20 October 2016

Montenegro on track for NATO

Montenegro’s electorate has confirmed the country’s path toward NATO despite concerted attempts to derail the process. The incoming government looks set to guarantee that Montenegro becomes NATO’s 29th member only 10 years after regaining its independence. During 2017, Montenegro and NATO’s current 28 members are expected to ratify the country’s entry into the alliance.

Two related issues were central to the 16 October parliamentary elections: relations with the West and ties with Russia. Montenegrin authorities accused Moscow of direct interference in the election process. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic presented the vote as a choice between becoming a NATO and EU member or becoming a “Russian colony.”

Although Djukanovic’s comments may sound like an election slogan, Moscow continues to display its subversive ambitions in Montenegro and the wider Balkan region. Above all, it wants to preclude further NATO and EU enlargement by excluding Montenegro, cultivating allies such as Serbia, and fostering divided states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Montenegro has spent the past few years extricating itself from Moscow’s tightening grip after mistakenly permitting corrosive Russian investments. Djukanovic, upon realizing that major Russian business comes with political strings, ultimately proved unwilling to become another Putin ally.

Russian investment in Montenegro has dropped markedly in the past year. This is partly due to Russia’s declining economy as a consequence of Western financial sanctions and a severe drop in oil prices. Russia was once Montenegro’s leading foreign investor, but in 2015 it cut its annual investments by half to just €68.9 million. During the first six months of 2016, total Russian investment in Montenegro came to only €22 million.

Moscow also attempts to exert its influence through alternative channels. It has reportedly funded several opposition parties, particularly the Serbian nationalists in the Democratic Front. Last year, the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news agency set up a local language portal in Belgrade; from there, it broadcasts anti-Western diatribes and conspiracies into Montenegro. Russian officials have also blackmailed Podgorica by threatening severe consequences if it enters NATO. It has fed the constant propaganda barrage about government corruption and tries to undermine Djukanovic’s popularity.

Montenegro has a diverse opposition and not all parties are anti-NATO. However, the Democratic Front ran the most vehement campaign against the alliance, organized rallies that occasionally turned violent, and called for unrest if the government joined NATO without holding a public referendum. Its leaders also claimed they would abolish sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and develop the “closest economic and political ties with Moscow.”

On the eve of the elections, Montenegrin police arrested 20 Serbs for allegedly planning to attack state institutions, police officers and government officials, including Djukanovic himself. Yet Moscow is more likely to be behind such a provocation than Belgrade, which has more to lose in terms of its EU ambitions if it is caught trying to destabilize its neighbor.

The ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its traditional allies, including ethnic minority parties, did not win an absolute parliamentary majority and will need to broaden the coalition. The Social Democratic Party (SDP), a former DPS ally that ran on its own in the elections, may decide to rejoin the coalition to help finalize NATO accession.

Minority support from Albanians, Bosniaks and Croats has been crucial for Montenegro in gaining independence and is now vital for maintaining a coalition to enter NATO and eventually the EU. Albanians in particular calculated that the victory of anti-Djukanovic parties would have been damaging for Kosova.

The current Montenegrin government was among the first to recognize Kosova’s independence in 2008—despite the furor from Belgrade—and is more likely to settle the current dispute over border demarcations. An anti-Djukanovic coalition would benefit nationalists in Belgrade in their anti-Kosovar campaign and boost Russian influence throughout the region.

Just as it stood up to Slobodan Milosevic during the Yugoslav conflicts, Podgorica continues to defy Vladimir Putin, despite the barrage of Kremlin attacks and threats. Unlike Serbia, Montenegro supports the U.S. and EU policy of financial sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and its ongoing attack in Ukraine.

However, the Kremlin is unlikely to desist from further provocations, as it aims to expand its influence in the Balkans and create fresh problems for the West. In one particularly dangerous scenario, it may seek to create a parallel authority or another Bosnian-type Republika Srpska entity in northern Montenegro, where a majority of people identify themselves as Serbs.

The incoming government must therefore prepare itself for an intensified Kremlin operation to destabilize and divide Montenegro. Declarations by the Democratic Front that it does not recognize the results of the parliamentary elections looks ominously like a step in that direction.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters