Following Montenegrin Parliament passing the Religious Freedom Law which drew protests by the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and ethnic Serbs, President of the Parliament of Montenegro Ivan Brajovic revealed the five-year process in close cooperation with the Venice Commission to Balkan Insider in an exclusive interview. He also commented on Chinese investment in Montenegro, EU accession, and foreign direct investment in Montenegro after joining NATO.

Balkan Insider: Montenegrin Parliament recently passed the religious freedom law which has sparked protests across the region by ethnic Serbs. Could you explain the law and the reason behind the protests?  What message do you have for the protesters?

President of Parliament Brajovic: Montenegro was living in a kind of legal vacuum regarding the regulation of religious rights and freedoms. Knowing that this is a very sensitive issue, the law was prepared carefully and for a long time. During the five-year law drafting period, all religious communities in Montenegro had the opportunity to express their views on the Draft Law, and all religious communities, except the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), expressed understanding and support for the proposed law. The law was developed in close cooperation with the Venice Commission – an advisory expert body of the Council of Europe dealing with constitutional issues and assisting EU members and candidates in aligning their legal system and institutional structure with European standards and international experience in the fields of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The most important recommendations of the Venice Commission have been incorporated into the Law.

On the other hand, the opposition from the Serbian Orthodox Church to the passing of the Law was not a surprise, given their current status, ambitions and support from their home country. The key problem is that the goals of the state of Montenegro and the SPC are different. The aim of the state was to regulate this area legally, to implement the basic constitutional principles on freedom of religion and equality of all communities before the law, as well as to confirm the secular character of the Montenegrin society and state. The goal of the SPC is to protect the current state of affairs, and to continue political engagement which includes a visible and persistent negation of the Montenegrin identity. In addition, their effort to prevent legal regulation of this area is part of their desire to sustain the state of affairs with complete absence of control over anything related to the activities, property and finances of the SPC in Montenegro. I have to inform your readers that the SPC uses almost all Orthodox religious objects in Montenegro, regardless of the wishes and needs of the believers of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, which owned the most valuable churches and monasteries until 1918 when Montenegro, by the will of great powers and domestic traitors, had lost not only its statehood but also the autocephaly of its church. Without going deeper into the turbulent Balkan past, legal and spiritual status and environment, since the restoration of the statehood of Montenegro in 2006, the need and obligation to regulate all issues in accordance with the Constitution and new social circumstances have emerged. These obligations included the legal regulation of a religious issue and the protection of cultural monuments found to belong to state property. We are proud of the adoption of this very liberal law, whereby we have made another step in completing the state and civic identity of Montenegro.

When it comes to protests, one of the rights guaranteed to the citizens by the state – is the right to peaceful protests. Some citizens are expressing dissatisfaction with the Law by taking part in the protests, organised by a very politically active SPC in Montenegro and with political parties that openly cooperate with them. During the parliamentary debate on this Law, all means, including violence, were used to prevent its adoption. The Law was supported not only by the ruling majority, but also by the votes of some opposition MPs. I believe that, as the time passes, with clear arguments and not with noise and manipulation, it will be clear to most protestors what majority of Montenegrin citizens already know: the law was adopted in good faith and does not jeopardize anyone’s right to exercise their religion as they have done so far. The state does not strip anybody of their property by means of this law, as it has been insinuated very skilfully and sometimes even primitively.  Accordingly, I have no message other than to maintain the peace and dignity, that Montenegro is a state of all citizens and that, as before, we will be determined to protect the Constitution, laws and civil peace and freedoms of all citizens.

Otherwise, both in the fight for the restoration of its statehood, as well as during these 14 years after that, Montenegro has been facing constant pressures and challenges regarding the implementation and protection of its national interests. We also see these strong political and media pressures as an attempt to threaten our national identity and even the stability of the state, but this time also the state will successfully resist them. In this fight for Montenegro, our NATO membership is of great importance.

Balkan Insider: With protests continuing and desires from the Serbian government, Serbian Orthodox Church, and ethnic Serbs, what are some possible compromises regarding the religious freedom law?

President of Parliament Brajovic: The Law was adopted and became part of the legal system of the state. In the period that follows, we will discuss its implementation, but not other requests. The clear message of the state is that the Law will not be withdrawn and there can be no compromise in that sense. The Serbian Orthodox Church represents its own and the interests of its believers, while the state of Montenegro represents the interests of all citizens. Some Montenegrin and SPC officials know each other well, they met several times during the drafting of this law, and I believe that Church representatives will accept the invitation of the government to discuss the contested issues in good faith in order to overcome the problem in the mutual interest.

Balkan Insider: What is parliament doing to address the issue of “fake news” in Montenegro and the region?

President of Parliament Brajovic: The state of Montenegro, including its institutions and officials are not immune to this problem of the modern age and the global media scene. For now, we are fighting against this phenomenon with openness and truth, as well as by responding timely to fake news. We have also gone a step further, and in 2017, we organised a regional conference on the subject of parliaments in the digital age and truth at a time of post-truth. Also, the Parliament of Montenegro was proclaimed the most open parliament for many years now, and we are very proud of this title. We believe that this approach is also useful in combating fake news.

