The Montenegro Gambit NATO and Russia Vying for Influence in the Balkans

On 19 May 2016, the Foreign Ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) signed an Accession Protocol with Montenegro, paving the way for the latter to become a full-fledged NATO member.[modal_text_link name=”source1″]1[/fusion_modal_text_link] This is a crucial advancement in a process started soon after Montenegro’s independence in 2006, and it is a landmark achievement for the small Balkan country. (Featured Image © Volim Podgoricu)

Nevertheless, the allegiance with NATO comes at the price of souring the relations with Montenegro’s traditional ally, Russia. In effect, it is remarkable how Montenegro, a nation bombed by NATO as recently as 1999, during the Kosovo War2, managed to undertake the essential reforms necessary to reach the standards required to join the Organization in such a short period of time, straying away from Serbian and Russian military influence. However, the timing of the event suggests that NATO may have hastened the process of capturing this small pawn to take advantage of a politically congenial situation.

Montenegro: Breaking Away from Belgrade

On 21 May 2016, Montenegro celebrated its 10 years of independency.3 On this date, Montenegrins voted to end the short-lived union with Serbia, established after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, in a referendum whose outcome was recognized by the European Union (EU)4 and by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).5 Thus, Montenegro reclaimed its independence, which, according to Montenegrins, fiercely traces back to the medieval principality of Duklja.6 The results of the referendum were far from a landslide. The high turnout (86%) saw a country almost split in two, with the supporters of independence gaining 55,5% of the votes and only narrowly surpassing the threshold required by the European Union to recognize the independence.7

As Montenegrins share close historical and cultural relations with Serbians, both being predominantly Slavic and Orthodox, this division was not surprising. Nevertheless, the political landscape did reflect a changing reality since Milo Djukanovic’s election as president of Montenegro in 1997. Correctly asserting that the then-president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic would have led to the dissolution of the Federation first and to a full-on clash with Western forces later, Djukanovic politically distanced its nation from Belgrade.8

Correctly asserting that the then-president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic would have led to the dissolution of the Federation first and to a full-on clash with Western forces later, Djukanovic politically distanced its nation from Belgrade.

Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, © Wikimedia Commons

Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, © Wikimedia Commons

From “Russian Resort” to NATO Membership

The split with Serbia puts into questions at least some of Montenegro’s relations with one of its strongest allies, Russia. Podgorica had to rely heavily on Russian military protection throughout its history, and still maintains good relations and strong economic ties with Moscow.9 It is equally telling that Russia accounted for more than 30% of Montenegro’s foreign investment in 201410; furthermore, the beauty of the Adriatic coasts (and the visa-free regime) attracts more than 300.000 Russian tourists each year, while more than 40% of real estate belongs primarily to Russian politicians and billionaires.11

With the strain of the Kosovo War still very vivid in the Montenegrins’ mind, as soon as the country reached its independence, a political process began to become part of the same organization that had bombed the country 7 years earlier. Indeed, in 2015, Milo Djukanovic, now Prime Minister of the country, was quoted saying that: “There is no stronger argument for Montenegro to become a NATO member state, but the difficult experience in 1999”.12 Montenegro’s emerged as a NATO candidate through the open door policy of the Organization. Based on the Article 10 of the Organization’s founding treaty13, the policy states that the existing members of the organization can invite a new country on the basis of consensus.14

“There is no stronger argument for Montenegro to become a NATO member state, but the difficult experience in 1999”.

Montenegro’s commitment to join NATO throughout the years is well exemplified by three decisions. First, the symbolic deployment of a small Montenegrin contingent of 45 soldiers to Afghanistan in 2011.15 Second, in 2013 Montenegro refused to negotiate the opening of a military base for the Russian fleet in the port of Bar, fearing that it would end its NATO membership bid.16 Finally, Podgorica chose to align itself with the EU and US sanctions against Russia after the Crimean crisis in 2014, in what was seen as the last straw in the Montenegro-Russia relations.17

On 3 December 2015, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General, publically confirmed that Montenegro had received a unanimous invitation to become its 29th member, having completed the necessary reforms “in accordance with European standards”.18

Stoltenberg’s announcement did not fail to provoke a flamboyant reaction from Moscow. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, labeled NATO’s gambit as an “openly confrontational step, fraught with further destabilizing consequences for the Euro-Atlantic security system”19, while the Duma discussed halting contacts with the country in “economics” and unspecified “other spheres”.20

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, labeled NATO’s gambit as an “openly confrontational step, fraught with further destabilizing consequences for the Euro-Atlantic security system”.

In spite of these declarations, Russia did not go through with any significant retaliation towards Montenegro. On the contrary, Putin tried to lobby the country’s civil society and conservative parties by sending a delegation to Podgorica in April 2016, with the likely objective to gather strength to force a referendum on the NATO membership bid.21 In effect, it is likely that Russia sought to take advantage (and amplify?) part of Montenegrins’ dissatisfaction with Milo Djukanovic, who had to face rallies in the streets of Podgorica during the winter of 2015, with accusations of corruption, undemocratic practices and election fraud.22

In spite of this last effort, Montenegro and NATO concluded the accession talks in May 2016, with the country acquiring an observer status pending the ratification of the accords by its own parliament and the governments of other members, a process that should be completed within 18 months.23

Geographic location of Montenegro, © Wikimedia Commons

Geographic location of Montenegro, © Wikimedia Commons

A Timely Announcement

Even though Montenegro held talks with NATO for almost a decade, the timing of the formal invitation asks for some reflections. As recently as April 2015, influential figures such as the former US Ambassador to NATO Robert E. Hunter were openly against Montenegro’s membership bid.24 While it can be argued that Montenegro had, in the meantime, satisfied all the requirements to be accepted as a NATO member under the open door policy, more political than technical considerations were behind the Organization’s decision.

It can be argued that Russia’s recent adventurism in foreign policy has played an indirect, but prominent role in the process. With Crimea safely under Moscow’s control and the clashes in the Donbas, Ukraine paid a hard price for its overtures to the European Union.25 In addition to that, Russia’s abrupt decision to join the Syrian Civil War in October 2015 casted doubts over its future intentions to coordinate with other powers.26 In the wake of these events, and with the United Nations Security Council unable to secure a diplomatic solution, NATO had three possible choices: force a direct military retaliation, remain a by-stander, or respond indirectly through political actions.

It can be argued that Russia’s recent adventurism in foreign policy has played an indirect, but prominent role in the process.

While a military escalation with Russia is certainly not desirable, remaining a passive observer would reflect a lack of decisiveness that the organization cannot afford, especially when the Republican candidate to the White House, Donald Trump, describes the organization as “obsolete”.27

With Montenegro’s accession, NATO has effectively excluded Russia to gain any military influence in the country. NATO’s choice can be interpreted as a convincing signal sent to its potential future members in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, reassuring them that its presence is still strong. The political reasoning behind the accession can be read in the Statement by the NATO Foreign Ministers that anticipated Montenegro’s invitation: in the document, the Ministers committed to invite the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Bosnia in the future, and complimented Georgia for its democratic reforms and its management of the security issues in the Caucasus.28

With Montenegro’s accession, NATO has effectively excluded Russia to gain any military influence on the country.

In addition to that, Montenegro’s strategic value should not be underestimated. The country’s strength does not lie in the numbers of its military force, but on its geographical location in the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro remained the last country whose Adriatic coasts were not under NATO control – excluding the small Bosnian city of Neum – and, with the fate of Tartus port in Syria still uncertain, limiting Russia’s opportunities of access to the Mediterranean Sea29. In addition to that, NATO countries now encircle the remaining countries in the Balkans that have not joined the Organization, further limiting Russia’s potential military influence in the Balkans.30

Inviting Montenegro to join the Atlantic Pact was a clever maneuver to reaffirm NATO’s presence in the world affairs: it gains another ally in a critical region, and sends the indirect message to Moscow that further unilateral actions could not be passively accepted anymore.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.

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By | 2017-01-31T22:20:08+00:00 July 6th, 2016|Categories: Insight|Tags: , , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Alessandro Fiorellini
Alessandro is an Italian graduate in International and European Law. His main interests are international relations and foreign policy.

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