Behind the mutual expulsion of ambassadors between Montenegro and Serbia

On November 28, 2020, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro announced the expulsion of Serbian Ambassador to Montenegro, Vladimir Bozovic, on the grounds of “interference in internal affairs.” The Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs subsequently declared that the Montenegrin ambassador to Serbia Tarzan Milosevic was “unwelcome” and asked him to leave Serbia within 72 hours. However, on November 29, Serbia announced the withdrawal of its decision to expel the Montenegrin ambassador on the grounds of maintaining “cooperation and friendship.”

Montenegro and Serbia originally belonged to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1991, the Yugoslav Federation began to disintegrate. In 1992, Serbia and Montenegro formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In February 2003, the Yugoslav Federation changed its name to Serbia and Montenegro. On June 3, 2006, Montenegro declared its independence. On the 5th of the same month, Serbia announced that it would succeed Serbia and Montenegro as the subject of international law and become an independent country. At present, the Serbian population in Montenegro accounts for 29% of the national population, which is only 16% less than the largest ethnic group, the Montenegro. It can be seen that Montenegro and Serbia have deep historical origins and practical connections.

The mutual expulsion of ambassadors means that the relationship between the two countries has been hit hard, and this situation is rare in the development of the relationship between the two countries. In Montenegro’s view, the expulsion of Ambassador Borovic is “unbearable.” In fact, Bozhovic only became Serbia’s ambassador to Montenegro in December 2019. In a short period of time, Bozhovic’s words and deeds were repeatedly reprimanded by the Montenegrin authorities. On May 12, 2020, Borovic was summoned by the Montenegrin authorities after he made “inappropriate remarks” to the Montenegrin media showing a video tape of the Croatian nationalist singer Perković. On November 11, Borovic originally planned to attend the World War I commemoration ceremony in Budva to lay a wreath at the monument to the “Liberator of Serbia”, but was stranded due to protests from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Montenegro. When Bozhovic released at the meeting of the Serbian National Committee of Montenegro that “the decision of the Montenegrin parliament to merge into Serbia in 1918 was “liberation”, the Montenegrin caretaker government immediately took the most severe measure against diplomats-expulsion. The tension between Herzegovina and Herzegovina is the result of the accumulation of various contradictions in the past period of time, and the fuse is the “Religious Freedom Law” passed by Montenegro at the end of 2019. The bill stipulates that “before the Kingdom of Montenegro lost its independence in 1918 and became part of the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian kingdom, all religious buildings that were once state property and did not become the property of a religious community through legal means will be Treated as state-owned property.” At the same time, “religious communities with property also need to provide evidence of ownership of the property before 1918.” This means that the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro needs to prove the ownership of the property owned by Montenegro before joining the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian kingdom in 1918, otherwise such property will belong to the Montenegrin state.

Historically, since joining the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian kingdom in 1918, Montenegro has belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Diocese and did not form an independent church system before the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In 1993, the independent Heishan Orthodox Church was established, but the church was not recognized by the World Orthodox Church. To a large extent, the “Religious Freedom Law” passed at the end of 2019 is a “religious self-determination” initiated by the Montenegrin people represented by the Montenegrin ethnic group, aiming to achieve complete “religious separation” from the Serbian ethnicity. Therefore, after the passage of the bill, not only the contradictions between the religious circles and the government, Serbs and pro-Serbian people in Montenegro and the Montenegrin authorities have intensified, the relations between Serbia and Montenegro have also become tense. In the Montenegrin parliamentary elections in August 2020, the “Religious Freedom Law” has become the focus of debate among all political forces in Montenegro. The pro-Serbia “For the future of Montenegro” coalition and the core party Democratic Front criticized the bill for being anti-Serbian, anti-Serb, and inhibiting religious freedom.

This parliamentary election has not only become a watershed in the political process of Montenegro, but also ushered in a turning point in relations between Herzegovina and Serbia. Although the Socialist Democratic Party, which has been in power for nearly 30 years and led by President Djukanovic, has the highest number of votes, it cannot form a ruling majority, and the power to form a cabinet is transferred to the hands of the opposition. On September 8, the “For the Future of Montenegro” coalition, the “Safe Our Country” coalition, and the “Black and White” coalition signed a cabinet formation agreement. After the caretaker government made the decision to expel Borovich, Krivokapic, who is still a candidate for prime minister, expressed dissatisfaction with this, saying that “this kind of behavior is not in line with the spirit of European roads and regional cooperation.” On December 4, the pro-Serbia party coalition officially came to power, and Kriwo Kapić became prime minister. So far, the new government has not implemented the previous government’s decision to expel Bolovic. Instead, it has promoted the passage of a series of bills including amendments to the Religious Freedom Act. While drawing a clear line from the previous government, the new government is launching “political revenge” against President Djukanovic and the forces and traditional allies behind him. Krivokapic stated many times before the election that Montenegro might become the first country to leave NATO. Whether this is a “gimmick” of the election or his inner “pursuit” will naturally come to light in the process of his governance. The internal disagreements and the uncertainty of the external environment that have accumulated over the past decade or more may further tear Montenegro and bring troubles to national development and social stability.