of political legitimatization. This has deep historical roots: In medieval times, countries of the Christian Orthodox religion marked their independence from the Byzantine Empire with the autocephalous status of the church. Serbs, for example, trace the creation of the independent Serbian state to the autocephaly of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, which marked an act of independence from Byzantium. The Russian Orthodox Church received autocephalous status in 1448, and quickly proclaimed itself the “Third Rome.” Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Russians believed that they occupied the role of protector of Orthodox Christians and their faith, partly because in 1472 Tsar Ivan III married Sophia Palaiologina, heir of the Byzantine Empire and niece of the last emperor, Constantine XI. As I explained it in my last book, Breve historia de la Revolución Rusa, the marriage was presented as a rite of incorporation of the Byzantium inheritance in Russia and of the legitimation of Moscow as the new capital of Orthodox Christians. More than five centuries later, Vladimir Putin articulated this connection between national and religious identity during a visit to Mount Athos in September 2005: “For us the rebirth of Russia is inextricably tied, first of all, with spiritual rebirth [. . .] and if Russia is the largest Orthodox power, then Greece and Athos are its source.”
Moscow’s religious diplomacy, the whole set of mechanisms for state cooperation with religious associations and use of religious institutions, ideas, and religious symbols, serves its pursuit of a pragmatically defined national interest. The ROC is not completely controlled by the Kremlin, but it’s a soft-power instrument that acts in coordination with the Kremlin on issues of domestic policy and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to help fulfill Russia’s national interests abroad. In 2011, the Foreign Ministry and the Moscow Patriarchate founded a joint working group “to exchange their assessment of various situations in particular regions of the world in which there are Orthodox believers.” While the Kremlin does not understand the concept of soft power as conceived by Joseph Nye, it has an acute sense of political influence exercised through cultural and historical linkages. The ROC, ethnic Russians abroad, and Russophone networks united by the concept of Russkiy mir, as well as far-left and far-right parties in Europe, comprise different pieces of a platform for which the Kremlin can promote conservative policies and present itself as the international defender of traditional and family values from which Western countries are allegedly turning away.

Russian Foreign Policy in the Western Balkans: Core Motives and Objectives

In nearly all Balkan countries, economic linkages with Moscow spanning investment, energy, and tourism provide an avenue for Russian influence and make them natural targets of Russian influence campaigns. Montenegro represents a special target for the Kremlin for the opposite reason: because Russia's influence is diminishing there. Montenegro is a member of NATO, has recognized the independence of Kosovo, and supported economic and diplomatic sanctions against Moscow in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.
Russia and Montenegro have historically had friendly relations, but this changed quickly following the decision of the government of Montenegro to join NATO. Since then, the Kremlin’s main objectives in Montenegro have been to foster division among the population to isolate and secure its influence over the pro-Russian Serb population in Montenegro, to present the Kremlin as a great protector of the Serbs and the Orthodox Church in the Balkans, and to weaken the young Montenegrin state and democracy in order to discredit a NATO country. In the Kremlin’s mind, the Balkans are one front of a global competition for power and influence in which Russia competes with the United States and the European Union.

Conclusions: How to Contain Russian Influence in Montenegro

Russian malign influence in Montenegro is hard to measure because the Kremlin exercises this influence through proxies such as the SOC, local media, and, to a lesser extent, the government of Serbia.
How can Montenegro resist this influence and continue to chart its own independent path? For a start, Montenegro must pay particular attention to its comparative vulnerabilities and advantages, because vulnerabilities are what make the Kremlin's interference possible.
Its main vulnerability is the social polarization rooted in Montenegro’s independence from Serbia in 2006, when 55.5 percent of citizens voted for independence and 44.5 percent voted against it. The second wave of social polarization emerged with Montenegro’s entry into NATO, when 46 percent of citizens voted in favor of joining the Atlantic Alliance and 42 percent against it. The pro-Serbian opposition parties, the Kremlin, the ROC, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), but above all the SOC, have benefited from social polarization. The SOC is the strongest opposition to the government of Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro and its pro-Western policies. The results of the most recent legislative elections in Montenegro, in which the DPS lost power for the first time in thirty years, are indicative. Djukanovic’s passage of the controversial church law gave the SOC the leverage it needed to organize large-scale protests against the government. In a published opinion poll conducted by the Montenegrin Intelligence Communication Agency, the Law on Freedom of Religion is supported by only 20 percent of Montenegrin citizens, while 62 percent of them do not support this law. According to data from the same survey, 62 percent of them declare themselves as believers of the SOC, while 10.1 percent of them go to the MOC. Crucially, the SOC was able to bring together citizens who were angered by the government’s offensive against the church as well as citizens dissatisfied with the autocratic government of Djukanovic.
The population’s dissatisfaction with the DPS is to be expected. As Florian Bieber points out in The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans, Djukanovic stayed in power for thirty years (six terms as prime minister, two as president), by strengthening the links between the state, his DPS party, and organized crime. During the 1990s, the DPS controlled strategic privatization, combining state control over the economy with the new wild capitalism from which profited an emerging class of tycoons, usually closely associated with and loyal to the regime. During the 2000s the government engaged in a massive smuggling operation, particularly cigarettes. In this period the DPS strengthened ties between party, the state, and organized crime. In 2016, 32 percent of all foreign-owned firms in Montenegro had Russian owners. These ties built on easy access for Russian investitures and their ability to bypass rules. While in power, Djukanovic promoted independence from Serbia and state- and nation-building, contributing to social polarization over identity issues which helped him dominate a segment of the electorate and ensure his control. The government’s strategic commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration since 2008 helped Djukanovic and his government ensure external support.
The most recent elections, in August, have brought the first transition of power in Montenegro since 1990. While the alternation in power is welcome, in order to preserve Montenegro’s independent path and resist Russian influence, Montenegro must strengthen its institutions, properly legislate the status of the SOC, and increase civil education and support for cooperation between civil society and government institutions. The best way to reduce Russia’s influence in Montenegro would be to restore citizens’ trust in democratic institutions, which has been degraded due to the corruption and clientelism of the DPS. The first step is to adopt the Law on the Origin of Property, which would be an effective remedy against endemic corruption and clientelism, as well as against the mafias and criminals linked to Russia.
The United Reform Action party (URA), now the leader of the Black on White coalition, and a member of the coalition of opposition parties that will form the new government in Montenegro, proposed the Law on the Origin of Property in March 2019, as one of the key mechanisms in the fight against corruption. The law would oblige public officials, “transitional” businessmen, and persons close to organized criminal groups who have enriched themselves through the privatization of socially owned property to prove the origin of their property and explain how they have accumulated such enormous wealth. The main objective of the law is to restore confidence in state institutions and break the vicious circle between clientelism, corruption, and the government, as well as to be a preventive mechanism to future corruption.
The SOC is a problem for Montenegro because it is not just a church that provides for the practice of religious worship; it has a para-political role and is an instrument of Russian influence. Further strengthening of the rule of law requires the adoption, with social and political consensus, of laws guaranteeing the same status for the SOC as other religious communities—that is, the SOC must become a legal entity in Montenegro and pay taxes to the state.

Mira Milosevich is a  Senior Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Elcano Royal Institute for International and Strategic Studies and author of three books.
CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).