Balkan Insider: U.S. President Donald Trump just hosted China Vice Premiere Liu He for a “Phase One” trade deal. At the same time, the US Department of Defense labels China “a strategic competitor using predatory economics”.  Can you discuss Montenegro’s involvement in the 17+1 initiative and the status of the Bar-Boljare highway?

President of Parliament Brajovic: Montenegro’s foreign policy is well known and unquestionable. First of all, we are proud to be recognised in our politically sensitive region as a state that fosters good relations with all its neighbours. It is also quite clear that Montenegro has tied its future to the European Union and the countries of the developed Western democracies, with the United States of America as a kind of democratic axis and a reliable friend of our country. But also, our country is making significant efforts in dialogue and partnership with all Eurasian countries. We are signatories of the Belt and Road Initiative, which links Asia, Europe and Africa through the construction of a trade and infrastructure network, while the 16 + 1 Mechanism which is now 17 + 1, as a Chinese initiative to improve cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries, is not opposite to the official politics of Montenegro, including the European Union. That policy of Montenegro, with clear aims, directed towards stability and cooperation, strengthened by NATO membership and implementation of structural reforms, has made Montenegro reliable and attractive region for investments coming from different regions of the world.

As for high-way, while wishing to create necessary preconditions for targeted economic growth, Montenegro is constructing, in cooperation with its Chinese partners, the most important infrastructural project – a high-way that will connect Adriatic coast with the Central and Western Europe. The implementation of this project is a good example of cooperation between small and big economies, with clearly defined roles and tasks. Every detail of this project in which the Chinese company CRBC was the most favourable bidder, from its planning to its final implementation, was completely transparent and has undergone all procedures, including the longest debate in the Parliament of Montenegro. The priority section of this highway is planned to be completed by the end of this year, and each subsequent phase will be a step further in the balanced development of the north and south of Montenegro and additional opening of our country for tourists and investors.

Balkan Insider: Montenegro has been fortunate enough to have positive economic growth – increases in FDI, new direct flights, exponential growth of international visitors. What is Podgorica doing to keep this momentum going and to increase more visitors and investment from the North America?

President of Parliament Brajovic: Over the past 14 years, Montenegro has been tasked with establishing all the attributes of statehood, while preserving its integrity, strengthening democratic processes and, above all, ensuring economic stability and optimal growth. We succeed in all of this, though there are many challenges ahead. I must say that our country’s NATO membership, in addition to acknowledging our foreign policy and ensuring long-term security, has sent a clear positive message to investors and tourists that we are a safe, stable and desirable destination. Economic indicators and the number of tourists speak in favour of this. The investment climate is increasingly favourable due to a series of measures by state authorities. There are numerous potentials for investing in good business in the mountainous north and Mediterranean south of Montenegro, which are increasingly recognised by prominent companies in the field of energy, infrastructure, and above all in the field of tourism. In tourism, Montenegro is the country with currently the most significant investment projects in the Mediterranean. When it comes to visitors, we not only see an increase in the number of tourists, but also an increasing number of countries from which they come. Tourists from the USA are of course very valuable to us, their desire to visit a distant small country further obliges. The respected Bloomberg also ranked Montenegro in the top 24 destinations for this year, selected by well-known editors and global correspondents, and this recommendation should be trusted.

Balkan Insider: Montenegro is a leading candidate in the region to join the European Union (EU)? The country has nearly all chapters open and three chapters provisionally closed. What are the goals of Montenegro’s EU accession in 2020 and when do you foresee it joining the EU?

President of Parliament Brajovic: On Montenegro’s path to EU membership, formally speaking, we have one negotiating chapter left to be opened, and the remaining ones to be closed. For Montenegro it is vital to be committed to further democratisation of society through the promotion of Western European values, the application of their legislation and best practices. In Montenegro, the Euro-enthusiasm of the vast majority of citizens has long been very strong and constant. However, there was a danger that this enthusiasm would be shaken by disturbing messages from individual EU Member States that enlargement must be stopped until the Union consolidates and addresses its internal issues. Fortunately, enlargement policy has been brought back into the focus of EU policies and institutions, which is in line with Montenegro’s clear position that consolidation and enlargement policies are complementary and mutually beneficial processes.

Montenegro is recognised as a regional frontrunner, given the progress we have made, and the internal and external policies we are pursuing. Regardless of what the future negotiation model for new candidates may look like, we expect that Montenegro will continue the further process with the rules already established, in order to enter the final phase of its integration. One of the criteria we insist on is the regatta principle, that is, membership in accordance with the progress achieved, in which sense – Montenegro is clearly ahead of other candidates. We consider it a stimulating model for all candidates.

We will continue to be committed to improving the legislative framework in all areas, strengthening the institutions of the system and democracy, while respecting and promoting the rule of law and European values in the country and in the region. It is completely ungrateful and unnecessary to bid on the date of Montenegro’s accession to the EU. We want to enter as readily as possible, and to bring in our values an added quality to the most important political and economic project of Europe, such as the European Union.