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Montenegro’s upcoming NATO membership: A time of tension between Russia and the West

By Hamdi Fırat Büyük

In 1999, NATO was dropping bombs on Montenegro, the smallest country in the Balkans. At that time, Montenegro was part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia alongside Serbia. Sixteen years later, it seems that things have certainly changed while Montenegro carries high hopes for joining NATO next December.

While Montenegro moves for NATO Membership, NATO pays a high-level official visit to Podgorica in the shadow of the anti-NATO group’s protest on Wednesday.

Members of the alliance’s top political body, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg were visiting Podgorica to assess the progress the Balkan state has made in implementing reforms ahead of potentially joining NATO.

The visit is significant because the timing of the visit is just before the Warsaw Summit where Montenegro hopes for a membership invitation.

Montenegrins argue against membership

However, the NATO membership is being harshly argued by the Balkans’ smallest country.

Many within the country’s sizeable ethnic Serb community remain angry over NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia during the 1990s that was aimed at forcing Belgrade to withdraw from Kosovo.

Several opposition politicians, mostly from pro-Serbian parties, joined the anti-NATO rally. Protesters sang famous Russian songs and carried banners declaring, “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.” Pro-Serb party leaders called on people to never forget the victims of the NATO bombings.

As Balkan Insight reported, during the visit NAC representatives urged Montenegro to continue implementing a series of reforms ahead of the final decision due by the end of the year regarding whether to invite the country to join NATO.

“Montenegro needs to continue reforms in key areas so member states can make the decision by the end of the year on the basis of the achieved results,” Stoltenberg said during Wednesday’s talks with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic.

Montenegrin NATO path

Montenegrin NATO journey started in December 2006 when Montenegro joined the Partnership for Peace (PfP) just after the gaining independence from the state union with Serbia in June of that year. After that, Montenegro was invited to join the Membership Action Plan in December 2009.

In spite of high demands and hopes of Montenegrin state leaders for the invitation of membership at the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO decided to announce that it will open intensified and focused talks with Montenegro and will assess, at the latest, by the end of the 2015 Warsaw Summit whether to invite the country to join the Alliance.

Montenegro was also praised by the Alliance regarding its high efforts and support for the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014 and is now supporting the follow-on mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces.

As a note, NATO has two other candidates from the Balkans for membership: Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But all face big obstacles: Bosnia suffers sharp ethnic divisions and the tension never ceases, and Macedonia is at odds with NATO member Greece because of the name dispute.

A hard choice for NATO in the face of Russia

Montenegro is pressing ahead with its push for membership in NATO, a bid that confronts the Western alliance with its first decision of expansion since the eruption of the Ukraine crisis.

Montenegro is a small country on the coast of the Adriatic Sea with only 620,000 people. However, any enlargement by NATO in the face of Russia’s current assertiveness would be highly symbolic.

In addition to that, Montenegro was one of the historical allies of Russia alongside Serbia with its historic, cultural and Slavic roots. Russia also sees the Balkans as a new playground against in its struggle against the EU and NATO while Montenegro receives a high level of Russian investments and tourists, which is crucial for the economy of Montenegro.

Russia is angry because of a possible NATO expansion but also feels that Moscow was betrayed because of Podgorica’s choice.

NATO’s last expansion was in 2009, when it absorbed two other Balkan countries: Croatia and Albania. Much has changed since then for the 28-member alliance as a result of Russia’s muscle-flexing, including its incursion into Ukraine.

Moscow says the West is the aggressor, citing the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union. It has voiced its displeasure at the idea of any further enlargement.

However, the US, which leads the Atlantic Alliance, backs Montenegrin membership.

In a move likely to raise tensions with Russia, the Obama administration gave qualified support for the small Balkan nation of Montenegro to join NATO on Monday.

Vice President Joe Biden told Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in a phone call Monday that the U.S. supports the country’s membership with NATO “provided that Montenegro continues pursuing reforms and boosts popular support” for the move, the White House said.

It seems that the Obama administration plays its NATO expansion card very openly in the case of Montenegro in order show its effectiveness after the image loss in Ukraine and Syria vis-à-vis Russia. Furthermore, no word came from Washington that this expansion is not against Russia, unlike the pervious extensions’ eve, in order to decrease the tension.

The 28-member security alliance is due to make a decision on Montenegro’s membership in December under the high tension between the Alliance and Russia, which was aroused by the Ukraine crisis.

Future days will present high-tension debates in Brussels where the headquarters of NATO is located. Heated debates are also expected in Moscow, which is highly uncomfortable because of NATO expansion, as well as in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica where the ruling class decided to join in spite of the existing high opposition.

Hamdi Fırat Büyük is a researcher at the Center for European Studies of the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). He is also a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Ankara. Büyük received his MSc degree in International Relations from the University of Essex, UK and his main research interests include Balkan politics, Turkish-Balkan relations and EU enlargement policy.

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