Will Metropolitan Amfilohije’s successor manage to maintain the political influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, while standing up to Belgrade?
By Samir Kajosevic
The death of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s most senior bishop in Montenegro threatens to diminish the Church’s considerable political influence in the tiny Adriatic state, just weeks after it played a key role in ending three decades of rule by the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS.
It also presents the Church’s Belgrade leadership with an opportunity to elect a successor more in sync with Serbian state policy under President Aleksandar Vucic, analysts say.
Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic died on October 30 of complications from COVID-19. He was 82 years old.
For three decades, Amfilohije led the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, in Montenegro, through the bloody collapse of federal Yugoslavia, years of deteriorating relations between Podgorica and Belgrade and a 2006 referendum that saw Montenegro end almost a century of a state union with Serbia.
For much of the last year of his life, he was at the head of bitter mass protests against a disputed law on religious freedom, whipping up resentment of the DPS that played a major part in its fall from power in an August election. Amfilohije’s death robs the Montenegrin branch of the SPC of a charismatic leader rivalled in longevity and power only by the current president of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic.
Whoever takes his place will struggle to wield such influence.
The SPC in Montenegro “has no undisputed leader who could completely replace” Amfilohije, said Zlatko Vujovic, head of the Podgorica-based Centre for Monitoring and Research, an NGO.
“There is no bishop who would be able to match Amfilohije in influence.”
Dragisa Janjusevic, director of the Centre for Political Education, agreed:
“It is certain that the death of Metropolitan Amfilohije will affect the political strength of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro,” he told BIRN. “The only question is, ‘How much?’ It depends on the future metropolitan.”
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As the leader of the largest religious community in Montenegro, Amfilohije was a household name in the country of 625,000 people, a major religious figure who did not shy away from speaking out on political issues.
Both he and Djukanovic took office in 1991, as socialist Yugoslavia began unraveling in war. Amfilohije was a vocal supporter of the nationalist policies pursued by then Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the political leader of Serbs in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic.
A fierce defender of Montenegro’s union with Serbia, which dated back to the early 20th century, Amfilohije surprised many when he chose not to play an active role in the ‘No’ campaign opposing independence in the 2006 referendum, but he frequently crossed swords with Djukanovic in the years that followed.
At the end of 2019, the 82-year-old flexed his muscles after Djukanovic’s DPS pushed through parliament a law that the SPC said was designed to strip it of its property.
Amfilohije summoned his supporters, who turned out in their tens of thousands and set the stage for an election in late August in which the metropolitan this time urged voters to end three decades of DPS rule. Three opposition blocs emerged triumphant, the biggest of them the pro-Serbian alliance For the Future of Montenegro led by Zdravko Krivokapic, now Montenegro’s prime minister-designate.
Vujovic said Krivokapic had lost a powerful ally with Amfilohije’s passing.
“As someone who was the creator of the structure and campaign that led to the opposition victory, Amfilohije’s death will certainly affect the situation, especially in the ranks of the new government,” he said.
Who gets to replace Amfilohije is up to the Holy Synod of the SPC in Belgrade, but one man has already emerged as a frontrunner – Bishop Joanikije of Budimlja-Niksic, a respected church figure and close ally of Amfilohije, notably during the protests of the past year.
Joanikije has already been appointed administrator of the Church until a new metropolitan is elected.
A day after Amfilohije’s funeral on November 1, the editor of the SPC radio station Svetigora, Nikola Petrovic, backed Joanikije as Amfilohije’s successor, as did MP Marko Milacic, leader of the Prava Crna Gora political party, part of the incoming government.
Other potential candidates include Bishop Metodije of Diokleia and Bishop Kirilo of the SPC diocese in South America, according to Montenegrin media reports.
Janjusevic, however, said Joanikije, as a student and ally of Amfilohije, was popular among the Church’s followers in Montenegro and would defend the Church’s political influence.
“If bishop Joanikije is elected as the new metropolitan, I think that the political strength of the Serbian Orthodox Church will remain at an enviable level,” he told BIRN. “If there is another solution, I think the schism within the Church will deepen and that such a solution would not be well received among believers.”
The decision will come down to a secret vote during the spring session of the Holy Synod in May 2021, with Patriarch Irinej casting the deciding ballot if the votes are tied.
Irinej and Amfilohije did not always see eye-to-eye, particularly on the issue of Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008.
When Vucic’s Serbia, under European Union pressure, committed to ‘normalise’ relations with Kosovo in 2013, Irinej pledged the Church’s support for the government but Amfilohije cried treason. Five years later, Amfilohije accused Vucic of harbouring plans to recognise Kosovo as independent, a red line for many Serb nationalists.
With Amfilohije’s death, Vujovic said Vucic and Irinej now have a chance to rein in the SPC in Montenegro.
“They will try to dismantle the powerful structure that was in conflict with the Serbian patriarch and the president of Serbia,” he told BIRN. “Retaining Amfilohije’s structure in Montenegro carries the risk of spillover to Serbia, especially as the pressure to recognise Kosovo intensifies.”
Dragan Soc, a member of the legal team of the SPC in Montenegro and a former Montenegrin justice minister, backed Joanikije and urged Belgrade not to interfere.
“I cannot rule out the possibility that the Synod wants to send someone to Montenegro who will listen to Belgrade,” he told Radio Free Europe in early November.
“But I believe that the Synod has enough experience and wisdom not to meet such desires. It’s important for them to maintain and develop the spiritual life in Montenegro, because current political desires and ambitions could destroy what the metropolitan built for the past 30 years.”