Ambassador of Montenegro to Spain “RELIGIOUS PROTESTS HAVE A POLITICAL BACKGROUND”

Aleksander Erakovic, Ambassador of Montenegro to Spain

Thank you very much for accepting our interview. Montenegro is a fundamental piece to understand the politics of the Balkans, unfortunately there is not much information about the country in the Spanish media, for that reason we would like the interview to serve as a map to understand the political situation of Montenegro at a national, regional, and global level.

Montenegro is one of the historical nationalities that was included in Yugoslavia. What memory remains of Yugoslavia in the memory of Montenegrins? And about war?

I think your readers know that there were two completely different stages in the duration of the Yugoslav state: the first, between the two world wars, and the second, after World War II, until the early 1990s, when the Balkan wars began.

Montenegro, which was an independent and sovereign kingdom until then, disappeared unjustly after the First World War, when it was severely damaged defending the side of the victorious powers. First Serbia annexed it, and then it drowned in the broad state union of the South Slavs. Many Montenegrins do not have good memories of that period. It is not surprising that one of the first popular uprisings against Hitler's fascism in 1941 took place in Montenegro. It was a fight against fascism, but also a fight for the restoration of the Montenegrin name and state. In the new Yugoslavia after World War II, Montenegro was one of six egalitarian republics.

From this brief historical reference, I hope that it is clear that Montenegrins were experiencing an existence, in a state called Yugoslavia, with strongly conflicting feelings. During the Balkan Wars at the end of the last century, Montenegro was spared war and devastation, but felt the effects of it on its environment. Following the departure of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia from the Yugoslav community, Montenegro peacefully restored its independence in a democratic referendum in 2006.

There are still pockets of conflict in the region that may involve Montenegro, such as the Kosovo issue. What is Montenegro's position on the creation of the Kosovo army?

Montenegro recognized the independence of Kosovo and maintains good neighbourly relations with that country. However, we understand the particularity of the situation between Serbia and Kosovo and strongly advocate dialogue between the two parties as the only way to find a sustainable and mutually agreed solution. We believe that the dialogue will soon be resumed, with strong mediation by the EU and the US, a dialogue that will put an end to the controversial issues that burden both countries.

Resultado de imagen de "mini-Schengen"
Joint declaration on the application of the free movement of people, goods, capital and services. October 10, 2019.

Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia in October 2019 decided to advance regional cooperation by forming the so-called "mini-Schengen" in the Western Balkans. What is Montenegro's position on this? Is there a conflict between different nationalities or ethnic groups that prevents the free movement of people?

Regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is already taking place through the CEFTA Agreement and the Berlin Process, as well as through numerous other regional initiatives, so the idea of a so-called Mini-Schengen' offers nothing new in this respect. Montenegro is a strong promoter of regional cooperation and we believe that efforts should be directed towards respect for and implementation of previously signed agreements. They guarantee, among other things, the free movement of persons.

Montenegro, like other countries in the region, is committed to a rapprochement with European Atlantic policy. This meant a distancing from the orbit of Russian influence. What changes have there been in foreign policy following NATO membership?

With the restoration of independence in 2006, Montenegro also proclaimed two key foreign policy goals: membership of the European Union and NATO, thus joining the Euro-Atlantic family. This also implied full compliance with the foreign policy of the EU and NATO, including in the negotiation phase for full membership. Then, with our affiliation to NATO in 2017, our foreign policy did not undergo any changes as these were achieved in the previous period. Of course, we have assumed all the obligations of a full member of NATO and, for several years, Montenegro has proved to be a responsible and consistent part of the Alliance. In the same way, we are following the EU's foreign policy completely.

On 16 October 2016, the day of the national elections, the Montenegrin authorities denounced a coup attempt promoted by Russia, but no proof was found. What evidence is there of this attempted coup? 

An attempt to violently change power in Montenegro on election day in 2016 had its epilogue in May last year: 13 Montenegrin, Serbian and Russian citizens were sentenced to almost 70 years in prison, after the entire judicial process was followed by the public on television. The court's ruling, in 678 pages of typewritten text, contains a great deal of evidence, so all those concerned can consult the details of this ruling publicly. Convicts have the right to appeal the sentence and I am refraining from commenting on a ruling that is not yet final.

On June 5, 2017 Montenegro joined NATO. It was a milestone in the country's foreign policy. Montenegro has strategic ports in the Mediterranean. Recently, NATO conducted manoeuvres in Tivat and Kotor. How has Montenegro's foreign policy changed since that day? What are the economic consequences of this strategic position for the country?

As I have already said, Montenegro's foreign policy is fully aligned with the foreign policy of the EU and NATO for a long time. In terms of security, Montenegrin soldiers participate in numerous NATO missions around the world, and we are approaching the proclaimed allocation of 2% of GDP for defence. However, it is extremely important for Montenegro that we already have strong economic indicators that our membership in NATO has attracted more foreign investors, so in recent years we have had dynamic economic growth, between 4 and 5 per cent.

Protest of members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Tanjug-AP

The Parliament of Montenegro approved in December 2019 the 'Law on freedom of religion or convictions and the legal status of religious communities' How would you explain to the foreign audience the new law on religious communities?

The Law on Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities was adopted at the end of a process that lasted five full years, in accordance with Montenegro's legal framework and international standards. In addition to the dialogue with all religious communities, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe was consulted and its recommendations were incorporated into the approved text of the Law. Only the Serbian Orthodox Church did not support this text. The previous Law on Religious Communities dates back to 1977, from the time of communist Yugoslavia, and created the need to adopt a new, modern law, which would guarantee all citizens of Montenegro freedom of religion or belief, as well as the principles of secularism, separation of church and state, all in accordance with the concept of Western societies: one church for every belief. The law was therefore adopted at the end of a five-year process, when all the prerequisites for voting in Parliament were met.

What is the reason for the law reforming the statutes of religious communities at this time?

In order to understand the essence of the problem with the Orthodox Church in Montenegro, it is essential to know the history of relations between the two states - Montenegro and Serbia, as well as the two Orthodox churches: Montenegrin and Serbian. In short, with the loss of their own state in 1918 and their drowning in Serbia and later in Yugoslavia, the Montenegrins lost their autocephalous church, which was abolished and annexed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, by decree of the then Serbian King Aleksandar. This was accompanied by decades of opposition to Montenegrin national identity, until today when many in Serbia see Montenegro as a Serbian state. With the restoration of state independence in 2006, Montenegro was defined in the Constitution as the state of all its citizens, i.e. as a citizen's state. We are very proud of the centuries of multinational and multi-religious harmony in our country...

The law was adopted with 45 votes out of 81 in parliament, which, according to the media, led to clashes between members of parliament. Is it expected that this polarisation will spread to other areas of social and political life in Montenegro? 

The pro-Serbian members of Parliament, before the vote on the bill, announced that they would prevent its adoption, by all possible means. They caused riots in Parliament when the bill was voted on. It was an introduction to the subsequent protests organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, so it is indisputable that the alleged religious protests have a political dimension. When church dignitaries say "the government will fall or the law will fall," they are clearly sending a political message. Montenegro is the goal of a large-scale Serbian state project that was defeated in the 1990s but has never disappeared from the minds of Serbian nationalists. Therefore, the problem in Montenegro is not the Law, nor the dispute between the church and the state, but the intention to question the independence of Montenegro, and first of all, its citizenship. The government offered dialogue to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, and it began. I believe that there is room for agreement and reasonable compromise, and on the contentious articles of the law dealing with the ownership of a number of churches and monasteries illegally appropriated by the Serbian Orthodox Church. If the dialogue does not lead to a solution, the problem will be solved in the institutions of the state of Montenegro and, if necessary, at European level. No pressure from the street will affect the resolution of this dispute!

Night Wolves bikers in Montenegro.

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro convened a mass meeting of believers in the Montenegrin city of Niksic. On December 27th there were scenes of tension in the parliament. The Serbian president has cancelled a visit to Montenegro due to the adoption of the law. There are pro-Russian groups, such as the Night Wolves bikers or the Cossack Army of the Balkans, who have shown their refusal to give up religious places of worship. Do you think you can internationalize the religious conflict? To what extent does Russia continue to be a considerable influence in the region?

Russia's attempt to prevent Montenegro's accession to NATO in 2016 failed, but it is naive to believe that Russia has lifted its hands of influence over Montenegro. The same goals have now been transformed into religious attire. The leaders of the Russian Church in Ukraine recently visited Montenegro and participated in the protests of the Serbian Orthodox Church. On the other hand, Serbia, with its alleged concern for the rights of Serbs in neighbouring countries, even when those rights are not at risk at all, as in the case of Montenegro, goes back to the rhetoric and policy of the 1990s. After all, the current protests are being led by the same people who were against Montenegro's independence and our accession to NATO.

Construction of the highway that connects Bar with Serbia. Part of the New Silk Road Project, promoted by China

There is another country that is gaining considerable influence in the region, and that is China. The Asian country finances projects throughout the Balkans, filling a gap that neither Russia nor the EU can fill. What is Montenegro's relationship with China in the region?

In an effort to strengthen its economy and provide a better standard of living for its citizens, Montenegro is cooperating economically with numerous countries, both EU member states and others. China is one of our country's important partners in numerous projects, the most important of which is the construction of a road from the Adriatic Sea to Serbia. It is the most important infrastructure project in Montenegro, and we hope to complete the first phase by the end of this year. Almost all EU Member States cooperate with China to a greater or lesser extent, so we see no reason why Montenegro should not do so.

Montenegro has applied for EU membership in 2008. How is the negotiation process going? Which expectations do you have?

Montenegro's negotiation process with the EU has been going on for more than seven years. All chapters have been opened except Chapter 8 and three chapters have been provisionally closed. We have come a long way, more than other countries, in the Western Balkans. In the last year, due to internal discussions within the EU on the new negotiation methodology, the process has slowed down, but we expect things to accelerate in the coming months. Montenegro continues with reforms in line with European standards and we are already seeing light at the end of the "negotiation tunnel" in the coming years. Perhaps at the end of the mandate of this European Commission, in which Spain plays an extremely important role through the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell. I would like to recall that Montenegro opened its negotiations with the EU at a time when the EU's High Representative was also Spanish, Javier Solana, so we see the symbolism in ending them during the term of office of another Spaniard, Mr Borell.

Montenegro's Citizenship by Investment Program (CIP) is among the top 10 best programs in the world for global citizenship. Montenegro offers the most affordable citizenship or passport programme in Europe, the aim being to attract investment to the country. Is the program succeeding?

The Economic Citizenship Program was adopted by the government last year, with the intention of attracting new investment. The program was in progress for a long time and all mechanisms were provided to prevent its misuse. Also, it is scheduled to last three years, and we expect it to bring significant benefits in terms of new investment as well as direct revenue to the state budget.

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