Call to Lynch: The War of Words Threatening Montenegro’s Delicate Balance

Illustration: BIRN/Igor Vujcic

Call to Lynch: The War of Words Threatening Montenegro’s Delicate Balance

2. August 2021.11:21
2. August 2021.11:21
There is growing concern that escalating online hate speech in Montenegro could turn into offline violence.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

Five months later, in mid-January this year, Natalija Nilevic of the capital, Podgorica, posted a video on TikTok in which she vowed to set fire to all ‘Milogorci’ and ‘Shiptari’ and cut off their heads. “There won’t be a single head left,” she said.

‘Shiptari’ is a derogatory term some Serbs use for Albanians, while ‘Milogorci’ is a reference to Montenegrin supporters of President Milo Djukanovic, who led the country to independence in 2006 and in doing so ended a state union with Serbia that dated to the end of World War One.

Jovanovic was sentenced in late April in the first instance to a year in prison for inciting ethnic hatred; Nilevic has been charged with the same.

On opposing sides of an ideological divide, Jovanovic and Nilevic are part of an alarming war of words playing out on social media in Montenegro, a war that took off in 2019 but has intensified since an earthquake election last year.

The August 2020 vote ended three decades of uninterrupted rule by Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, and brought to power an uneasy three-way alliance dominated by a pro-Serbian bloc.

Montenegro is a multi-ethnic state that is unusual in that no one community makes up over half of its 630,000 people. About 45 per cent identify as Montenegrins, about 29 per cent as Serbs, some 11 per cent as Bosniaks or Muslims and five per cent as Albanians.

Those who consider themselves Serbs finally have a slice of power, while those who identify as Montenegrins sense a threat to the sovereignty restored by referendum 15 years ago. Their battle is playing out online, whipped up by politicians who have become willing participants. There are growing fears it may move offline.

“Everything that has been happening on the Internet for the last year or so can easily move into the streets,” Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, an ethnic Albanian and the government’s security services coordinator, told BIRN. “Those who manipulate the narrative use the sincere feelings of the people to push them into the fire,”

Political earthquake

The basic divide is between those branded ‘Litijaši’ and those called ‘Komitas’.

The former comes from the word ‘liturgy’ and refers to those who came out in protest against the government over a new law on religious freedom adopted in late 2019 and which the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country, said was written in such a way to allow the state to seize its property.

Some of those at the protests were Serb nationalists who reject any notion of a Montenegrin nation and state and consider Serbia their homeland.

‘Komitas’ are Montenegrins who are fierce in their defence of Montenegrin statehood, the Montenegrin language and church, their name recalling the resistance to Montenegro’s union with the Kingdom of Serbia in the wake of World War One.

“Contemporary Montenegrin Komitas are a response to Serbian nationalism and react and exist exclusively in relation to it,” said a historian who, having been on the receiving end of online abuse from both sides, asked not to be named.

As long-running tensions boiled over with the adoption of the controversial religious freedom law, tens of thousands of protesters – whipped up by the outspoken head of the SPC in Montenegro at the time, Metropolitan Amfilohije – took to the streets in the biggest outpouring of popular discontent in Montenegro’s short history as an independent state.

Analysts say Djukanovic misjudged the mood of the country, where many who identify as Montenegrins nonetheless follow the Serbian church

In the August 30 election, held against a backdrop of COVID-19 restrictions, three opposition blocs, including the pro-Serbian For the Future of Montenegro, won enough votes to cobble together a narrow majority in parliament and send the DPS packing after three decades of uninterrupted rule since the dying days of socialist Yugoslavia.

Dritan Abazovic. Photo: Jelena Jovanovic

The result represented a political earthquake, emboldening one part of Montenegrin society but seriously unsettling another.

Searching Twitter for six specific terms or hashtags used in the dispute, BIRN extracted more than 7,000 local-language tweets between November 1, 2019 – when the row over the disputed religious law took off – and July 19 this year.

