On Monday 5 June 2017, the NATO family grew by one more new member – small Western Balkans’ nation on the Adriatic coast – Montenegro (MNE). It is the first enlargement of the Alliance after 8 years when Croatia and Albania joined in April 2009. The dynamics of the MNE – NATO relations right after the (re-)gaining of the independence in 2006 might seem straight and problem-less. They were not. It took slightly over 10 years to reach the finale although Montenegro declared its intention to join NATO and joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme just months after it gained independence.
The military and technical conditions of the membership were relatively easier to achieve. Complying with political conditions (fight against corruption, rule of law...) was a much bigger challenge. But the biggest challenge was to build up domestic public support for the NATO membership. This was due to the fact that during the Kosovo conflict in 1999 NATO led air-strikes against targets on the territory of Montenegro, then part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The air-raids led to mostly military casualties but there were also some civilian victims. This is the reason why there is a vocal minority that objects to the membership of Montenegro in NATO. Especially that those who identify themselves as Serbians have been strongly opposing the membership. Number of victims in general was much lower in Montenegro than in Serbia but the Serbian minority feels solidarity with Serbia and therefore objects the NATO integration.
Relations with its bigger neighbour Serbia also played an important role. Montenegro separated from Serbia in 2006; and the latter is pursuing a policy of military neutrality – strongly opposing the NATO membership mostly due to the NATO’s role in conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia during the 90s. Furthermore, there is still nostalgia about the former Yugoslavia and the times when Montenegro was part of this regional power and even one of the leaders of the so-called Non-Align movement. Up until now Serbia tries to balance its foreign policy between the West, Russia, China and other big players in a non-align country’s style.
Last but definitively not least is the Russian influence in Montenegro and in the region of the Western Balkans in general. Russia invested a lot in the Montenegro’s independence (see here) at the expense of its traditional ally in the region – Serbia – hoping to gain a foot-hold in the strategically important Adriatic region. Russian oligarchs invested substantively in Montenegro after it gained independence, mostly into tourism and tourism connected services but also heavy industry. But when the Government of MNE realized that it is not the best way for the country they swiftly turned to NATO and the EU as its main geostrategic goals. Russia was not particularly happy about this reorientation. Since 2012 there has been a significant decrease in direct foreign investments originating from Russia. Russia is also using more direct ways to influence the developments in the country – through the security services that are active in the country (as well as in Serbia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans); through media, pro-Russian political parties, NGOs, cultural organizations and the Orthodox Church. The influence of Russian ”special services“ in Montenegrin security services was one of the last serious ”technical“ obstacles that MNE had to overcome to secure the invitation to the Alliance.
During 2015 – 16, the internal political situation in Montenegro deteriorated due to activities of some newly established opposition groups that had two main goals – to depose long-term (then) Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Đukanović and the Government led by his political party DPS (Democratic Party of Socialists). The second goal was to block country’s accession to NATO. Both goals were of equal importance for the so-called Democratic Front (DF) – a fraction of Serbian, anti-NATO and pro-Russian politicians that led the protests in Podgorica as well as in some other cities. Their goal was to unleash and lead public anti-NATO and anti-government campaign with the aim to ideally block the NATO accession or at least seriously hamper the process. Their goal was to convince the Western Allies that the public does not want to join NATO or at best is not prepared for it.
Despite these developments, in December 2015 Montenegro was invited to start the accession talks and eventually joined the Alliance. However, the 2016 Parliamentary elections were accompanied by considerable political tensions. The elections were perceived as the last opportunity for the anti-NATO coalition to pull the ”hand-break” on the process – if they had won the elections, they could have blocked the Parliament’s approval of the Accession protocols. On the election day, to the surprise of many, the security services arrested several suspects and announced in the media that they foiled a coup d’etat attempt supposedly orchestrated and financed from abroad. The group consisted of Serbian nationalists as well as Montenegrin citizens. Soon it was revealed that they allegedly had ties to the Russian extremist groups and probably even security services – GRU. Russia denied the allegations. The aim of the plotters was – supposedly - to storm the Parliament on the election night, to kill the then – Prime Minister Đukanović and form a pro-Russian and anti-NATO government. Despite the strange timing and dodgy plan to conduct the coup there was a subsequent wave of arrests both in Montenegro as well as in Serbia following the elections. Some of the plotters were identified as having served on the side of pro-Russian insurgents in Eastern Ukraine. The coup overshadowed the election.
At the end, Đukanović’s party DPS has narrowly won the election. After weeks of coalition forming the new government confirmed the Euro-Atlantic direction of the country and pledged to continue with the NATO integration. One of the concessions that the DPS made to secure the coalition was to replace Đukanović with Duško Marković as the Prime Minister. The new Parliament finally voted on and ratified accession documents to NATO on April 28, 2017. Russia reacted with blacklisting a number of Montenegrin officials and banning them from entering the Russian Federation. The existence of the blacklist was only made public when its first ”victim“ - the chairman of the International relations committee of the Parliament of Montenegro Miodrag Vuković - was detained on May 28 while transiting via Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. He was later deported from Russia. Montenegro, unlike neighbouring Serbia or Macedonia, joined the Western sanctions against Russian individuals and companies in response to the annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Therefore, a number of Russian officials as well as oligarchs were banned from travelling to Montenegro.
Montenegro’s accession to the NATO is an important signal that:
- Alliance’s “open door“ is indeed still “open“. This gives hope to other candidate countries such as Georgia, Bosnia and Hercegovina but especially Macedonia. The latter joined the Membership Action Plan already back in 1999 but wasn’t allowed to join together with Croatia and Albania due to the so-called “name-issue” with the neighbouring NATO-member Greece that is blocking Macedonia’s accession to NATO (and the EU). With the newly appointed Government in Skopje, there is hope that a compromise can be forged and Macedonia could become the 30th Ally, eventually.
- It doesn’t matter how small the country is. Once it fulfils the accession criteria, performs well and maintains Euro-Atlantic values it can join the Alliance and enjoy the collective defence. Montenegro has a population of slightly over 620.000 and Armed Forces of just over 2.000 men and women in uniform. Yet, it has been a valid security contributor to NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan.
- No third country has a veto power over other country’s NATO membership decision. This was made clear especially in regards to Russia who exercised a lot of pressure on tiny Montenegro to prevent it (though unsuccessfully) from joining the Alliance.
European Neighbourhood Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute