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Belgrade Media Report 14 January

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LOCAL PRESS

• Vucic: There is no RS without Serbia (TV Pink)
• Dacic: National priority of Serbia in the past year, and in the year ahead, is certainly the fight for the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity (RTS/Beta/Tanjug/RTV)
• How the US and Russia see the solution of the Kosovo issue (RTS)
• Dacic: Law on Freedom of Religion destabilizes relations between Serbia and Montenegro (RTV)
• Opposition: If regime can change threshold, it can postpone elections (N1)
• Milivojevic: Initiative for lower election threshold to create quasi democracy in Serbia (Beta)
• Report against Inzko to follow (Novosti)
• Belgrade students’ requests on Montenegro submitted to Serbian Presidency (Tanjug/RTV/Politika)

REGIONAL PRESS

Bosnia & Herzegovina
• Dodik: RS will remain military neutral and this stance needs to be respected; RS has all characteristics of state (ATV)
• Yes to Rescue Unit of B&H, but only temporarily (EuroBlic)
• SDP B&H, Our Party, People and Justice and Independent B&H List to sign agreement on joint participation in the upcoming local elections in B&H (FTV)
Republic of North Macedonia
• Spasovski celebrates NATO, rather than acknowledging that “North” did not bring anything to the people (Republika)
• Commissioner Varhelyi set to visit Macedonia (Republika)

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

• Montenegrin Law on Religious Freedom: Polarization that benefits the government(s)? (European Western Balkans)

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LOCAL PRESS

 

Vucic: There is no RS without Serbia (TV Pink)

 

In an interview for TV Pink, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic commented on relations between Republika Srpska (RS) and Serbia by stating that there is no the RS without Serbia and he does not know, after everything that has happened to Serb people, how Serbia would survive to be left without the RS. Vucic said that he is happy that the RS exists and stressed that he is proud of all of the assistance that Serbia has been providing to the RS. The Serbian President announced that he will go to Drvar soon to open a factory as he promised, explaining that although Drvar is not in the RS, it is one of four Serb municipalities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We will build a hospital, kindergarten, school in every municipality“, the Serbian President was quoted as saying. In addition, Vucic said that he is exposed to the international community’s (IC) pressure because of the RS, but that this pressure is much bigger because of Kosovo. Vucic noted that Serbia is often criticized for acting protective towards the RS, but he considers that Serbia must not give up on the RS. Commenting on disputing the marking of the RS Day, Vucic presented a stance that nothing can be taken away from the people’s hearts. Asked about their relations to Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and the RS, Vucic said that they have never questioned the territorial integrity of B&H. Vucic added that they love the RS and respect B&H. He stressed that Serbia needs to have good relations with the entire B&H and they request for the Dayton Peace Accords to be respected. “Our policy is known, the RS as part of B&H but we will support it economically and in any other way. I do not hide that I am happy about the existence of the RS, that I can help the RS and especially proud that there has not been a better cooperation between the RS and Serbia as it is now,” said Vucic. Commenting on the Program Declaration of SDA, which was adopted in September of 2019, Vucic said that he never questioned the integrity of B&H and he insists on this. “This document discusses how the Serb municipalities around Sarajevo need to be removed and the RS needs to disappear,” said Vucic. He said that it is hypocritical for the international community to be silent about this but they condemn Serbs in the RS for not respecting territorial integrity of B&H.

 

Dacic: National priority of Serbia in the past year, and in the year ahead, is certainly the fight for the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity (RTS/Beta/Tanjug/RTV)

 

