Why Montenegro has decided to stand up to Russia

Two years ago, the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, saved the day (and helped to resolve an inconclusive discussion at the Chicago summit on this subject) by making a public pledge that the next NATO summit will be about enlargement.  In the meantime, NATO’s open-door policy had slipped down the priority list, and the Ukrainian crisis sparked a fundamental rethinking of European security considerations.

Currently, there is only one real candidate for membership at the September 2014 summit in Wales – Montenegro. As for the other Balkan aspirants, Macedonia remains blocked by the never-ending dispute with Greece over its name, while Bosnia and Herzegovina is stalled by lack of progress in implementing political agreements for the registration of military property, and other domestic issues.

There are two schools of thought within NATO regarding the enlargement agenda and Montenegro:

  1. Sceptics consider Montenegro too small to get an invitation by itself. Internal set-up within the Alliance is not positive: the Americans are not driving this agenda; Germany remains reluctant to expand further; and Montenegro has several credibility problems. Some NATO members raise questions about Montenegro’s preparedness, owing to the low level of public support in the country for membership, and persistent questions about corruption and rule of law. On the other hand, rule of law issues did not stop Albania from becoming a member. Unlike Albania, Montenegro has already begun the EU accession process, facing tough scrutiny on justice, corruption and fundamental rights under chapters 23 and 24 in the membership talks with Brussels. Plus, another issue that has caused a lot of damage, in terms of perceptions, is found in the context of the Ukraine crisis. Montenegro’s image as being politically vulnerable and economically dependent on Russian business. In this context, high- level corruption is also seen as a security issue.

  2. Enthusiasts underline that after five years of the Membership Action Plan (MAP), Montenegro has fulfilled all criteria and is well prepared to receive the membership invitation.The government has successfully proceeded with reforms on the intelligence and defence sectors. Public support for NATO accession is growing. According to the Ipsos agency, it has increased from 38 per cent, in November 2013, to 46 per cent, today. In addition, doing nothing for NATO’s enlargement at the September summit is seen as an invitation for further aggression from Russia towards the ex-Soviet region and growing assertiveness in the Balkans.

Addressing the credibility issue head-on, Podgorica has played the geopolitical card. First, it has distanced itself from Russia.  Second, it has pushed for more US engagement in the Balkans; to counter an intensified Russian effort at undermining the regional security architecture based on NATO. Indeed, Moscow now seems to be testing and challenging the Balkan aspirants before the forthcoming NATO summit, one by one. This was one of the softer messages that Prime Minister Djukanovic delivered during his April visit to Washington, and at his May speech in the Globsec security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia. 

A few weeks earlier, Podgorica accepted a request from Brussels to apply EU sanctions against Russia, which sharply contrasted the refusal by Serbia (also an EU associate) to follow the EU position. This came in addition to the earlier refusal of Montenegro, in late 2013, to grant Russia permission to use its ports as logistical support for the Russian naval fleet in the Mediterranean (which could have been a calculated diplomatic manoeuvre by Moscow, testing Podgorica’s resolve and consistency). The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed “profound disappointment,” and accused Montenegro of having a short-term memory (forgetting Russia’s support during the NATO air strikes in 1999). President Filip Vujanovic tried to control some of the damage asking, in the Russian media, for understanding that Montenegro has followed its interest to be part of the EU and NATO, in no way expressing an anti-Russian mood.” For its part, the Russian Embassy in Podgorica reminded everybody how deep Russian involvement is in Montenegro: 7,000 Russians are permanent residents; 40 percent of real estate on the coast is owned by Russian citizens; over 200,000 Russians come there every year for summer holidays.

What are the results? The Montenegrin government has opted to increase its NATO credentials over its relations with Russia. Moscow, in return, has shed light on some of Montenegro’s vulnerabilities, and decided to work behind the scenes against Djukanovic. As a result, I expect more active courting of Russia towards the pro-Serbian opposition, led by Andija Mandic.  

The sad truth is, however, that all of this geopolitical gambling has not paid off, in terms of increased chances for NATO membership, which will be decided at the Wales summit in September. The Obama Administration has back-pedalled on the enlargement agenda, and the Germans are not going to support it. Part of the reason is that the key issue of NATO’s enlargement policy nowadays is not in the Balkans. It is Georgia – a direct neighbour to Russia with a relatively recent legacy of open confrontation. As such, it is considered too sensitive for Germany, and some other European countries, to reach the initial MAP stage.

There is a compelling argument at NATO’s headquarters that enlargement should not move ahead as an individual process, but rather in a package manner involving more candidates. It is true that “package” solutions are more elegant and more politically viable within the alliance. In other words, Montenegro’s case would be much stronger if other aspirants were eligible for membership consideration. However, this is clearly not the case.

In conclusion, Montenegro’s chance of being offered membership in Wales is still an ambiguous and open-ended question. The government in Podgorica has no guarantees for September, but has never been closer to NATO membership than today.

Milan Nič

Milan Nič is an Executive Director at the Central European Policy Institute, a regional think tank based in Bratislava. He studied at the SAIS Johns Hopkins University Bologna Center, the Central European University and the Charles University in Prague. He started his professional carrier as journalist at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Between 2007 – 2012, he worked as advisor to the High Representative/EU Special Representative in Sarajevo, analyst for the European Stability Initiative in Vienna, and advisor to the State Secretary at the Slovak Foreign Ministry. He is a co-author of a book of essays on the EU and Slovak foreign policy (2010).

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