Montenegro's Post-war Recovery and Religion, National Identity, Sports, and Economics

Author: Julia Warden

Julia Warden is a senior from Ambler, PA studying Business Analytics and Film at the University of Notre Dame. The Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion is pleased to have been able to provide a grant to support her research in Montenegro.

Julia Warden in Budva, Montenegro

Over winter break, I conducted independent research in Montenegro focusing on the trajectory of the country’s post-war recovery and use of soft power to shape religion, national identity, sports, and the economy, all of which contribute to broader narratives and geopolitical alignment. I am particularly interested in the influence on identity at the individual level from the post-war relationship between Montenegro and Serbia. My research pays attention to the competing influences of Russia, the former Soviet Union, and the European Union to contextualize how Montenegro is developing over time. My goal is to understand the intricate details of these influences and to extract lessons to apply to similar challenges faced by Ukraine, particularly as related to their shared cultural, religious, and linguistic roots and amidst Russia’s pursuit of each of them as allies.

In Montenegro, I interviewed a wide range of individuals such as professors, students, government officials, activists, and others with unique insights. These personal experiences not only provided historical depth but demonstrated the resilience of Montenegrins in defending their cultural heritage, and has been the most memorable part of my project. Through conversation, the theme of religion emerged as one of the most influential factors over Montenegro’s identity today. The Eastern Orthodox Church, a powerful force in Eastern European countries like Montenegro and Ukraine, has tremendous influence in shaping identity, not just “religious life” narrowly defined. In particular, the Serbian Orthodox Church and Russian Orthodox Church share goals as allies in protecting “Slavic brotherhood”, a phrase used to justify various endeavors encompassing post-communist Eastern Europe.

View of Kotor, Montenegro with the church and mountains behind.

The question of the Serbian Orthodox Church’s role in Montenegro's political affairs has been a point of contention; while the church is seen by some as a cultural and religious link to Serbia by reinforcing a sense of shared identity, others view the church's involvement in political matters, especially during debates surrounding Montenegro's independence, as a threat. Due to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s prominence in Montenegro, the mere existence of a separate Montenegrin Orthodox Church, of which there are few followers today, has become one of the most contentious issues in the Orthodox community. As detailed by Morrison in his book Nationalism, Identity and Statehood in Post-Yugoslav Montenegro, in response to the Serbian Orthodox Church’s power, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church became more active during the 1990’s through initiatives to recognize Montenegrin religious figures, and “by extension, aid their wider objective of establishing an independent state, with the church acting as the central pillar of a distinct Montenegrin national identity.”

Blue Church on the Water -- Called Our Lady of the Rocks; this is located in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro near Perast.

The Russian Orthodox Church and Ukrainian Orthodox Church share a similar relationship to that of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. The Russian government has carefully fused religious and nationalist narratives to justify its invasion of Ukraine, from the introduction of the concept of the "Russian world" to the recovery of Crimea as a "sacred place.” Moscow justifies its aggression toward Ukraine in large part by claiming that expanding the Russian state means protecting Orthodox Christians in Ukraine from harmful outside influences, especially the West. According to this article in the Pew Research Center, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, 38% of Ukrainians, 72% of Russians, and 74% of Serbs agreed with the statement “Russia has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside its borders.” The conflict has led to a significant split within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with some leaders maintaining sympathy for Russia and others openly condemning the Russian invasion, positioning the church as a symbol of Ukrainian independence and statehood; this has exacerbated divisions within Ukraine, triggering church seizures, property disputes, and acts of violence among rival Orthodox factions. The Ukrainian parliament has even attempted to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Ukraine to keep out undue influence from Moscow, as the law calls “to ban [religious groups] whose leadership is outside of Ukraine.”

On the individual level, these conflicts have caused a plethora of identity conflicts, prompting questions over what it means to belong to a particular ethnic group. By publishing my research, I hope to shine a light on these topics that are often overlooked. What stands out to me most is the resilience shared by these two groups, despite opposition, in preserving their cultures and traditions.

Julia Warden presenting her research at the Nanovic Institute's Undergraduate Student Research Conference.

Thank you to the Ansari Institute for all the support! I am grateful for the opportunity to travel to Montenegro and learn so much along the journey.

Julia Warden's research was also supported by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, a sister institute within the Keough School of Global Affairs.