The terms and hashtags used were ‘osvjezilo’ [refresh], ‘#nedamosvetinje’ [roughly ‘we won’t give up our shrines’], ‘komite’, ‘#nikadvise’ [never again], ‘FCJK’ [Faculty for Montenegrin Language and Literature in the old royal capital Cetinje] and ‘#crnogorskoprolece’ [Montenegrin Spring].

The results showed a continued and significant rise in their use over the period monitored.

‘Komite’, for example, was used 20 times in 2019, 830 times in 2020 and 1104 in the first seven months of this year. ‘Osvjezilo’ was mentioned four times in 2019, 161 times in 2020 and 1091 so far this year.

The DPS downfall caused “tectonic disturbances” on Twitter, said Nebojsa Babovic, a veteran civil society activist, prominent Twitter user and director of the Regional Business Centre, an EU-funded body providing support for small and medium-sized businesses, in the northern town of Berane.

“The defeated, faced with the loss of privileges, with no chance of appearing in the media during various official ceremonies, were on the verge of disappearing from the public scene,” he told BIRN.

“Since this is a serious group, someone cleverly advised them, using [Donald] Trump’s example, to switch to Twitter. And so now the opposition media has been given a relevant source of information and views by people who no longer appear anywhere.”

“Our political public has turned into a big stadium, where eternal derbies are played every day and the audience is divided into two loud camps that sing to their players, curse the opponents, while together they curse the referees, if there is anyone who would like to instill some order,” said Babovic.

“And as in matches, the tone of the song in the stands is dictated by the players on the field.”

Agency to filter, block content

In a June report, the Council of Europe warned that divisions between ethnic communities in Montenegro “may be deepening and becoming more marked”.

It echoed a call made in 2020 by the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, for authorities to do more to address hate speech.

“Hate speech is criminalised,” the Council said, “but there is little monitoring of social media by the authorities because no agency has the mandate to do so.” The report recommended that Montenegro’s new Media Law, which is in the pipeline, empower a state agency to monitor and sanction instances of hate speech online.

Jaksa Backovic. Photo: Jelena Jovanovic

Jaksa Backovic, who heads the Unit for Combating Cyber Crime in the Montenegrin Police Directorate, told BIRN this was possible.

“There is the possibility of forming an information security agency that would have the jurisdiction and permission to filter and block content, but specific content, not entire networks,” Backovic said. “That would mean that if we block someone’s profile, or certain content, it cannot be accessed from Montenegro.”

“The legislative framework for this issue is not good,” Backovic said. “The key is in the amendments to the Criminal Code, the introduction of the criminal offense of creating and distributing false and unverified news, and by amending the Law on Electronic Communications.

“Work could be done on improving international cooperation, in terms of data exchange and signing contracts with various centres, Internet providers and the like. This would allow faster and easier shutdown of the portal by business owners and faster response.”

According to Backovic, between November 1, 2019 and April 15, 2021, police initiated 64 cases concerning the incitement of national, religious and racial hatred, causing panic and disorder and endangering security on the Internet, though some of these cases concerned online posts about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, 13 cases reached the courts. In April, prison sentences were handed down against two people on charges of inciting national, racial and religious hatred, including Jovanovic from Niksic. In May and June, four people were convicted of the same charge, of whom three were sent to prison and the fourth was given a suspended sentence.

Babovic, the civil society activist, said it was essential that the culprits start being held accountable and that media “give up sensationalism”.

“The solution is certainly justice,” he said. “When the state apparatus proves to be neutral and the laws apply to all it will be a significant step towards the normalisation of the network, i.e. the public.”

‘Dangerous game’

Abazovic, the deputy prime minister, said the DPS was to blame.

“What is now playing out in Montenegro is a dangerous game of the former government,” he said, accusing the DPS of trying to retake power by provoking violence.

“The laws must be harmonised with modern trends,” he said, “and the Ministry of Internal Affairs will strengthen the Group for the Suppression of High-Tech Crime so that citizens can be protected on the Internet as well.”

“I am not talking here about endangering freedom of speech, but about abusing freedom of speech,” Abazovic told BIRN. He warned about the danger of online hatred turning into offline violence.

In April, in the Bijelo Polje municipality of northeastern Montenegro, a number of people on an overpass tipped buckets of faeces onto supporters of the so-called Patriotic Komitas Alliance, PKS, a Montenegrin nationalist organisation formed after the DPS fell from power in 2020.

The incident, which caused an outcry on social media, followed protests by the PKS in which its supporters blocked roads across the country over a government decision to simplify the procedures for obtaining Montenegrin citizenship.

On April 8, in the town of Bogetici, the protesters injured a Montenegrin soldier and surrounded a government car that was carrying the daughter of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic. Trying to push through the crowd, the car injured two of the demonstrators.

“We have seen individual cases like in Bijelo Polje or Bogetici where people film incidents and broadcast them live on social networks, which raises the question – would they demonstrate intolerance toward one another if they did not have an audience?” Abazovic asked.

“If tensions are not reduced, it can be dangerous, but we will do everything for it not to come to that and for Montenegro to preserve its peace and multi-ethnic harmony,” he said.

“This government will not allow anyone to shed the blood of its citizens in order to strengthen their own political rating.”

Long-term solution? Fighting poverty, corruption

‘Srbe na vrbe’, the call to lynch issued by the man in Niksic before last year’s election has become particularly widespread among so-called Komitas.

And politicians are not above the fray.

In late March, Adnan Muhovic, a former senior municipality official in Petnjica in northern Montenegro, threatened in a Facebook post to organise a “tractor race” to Serbia for Serbs from Montenegro, an apparent reference to the columns of tractors that carried tens of thousands of Serbs and their belongings from Croatia at the end of the 1991-95 Croatian war, fleeing a Croatian military offensive.

Public officials have used social media to criticise refugees who fled wars elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and sought safety in Montenegro. “I think it’s time you thanked us and started packing,” Zoja Djurovic, director of a Podgorica music and ballet school, wrote on Facebook in early April. “It’s neither humane nor Christian to work against one’s host, he who embraced him.”

Djurovic later deleted the post and apologised but was nevertheless dismissed from her job.

Political analyst Marko Begovic said social media, particularly Twitter, had become the “basic communication platform” of politicians and the government, and since last year’s election they have used it to whip up tensions.

“In this relatively short period since August 30, the shift in political power has not brought about a calming of tensions or reduction in polarisation,” Begovic told BIRN.

“On the contrary, politicians on both sides have continued with ill-considered and inflammatory rhetoric, since the system of responsibility does not exist. So, instead of focussing on the difficult existential situation, the debate continues around issues that significantly divide our society.”

Radmila Stupar. Photo: Courtesy of Radmila Stupar

Psychologist Radmila Stupar Djurisic said that poverty – in terms of finances, “wisdom” and “respects for others” – provided fertile ground for intolerance.

“The poor man is full of misery and anguish,” Stupar Djurisic told BIRN. “It’s easy to spread hatred from there.”

The COVID-19 pandemic left people even more susceptible to those who might seek to blame the ‘Other’.

“The pandemic showed how fragile we are,” she said. It “weakened our mental capacities to see that someone is playing power games and trying to manipulate the masses.”

Begovic, too, said he saw the solution in an effort to address long-standing issues of public finances and corruption, both of which worsened under the long rule of the DPS.

“In the end, we must not be surprised by the frivolity and irresponsibility of political representatives, because this situation suits them perfectly – their status, finances and quality of life have not been called into question. That is why a completely different political platform is urgently needed, which, however, some actors only weakly advocate,” he said.

“This new state relationship should shift the focus onto addressing existential challenges, consolidating public finances and providing a systematic answer to corruption. This would ease these, I would say, imaginary divisions within society.”

This story was produced as part of BIRN’s Digital Rights Programme for Journalists. The programme has been supported by the European Al Fund, a collaborative initiative of the Network of European Foundations (NEF). The sole responsibility for the programme lies with the organiser(s) and the content may not necessarily reflect the positions of European Al Fund, NEF or European Al Fund’s Partner Foundations.

    Jelena Jovanović

    This post is also available in: Bosnian