In Montenegro, a poll against a background of religious quarrel

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Podgorica | The Montenegrins began to vote Sunday in the legislative elections, putting to the test three decades of domination of the formation of the pro-Western president Milo Djukanovic who faces, in a tense atmosphere, an opposition supported by the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church.

Polling stations opened at 5 a.m. GMT and will close at 6 p.m. GMT. Voters will have to wear a mask, disinfect their hands and keep their distance due to coronavirus.

The economy has suffered greatly from the pandemic in this country where tourism generates nearly a quarter of the national GDP.

A dynamic reformist for some, a corrupt autocrat for others, Milo Djukanovic, 58, has ruled Montenegro almost continuously since the end of the communist era in the early 1990s.

His Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) has never lost a ballot, and Mr. Djukanovic led the least populated country in the Balkans (620,000 inhabitants) to independence from Serbia in 2006, to accession to the NATO in 2017 and at the gates of the European Union (EU).

But its outgoing majority is as thin as an onion skin, and the confrontation with a pro-right-wing opposition, in favor of closer ties with Belgrade and Moscow, promises to be trying.

While Milo Djukanovic has long faced accusations of corruption, state control and links to organized crime, the election campaign instead focused on his feud with the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and on identity debates.

This controversy erupted at the end of 2019 when a law on freedom of religion was adopted which paves the way for the state to take control of the hundreds of churches and monasteries managed by the dominant SPC. in Montenegro, and headquartered in Belgrade.

According to the 2011 census, almost 30% of the country’s inhabitants identify themselves as Serbs.

“Threat to sovereignty”

The passage of the law sparked huge protests in the form of processions, led by religious dignitaries and supported by the opposition. They also took place during the COVID-19 epidemic, despite the precautionary measures.

Speaking in the campaign, SPC boss in Montenegro, Archbishop Amfilohije, said last week that the Church “does not (have) its party” but that it “naturally welcomes those who are against it. the law and who defend the sacred places ”.

In recent days, protesters have also organized processions with cars across the country, waving the flags of Serbia.

Milo Djukanovic sees it as a “threat to the sovereignty” of the country and describes the opposition as “the political infantry of Great Serbian nationalism”.

“Our political competition only offers destruction, (…) the policy of betrayal and submission (…) They wish that Montenegro does not exist”, he launched in the campaign.

Police warned of possible incidents on polling day, claiming to have uncovered plans to “take to the streets to cause riots and disturbance of public order”.

This warning recalls the legislative elections of 2016, marked by the arrest of around twenty activists opposed to the country’s accession to NATO, accused of having wanted to instigate a coup, with the support of Russia, what Moscow had refuted.

Two leaders of the Proserb opposition were sentenced at first instance to five years in prison.

Power fatigue

The score promises to be tight between the two blocs, and several small parties, focused on an economy damaged by the epidemic and on the failures of the rule of law, could play a decisive role in the formation of the new government, believes analyst Milos Besic.

Unemployment affects 18% of the working population and the average wage is 520 euros ($ 810).

Montenegro is the most advanced Balkan country in EU membership negotiations, but corruption, the issue of press freedom and organized crime remain concerns for Brussels.

The weariness of a power that has not changed for almost three decades is also felt.

Nikola Jovanovic, 23-year-old businessman, believes that the massive emigration of the country’s youth is the consequence. “Whether anyone else comes to power, I don’t really have any preferences, but the changes are very important for the development of society,” he says.

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