From baptism to politics, Montenegrins fight for identity

Nebojsa Pajevic's baptism certificate says he was born into the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1965 and is an ethnic Serb.

"Rubbish," Mr. Pajevic says, "I am a Montenegrin, and my church is the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. This," he adds, waving the certificate in the air, "is a lie."

Pajevic believes the time has come to correct the lie. His defiance echoes Montenegro's democratically elected president, Milo Djukanovic, who is resisting this week's growing efforts by the Yugoslav Army to take control of his republic at the risk of civil war.

Pajevic's story is part of a battle to revive the Montenegrin church and regain control of the 650 Montenegrin churches and monasteries taken over by the Serbian patriarchy in 1918. It is a legal fight over property, a political fight to reduce Serbia's increasingly dictatorial control over Montenegro, but more significantly, experts say, a fight to recover and redefine Montenegrin identity.

Pajevic's task of correcting his birth record shouldn't be too difficult, he says. All one really needs is a copy of the 1991 census in which 69 percent of Montenegro's 626,000 inhabitants defined themselves as Montenegrins - even as they professed allegiance to the Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro.

In Pajevic's view, those who chose to call themselves Montenegrins belong by definition to the Montenegrin church. Yet when a majority of them recently celebrated the restoration of their religious freedom after 50 years of communism by asking to be baptized, what they got is a piece of paper classifying them ethnically as Serbs.

"Montenegrin identity is a historical fiction," says Amphilohije Radovic, the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. "Serbs and Montenegrins are the same people, the same nation. For this reason they have the same church."

To that line of reasoning Pajevic, and many others like him, present the following facts: that Montenegro was formed as a state in 1482; that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church came to life as an autonomous institution in 1603; that it was recognized by the Holy Russian Synod and the Patriarchy of Constantinople in 1766; and that it ceased to exist only by decree of the Serbian King Alexander I in 1918, at the time of Montenegro's reluctant unification with Serbia. Then the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was replaced by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

"For centuries before unification, there was no separation between church and state. The kings, the vladikas, were patriarchs in the church," notes Nikola Dajkovic, a historian and deputy mayor of Montenegro's capital, Podgorica. "The struggle for the church is essentially a struggle for statehood."

NATO's daily bombardment of Yugoslavia has split Montenegro between supporters and opponents of President Slobodan Milosevic's regime. It has also exacerbated the divisions between loyalists to the federation and fighters for Montenegrin independence.

Analysts say that, in this confrontation, the issue of identity will play a crucial role. They add that Montenegrin identity is difficult to define and thus subject to manipulation by both sides.

Ethnically, close to 80 percent of Montenegrins are Serbs. For centuries they shared with Serbia the same language, the same Eastern Orthodox tradition, and above all, the same enemy: the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, which over the 14th and 15th centuries occupied each of the Balkan states in turn - except Montenegro.

"We have a common conscience, which boils down to the fact that for centuries we had a common enemy," says Deputy Mayor Dajkovic. When the Berlin Wall came down and former Yugoslavia fell apart, five of its republics clamored for independence from Serbia. Not Montenegro.

"We are brothers, of all the people in the Balkans they are the closest to us," adds Dajkovic.

"Which is not to say we are the same. The struggle for the church is part of a larger struggle in which we say: No, we are not the same."

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