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has thrown a New Year’s reception for heads of diplomatic missions and international organizations in Serbia and directors and editors-in-chief of the media outlets. On this occasion, Dacic underlined that the national priority of Serbia in the past year, and in the year ahead, is certainly the fight for the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity. “In pursuit of this complex task and our constitutional obligation, foreign policy

activities occupy the highest place, which is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our

diplomatic service, my associates and myself still have activities related to the process

concerning Kosovo and Metohija as a priority on our agenda.” Dacic recalled that in 2019, five more UN member states revoked their earlier decisions to recognize so-called Kosovo and that the total number of countries doing this has reached 17. “Throughout 2019, Serbia has shown that it is a responsible and constructive partner in this process. Our arguments and our principled position played a crucial role in five more UN member states revoking, over the past year, their earlier decisions to recognize Kosovo. These are the Republic of Palau, the Republic of Togo, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Ghana and the Republic of Nauru, to which I once again extend gratitude. Consequently, a total of 17 states have withdrawn their earlier decisions, and the situation now is such that the number of the UN member states not recognizing Kosovo as a state is larger than the number of states which do recognize it. Such a constellation in the international community became even more apparent when Pristina made a new attempt at bidding for Interpol membership, in Chile, in October, when it ended up withdrawing its candidacy in the face of even more opponents of that membership. The Republic of Serbia is ready to continue the dialogue on Kosovo and Metohija, and in that sense we are working hard with all international partners to return as soon as possible to a process that will provide a compromise and long-term solution for Kosovo and Metohija. I hope that in the course of this year we will be able to resume the dialogue and make up for the time lost. But I repeat, Serbia is not the sole player in this process which does not only depend on us and our clear willingness to talk. European integration and full EU membership of the Republic of Serbia remain key foreign policy priorities as does the implementation of the reform process in accordance with the highest standards set before it. The European Union institutions were formed during 2019, and it is extremely positive that the new Commission still has the Enlargement Commissioner post. Serbia expresses its full support for Oliver Varhelyi hoping that he will, together with the EU Member States, succeed in facilitating an accelerated pace of the accession process. At the same time, we welcome the appointment of EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell.” Dacic also said that Serbia continued active engagement in

preventing the admission of the so-called “Kosovo” to various international organizations, which remains one of the priorities in the period ahead as well. “We have successfully prevented the so-called ‘Kosovo’ from becoming a member of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) and the Intra-European Organization of Tax Administrations (IOTA). The solidified international position of Serbia was affirmed as was the commitment of a large number of states to observe the rules of international law and the principles the international order is based on. In November last year, at the 40th Session of UNESCO General Conference in Paris, Serbia was re-elected to

UNESCO Executive Board for the period until 2023. By taking an active approach and

a constructive role through its engagement so far as Executive Board member our country made a significant contribution to the overall activity of UNESCO. As regards the upcoming activities, I would like to underline in particular the participation of Serbian delegation at the sessions of the United Nations Security Council to be held in April and October 2020 to discuss the regular reports on the work of UNMIK. In the field of security policy, it is my pleasure to note that Serbia has continued to visibly contribute to global, European and regional security with its involvement in EU- and UN-mandated missions and operations, and through its commitment to the Common Security and Defense Policy of the European Union. Serbia currently participates in four EU missions and five UN missions and operations with 284 security personnel and participation of women amounting to 13%. According to the UN list (UN mission contributions), Serbia ranks 49th out of 122 countries, that is 9th in Europe and 1st in the region of South-East Europe. In terms of contributions in relation to population size, our country is the 3rd contributor in Europe.” Dacic also said that Partnership with NATO is an extremely important aspect of Serbia’s state policy and that the situation in Kosovo and Metohija poses the greatest political and security challenge to Serbia. “Serbia and NATO’s obligations arise from the UN Security

Council Resolution 1244 and Military Technical Agreement, and it is imperative for

both sides to fulfill these obligations. We expect NATO to observe and support our

priorities with understanding, especially concerning Kosovo and Metohija. NATO-led

KFOR mission plays an especially important role for the Serbian community in Kosovo

and Metohija. Unfortunately, we believe that the security situation in the Province

demands, if not greater then undiminished KFOR presence. Serbia strongly disapproves the transformation of the so-called ‘Kosovo Security Force’ in the so called ‘Kosovo army’, as it violates UN Security Council Resolution 1244 threatening regional and wider stability. In parallel with security cooperation with our Western partners and NATO, we will continue to intensify our cooperation with other partners and friends across the globe, such as the Russian Federation, China and other countries, with the aim of contributing to global peace and stability.”

 

How the US and Russia see the solution of the Kosovo issue (RTS)

 

US Ambassador to Serbia Anthony Godfrey was one of the guests at the New Year reception organized by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic. “Our stand is that the resolution of the conflict between Belgrade and Pristina is key for stability in the region. We are actively helping in this. The best way to resolve this conflict is to sit at one table. With the help of the special representative, Ambassador Grenell, and Matt Palmer, my old friend, I hope we will reach a compromise,” notes the US Ambassador. The old friend of the new US Ambassador to Serbia Mathew Palmer would like Serbia to opt for the US as a partner, along with the stand that goals of Russia and China differ from those of the US. Russian Ambassador to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko notes that Russia is ready to create prerequisites for the dialogue. “We expect more pressures on Pristina from the EU and our western partners, the US,” he says. Yet, while he speaks of details, such as the necessity for Pristina to abolish the taxes, Botsan-Kharchenko also speaks of the principle. “We expect a solution that is first of all based on Resolution 1244. We also expect from our partners more accord and understanding and joint partnership within the Security Council regarding Kosovo, as there is now a lack of understanding in the international community and in the Security Council above all,” said Botsan-Kharchenko.

 

Dacic: Law on Freedom of Religion destabilizes relations between Serbia and Montenegro (RTV)

 

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told the state Radio and Television of Vojvodina (RTV) that relations with Montenegro are very bad following the introduction of the law on freedom of confession. “Anyone who tolerates that is betraying their country but the problem is that these are interest groups,” he said adding that he was talking about “a moral obligation” for people from Montenegro living in Serbia.  “That empire needs to be broken up, those agents of the Montenegrin service working against the Serbs. It’s normal for us to defend our people. Do the Montenegrin authorities have a single Serb? I don’t know of one,” he said asked if he was reviewing the origins of people. “Whoever condemns me should first condemn Milo Djukanovic,” he said.  He rejected accusations from Podgorica and the signatories of the so-called Appeal of 88 that Belgrade was destabilizing Montenegro. “We never said that we want Montenegro together with Serbia in one state… People in Montenegro are constantly claiming that Serbia wants to be in the same country with Montenegro. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s a closed book,” Dacic said.

 

Opposition: If regime can change threshold, it can postpone elections (N1)

 

The leader of the Dveri movement Bosko Obradovic said on Monday that if the regime could lower the threshold for entering the parliament, it could also postpone the general elections due in spring, N1 reported. He said that the lower threshold was a result of the authorities’ fear that after such elections, boycotted by major opposition parties, the only members of the Parliament would be the ruling coalition of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). “They came to the idea to forcibly squeeze in more than two parties, and thus pretend to have a multi-party parliamentary democracy,” Obradovic said. The other opposition leader Nikola Jovanovic, the deputy head of the People’s Party, also criticized the decision on the lower threshold, saying Vucic wanted “to replace the real opposition with the false one since he realizes he cannot break the opposition bloc which will boycott the forthcoming elections.” “Vucic’s statement that by lowering the threshold, he wanted to return the political life into the Parliament is hypocritical and untrue. If he really wanted that, he would have enabled the free work of the institutions, the respect of law and fair and free elections,” Jovanovic said.

 

Milivojevic: Initiative for lower election threshold to create quasi democracy in Serbia (Beta)

 

Political analyst Cvijetin Milivojevic said that even though there’s no legal obstacle to changing national legislation in an election year, the problem was that a good part of the opposition had decided to boycott the next election, and a move to reduce the election threshold would open the doors of the parliament to parties that did not have sufficient voter support, in order to create a quasi-democracy in Serbia. Milivojevic said in a comment for Beta that in a normal state no one would object to lowering the country’s electoral threshold, but not when an election boycott is on, as it could generate instant parties, for this election only. “Aleksandar Vucic is not offering a lower threshold, he’s just testing public opinion. It might have been good if a request to lower the election threshold was one of the opposition’s demands for electoral reform – it would make sense to increase the threshold for the parties running in coalitions, including the Serbian Progressive Party,” Milivojevic explained. The expert has warned “there’s clearly something else behind the initiative for a lower threshold – it could serve as bait for as many small parties as possible, alleviating the effects of the election boycott.” “Clearly the intention is less than sincere,” says Milivojevic.

 

Report against Inzko to follow (Novosti)

 

The Republika Srpska (RS) government confirmed to Novosti that it will, in its next report to the UN Security Council (UN SC), dedicate an entire chapter to “unconstitutional and anti-Dayton activities of High Representative Valentin Inzko and his passive stance on Wahhabi and extremist movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H)”. The RS government added that a special attention will be paid to his “incorrect statements on state-building status of the RS”. The daily reminded that this will be a consequence of Inzko’s latest statements in which he announced that he will file a report with the UN SC against Serb member of the Presidency of B&H Milorad Dodik because he said the RS is a state while delivering a speech on the occasion of marking of the RS Day. Secretary General of the RS Government Sinisa Karan said that statements the RS presents in its reports to the UN SC are important because those give a chance to everyone who is interested in the situation in B&H and RS to get the whole picture and not only one-sided as presented by Inzko. Karan added that Inzko’s interpretation of B&H and Constitution “is completely wrong” and he added that this situation has existed for the past 25 years. “We claim what the Constitution stipulates, i.e. that the RS is a powerful state-building entity which has its full internal sovereignty. All of that is stipulated by the Constitution,” Karan concluded. Head of the Serb Caucus in the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) and United Srpska leader Nenad Stevandic announced on Monday that the RS will report HR Valentin Inzko to the UN SC for ignoring the Wahhabi and extremist movements in B&H. Stevandic was quoted as saying: “Inzko has been ignoring potential terrorism in B&H for years, where potential targets include all citizens of B&H. On the other hand, he deals with reporting of verbal delict of Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik.” Stevandic said this in reaction to Inzko’s announcement that he will file a report to the UN SC against Dodik for saying that the RS is a state.

 

Belgrade students’ requests on Montenegro submitted to Serbian Presidency (Tanjug/RTV/Politika)

 

Representatives of the University Law School Students’ Club and other student organizations request the Serbian authorities to declare the Montenegrin Ambassador in Belgrade persona non grata, to lower relations with Serbia’s southern neighbor to consular level and throw Montenegrin diplomats out of the 40 Serbian embassies across the world that they were granted access to, and to ask the UN Security Council and Council of Europe to look into the position of Serbs and Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. They submitted this way formulated requests to staff at the Serbian Presidency. They told journalists in front of the building that they had already sent these requests at the protest in front of the Montenegrin Embassy on 27 December and are still waiting for a concrete reaction of the state. They gave the deadline – until 17 January. They dissociated themselves from the burning of the Montenegrin flag, and pointed out that they suspect this event was a result of some kind of agreement of the structures from Podgorica and Belgrade.

 

REGIONAL PRESS

 

Dodik: RS will remain military neutral and this stance needs to be respected; RS has all characteristics of state (ATV)

 

The Sixth Infantry Brigade of the Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) Armed Forces (AF) organized a formal reception on the occasion of the Orthodox Christmas, at the military barracks Kozara in Banja Luka on Monday. The reception was preceded by a religious service at the Church of Holy New Martyrs of Jasenovac, at the military barracks Kozara, and it was led by Episcope of Bihac and Petrovac Sergije. Attending the reception, Serb member of the B&H Presidency Milorad Dodik wished all Serb members of the B&H AF a happy Orthodox Christmas, as well as the Republika Srpska (RS) Day. Dodik addressed media on this occasion, saying that the RS will remain military neutral and that this stance needs to be respected. Dodik reiterated that Serbs do not want to join NATO and that the Program of Reforms of B&H clearly reads that decisions on military integration must be adopted by the B&H Presidency and the B&H Parliament, where Serb people’s interests will be protected. Dodik added that, when it comes to the military neutrality stance, the RS follows the stance of Serbia. The B&H Presidency member noted that decisions on military integration will be made at referendums, because the RS does not want a border on Drina River. The Presidency member underscored that all Serb representatives in the joint institutions of B&H, as well as Serbs in the B&H AF need to take care of interests of Serb people. “Serb members of the AF must not hesitate to take care of interests of our people at all times, with no detriment to other people. There is certainly enough room and need to do so. The main decisions of our actions within the AF and in the institutions of B&H were enacted solely within the framework of the policies established by the RS parliament. That is an obligation for me and anyone who is in the joint institutions on behalf of the RS,” he concluded. Dodik expressed his gratitude to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic for his support to the RS, adding that Banja Luka certainly wanted to hear that it is a priority of Serbia. He stressed that the RS was established in peace, on 9 January 1992, with the aim to be an independent state. Commenting on the announcement of High Representative Valentin Inzko that he will inform the UN Security Council (UN SC) about his claims about statehood of the RS, Dodik stated: “He is free to do that. It would not be the first time. Every time he goes there, he tells lies about the RS, he presents incorrect claims, he picks up what ‘Slobodna Bosna’ and some other Muslim media outlets were writing about and he presents that as a stance before the UN SC. We got used to that, we do not mind any of that. I will say once again – everything that the RS has, the territory, the people, the executive, legislative and judicial authorities on its territory, these are all characteristics of a state. There are people here who live in the RS as if it is a state, regardless of whether someone likes it or not. He can inform whomever he wants.” Dodik underlined that many in B&H are trying to give lectures and impose processes without any right. “Champion in that is the High Representative who has been harassing the entire public for twenty-something years by imposing solutions that go outside the DPA and outside the Constitution. He dared to interpret the Constitution in the previous two or three days. He is not in charge of that and he cannot interpret the Constitution,” Dodik said. He said that the entities can survive without B&H, while B&H cannot survive without the entities. Dodik assessed that the RS has the capacities to politically defend itself, but that it is still good that “Serbs from the other side of Drina River” stand by it. Dodik noted: “It is very important that Serbia understands, perceives, and treats us in that way. It always makes us happy and we hear it often from Vucic. That should not make anyone else in B&H angry, because that is just the way things go. The RS was formed with the intention to become an independent state.”

 

Yes to Rescue Unit of B&H, but only temporarily (EuroBlic)

 

The formation of a protection and rescue unit at the level of B&H is an old political topic, but it again resurfaced after it was included in the Program of Reforms. Namely, this document cited the Framework Law on Protection and Rescue of B&H from 2008, which stipulated that the Council of Ministers (CoM) of B&H is expected to establish a joint specialized unit for protection and rescue at the level of B&H. Head of the RS Civil Protection Administration Milan Novitovic told the daily that it is possible to form only temporary, ad hoc teams for protection and rescue at the level of B&H depending on the need and type of disaster. Novitovic explained that such teams are needed because the European Assistance Mechanism and International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) recognize only B&H as a member. “Currently, no unit that could speak on behalf of B&H has been organized. Together with the Federation of B&H Civil Protection Administration, we are half way through a project which we are realizing with the EU. This will, most likely, be this ad hoc unit for rescue in earthquakes in urban areas”, Novitovic said and added that the RS and Federation of B&H will probably participate, as two separate units, in an exercise on October 13, 2020 with assistance of representatives of Croatia. Finally, Novitovic said that situations might happen in which, for example, the Federation of B&H Civil Protection Administration has an entire team to respond to a disaster and it can put it at disposal of the Coordination Body comprised of representatives of the Council of Ministers (CoM) of B&H, entities and Brcko District. “The Ministry of Security of B&H cannot command this unit,” Novitovic said and concluded that those are temporary units as in line with international standards. Delegate in the House of Peoples (HoP) of B&H Dusanka Majkic (SNSD) said that the previous Minister of Security of B&H (Dragan Mektic) was “quite in favor” of formation of a unit at the level of B&H but this was stopped. “We believe that this is one of entities’ competencies. The Protection and Rescue Center of the Ministry of Security of B&H is in charge of international cooperation and coordination with entities’ civil protection administrations and now it wants to transform itself into a focal point which will be solving the issue of all troubles in case of natural disasters. We can establish only coordination and it will remain so for as long as we are in the Parliament of B&H”, Majkic concluded. At the same time, Mektic claimed that the Framework Law did not clearly stipulate what kind of unit this is about and added: “However, while reading the Program of Reforms, which was signed by (Serb member of the Presidency of B&H and SNSD leader) Milorad Dodik, it is obvious that B&H CoM will establish a specialized unit at the level of B&H, it does not stipulate anywhere that those will be ad hoc commissions. It is obvious that some are trying to find their way out of this story now”.

 

SDP B&H, Our Party, People and Justice and Independent B&H List to sign agreement on joint participation in the upcoming local elections in B&H (FTV)

 

Collegium of the Presidency of SDP B&H supported on Monday the agreement on joint participation in the upcoming local elections in B&H which will soon be signed by the leaders of SDP B&H, Our Party (NS), People and Justice (NiP) and Independent B&H List (NBL). By signing the agreement, the signatory parties will pledge to take part in the upcoming local elections in B&H together and to have joint lists of candidates for posts of heads of municipalities and mayors.

 

Spasovski celebrates NATO, rather than acknowledging that “North” did not bring anything to the people (Republika)

 

The government informed that on Tuesday the interim prime minister Oliver Spasovski will hold a press conference in the media center. At a press conference, Spasovski will talk about Macedonia’s joining NATO and about the new campaign being prepared by the government, but at the press he will not talk about the people getting nothing with the change of the name of the state. “I hear that the SDSM government was preparing a campaign about joining NATO. If we know that one million euros were spent on the last party campaign, it remains to be seen whether they will break their previous record for the most expensive lying. But when it comes to NATO, will they say whether their campaign videos will feature parts of the audio recording of a ministerial adviser ordering the cancellation of a lake concession? And if he does not obey, he will have to resign, and if he does not do it he should “think of his family” ?!” says Igor Janusev, secretary general of VMRO DPMNE.

 

Commissioner Varhelyi set to visit Macedonia (Republika)

 

The newly appointed EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi will have his first visit to Macedonia on Wednesday. The Commissioner will meet with Macedonian officials to discuss the proposed new enlargement methodology, which France demands is put in place before it can allow the opening of EU accession talks with Macedonia and Albania. Countries that support enlargement are pushing for the methodology to be approved in March.

 

INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES

 

Montenegrin Law on Religious Freedom: Polarization that benefits the government(s)? (European Western Balkans, by Sandra Maksimović, 13 January 2020)

 

Tensions surrounding the new Montenegrin law on Religious Freedom have been high for more than two weeks since the law was passed in the Montenegrin parliament at the end of December, directly affecting the property of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The issue also led to tensions between Montenegro and Serbia. Although the countries separated in 2006, many of Montenegro’s citizens declare themselves as followers of Serbian Orthodox Church. Authorities in Podgorica and some members of the opposition supported the law, while the remaining opposition, including the pro-Serb Democratic Front (DF), strongly opposed it. The day the law was being voted on, an incident occured in the Montenegro’s Parliament and 24 people including 18 MP’s from the Democratic Front were detained. Since then, there have been daily protests by citizens in Montenegro, largely by those who declare themselves Serbs, expressing dissatisfaction with the law. Despite disagreements, the law came into force January 8. According to the disputed Article 62, religious communities in Montenegro need to prove property ownership before 1918, otherwise the property will belong to the state of Montenegro. That means that Serbian Orthodox Church must prove ownership of the property including medieval monasteries and churches, meaning everything built before December 1, 1918, when Montenegro became a part of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).

Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro pointed out that the law is “discriminatory and unconstitutional,” and accused the Montenegrin authorities of “inciting divisions and hatred”, while Bishop Amfilohije even said a civil war could ensue. The Montenegrin Government stated that Serbian Orthodox Church would still be able to use its property but that it should be known what state property is, and also warned that Serbian Orthodox Church is undermining the statehood of the state of Montenegro.

 

Divided opinions on the constitutionality of the law

Belgrade attorneys Milenko and Momir Radić filed an initiative last week to evaluate the constitutionality of the law with the Montenegrin Constitution and international treaties. Montenegrin analyst Boris Marić points out that there is a whole set of contentious issues in the law. “First, the legal text itself contains a number of legal illogicalities, vagueness and conflicts of law. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of registration of religious communities, where no clear answer has been given and any discretionary decision has been removed as to who is obliged to register and who does not have that obligation”, said Marić. Marić pointed out that the part which is placed in the transitional and final provisions, which currently concerns the Montenegrin, regional and international public at the most, and relates to the obligation to prove entry in the country’s property register, is in conflict with the legal system of the country, and therefore with the Constitution. “Namely, the legal system of Montenegro is not insufficient in this part and it was not necessary to address it with the norms of the Law on Religious Freedom, and to produce the effect of re-regulation. In a situation where this law would be considered in practice as a lex specialis, it would, as written, produce a retroactive effect. In order for a legal text to have norms prescribing retroactivity, it must be enacted in a special procedure that would justify the public interest in introducing such norms into the country’s legal system”, stated Marić and added that if anyone wants to correct “historical injustice” there has to be a consensus in the society which can only be achieved through dialogue in democratic conditions. Assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade Milan Krstić has a similar opinion stating that the initiative to review the constitutionality of the law is good and he hopes that the Constitutional Court of Montenegro will be able to make a decision impartially and without pressure from the executive branch. “I believe that this law violates some of the fundamental principles of constitutionality of Montenegro without a dilemma. First of all, it is a property right, which is also guaranteed by international agreements signed and ratified by Montenegro, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Stabilization and Association Agreement. A simple transfer of church property built before 1918 into state ownership, made possible by this law, effectively nationalizes property that is not state property outside ordinary court proceedings, contrary to the opinion of the Venice Commission”, said Krstić. Krstić highlighted that the burden of subsequently proving ownership is shifted to religious communities. More specifically, this applies only to the Serbian Orthodox Church, since other religious communities are protected by special treaties signed with Montenegro. Krstić explained that by comparison, it is as if you considered someone a priori guilty in the criminal process and then shift the burden of proving the innocence to the person. “However, what is important to note is that the essential intent of this law and its proponents virtually negates another fundamental principle of the constitutionality of Montenegro, as well as all contemporary states – namely the separation of religious communities from the state. In this context, I find it unacceptable that top state officials publicly state as their goal the status of autocephalousness of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which is a par excellence ecclesiastical issue into which a secular state should absolutely not interfere”, Krstić concluded.

 

Incitement of divisions?

Amid tensions in Montenegro, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić cancelled his visit to Montenegro which was planned for Christmas Eve on 6 January. The decision was made after Vučić met with Patriarch of Serbian Orthodox Church Irinej for fear that “the Montenegrin authorities would use his visit to say it was an attack on independence and a constitutional order of Montenegro”. The meeting between Vučić and Irinej came after Serbian Ambassador to Montenegro Vladimir Božović, following instructions from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refused to receive a protest note from the Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Concurrently, the same reaction came from a Montenegro’s Ambassador to Serbia who also refused to receive a note from the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nonetheless, speculations that the incident with the law was deliberately made ahead of the elections in both Montenegro and Serbia could be found in the media. Executive Director of the Politikon Network, a think tank based in Podgorica Jovana Marović thinks that this scenario could easily be true. “The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro is running out of materials for rhetorical acrobatics and explaining that reform processes are successful, that the state is making progress in the EU integration process, and that the economic situation is getting better and better. For these reasons, this party often resorted to the tried and tested recipe for further division of society. Therefore, it would not be strange to do so now, maintaining the differences from the time of the referendum [held in Montenegro on whether the country should separate from Serbia] or even from 1918, instead of reducing differences by working on the concept of a civic and multiethnic state, which is advocated, but only on paper”, says Marović for EWB. She added that this law can also be interpreted as part of a strategy to strengthen the pillars of the Montenegrin nation, which the President announced in his inaugural speech. Regardless of whether such motives exist, Marović concluded that the sharpened rhetoric suits the political elites in both countries in an election year. Milan Krstić believes that the political scientist Vladimir Pavićević, the President of the Montenegrin Party, is right in pointing out that the adoption of this law was done, among other things, with the intention of further fostering identity divisions in Montenegro in order to draw public attention from issues of democracy and free elections in Montenegro right before holding regular elections. “Such a mechanism is not unusual for both the Podgorica and the Belgrade authorities, which have repeatedly used the raised tensions over pressing issues (especially in the context of Kosovo) to draw attention from a particular affair or democratic deficit. An extremely large number of Montenegrin citizens of all nationalities, who through peaceful walks try to defend the civil rights and constitutional values ​​of Montenegro, are an excellent indicator of citizens’ attitude to this law”, said Krstić.

 

Opposed Appeals

Citizens’ attitude is also reflected in two appeals that have attracted attention across the region. The first was issued at the end of December under the name Appeal against Belgrade’s Threats to Peace in Montenegro and the Region, and was signed by 88 public figures from across the former Yugoslavia. Signatories accused Serbia of threatening peace and attempting to destabilize Montenegro. In a response to this, the Appeal of the Academic Community and Civic Activists on the Adoption of the Law was published in Serbia, stating that the law is not adjusted “with the basic principles of the functioning of a modern democratic state”. Signatories of the appeal are led by Vladimir Kostić, President of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts. Milan Krstić looks at this appeal as an attempt by a number of members of the academic community and civic activists to inform the public about the events. “Not only about the events, but also about many other shortcomings and problems of this law, including ignoring the right to acquire property by maintenance, as well as the whole way of adopting this law with numerous democratic defects”, said Krstić. However, Appeal initially signed by 88 public figures now has more than 800 signatories. “The Republic of Montenegro is a target of attempted destabilization by violent means: its peace, territorial integrity, constitutional order, the rule of law, citizens’ equality, and equal status of all churches and religious communities are under threat”, the public appeal argues. On the other hand, the Venice Commission made its commentary on the law long before the current events. In 2015, Montenegro submitted to the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe their proposal of a Law on Religious Freedom which would change the old Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities from 1977, but the draft was shortly withdrawn due to numerous criticisms of the Commission. The revised draft was re-submitted in May last year, this time with positive evaluations from experts, but with the recommendation that religious communities be consulted with a view to reaching a joint decision before adopting the law.

The Venice Commission recognized precisely the Article 62 as one of the most controversial points. It stated that the state has the right to impose certain conditions on the use of property, but that it has to provide additional safeguards in court proceedings to prove the right to property of religious communities. Experts responded positively to statements by Montenegrin officials that the transfer of religious sites and land would not affect their use, but noted that it did not stem from the Draft Law.

 

Consequences for EU integration?

Experts EWB spoke to agree that this event could have consequences for both Montenegro and Serbia when it comes to the European integration. “I sincerely hope that this crisis in Montenegro will be resolved institutionally – either by a decision of the Constitutional Court or by an amendment of this law by the Parliament. Otherwise, I believe that such a law could have consequences for the further European path of Montenegro”, Milan Krstić pointed out and added that that would not be in the interest of the stability of this region. Boris Marić expressed the same concerns saying that this event could have consequences for both countries in terms of the EU’s insistence on pursuing a stable regional policy, which means interstate and regional cooperation that would demonstrate the capacity of our societies to be a part of the European space. Jovana Marović concluded that regardless of certain inappropriate statements and activities, she wants to believe that our societies are mature enough not to be instrumentalized for the sake of anyone’s interests and strategy games.

 

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