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19 June 2017

The Montenegro issue is closed for Russia

Moscow has no positive or realistic agenda for the Balkans despite its attempts to halt NATO enlargement in the region

Montenegro joined NATO against the backdrop of an acute crisis in relations with Russia which tried to alter the course of Montenegrin foreign policy as announced after the 2006 declaration of independence. There was no unified position about how to proceed with the issue of Euro-Atlantic integration on the Montenegrin political scene, and Moscow took advantage of this situation in order to augment its influence on political processes in the country. Although Russia has failed to present its Balkans policy as an alternative to NATO enlargement, it has retained its leverage in the post-conflict region which entails potential to affect European security.

The most recent NATO enlargement was probably the most politicized and scandalous. A decision to join NATO was reached by the Montenegrin parliament despite a boycott by the majority of opposition parties which did not recognize the results of the vote held on October 16, 2016. The decision was arrived at amidst disputes over Euro-Atlantic integration and in the aftermath of a “prevented terrorist attack”. Although 46 out of 81 MPs voted in favor of the North-Atlantic Alliance, the abstention of major opposition political forces from making a decision on one of the key foreign policy priorities has reduced its legitimacy.

Montenegro’s opposition parties - both those in favor of NATO accession and those against it – demanded a referendum on the issue. However, the authorities abandoned this idea against the backdrop of divided public opinion. They justified this decision by referring to the law and established practice in the organization which does not involve an all-national referendum. On the one hand, this state of affairs opened a window of opportunity for augmented Russian influence in Montenegro while, on the other, Moscow faced accusations of plotting to carry out a violent coup aimed at sabotaging Euro-Atlantic integration and exacerbating the political crisis in Montenegro.

Concerns of the Western capitals over the attempted coup in Montenegro complicates the Russian position in the region which is already at a low ebb due to international sanctions and limited cooperation with Balkan states. Western countries which are the main economic partners and sponsors of the settlement of the situation in former Yugoslavia perceive increased instability in the region as a threat to collective security. Hence, calls for an intensified fight against the Russian disinformation campaign and for emphasis to be placed by Western interests on cooperation with the region have emerged.

Montenegro's army of just two thousand troops has minimal impact on the military balance. On the other hand, the political consequences of this round of enlargement are significant since Moscow is using it to increase tension. In the eyes of the Russian authorities, which often resort to citing “historical ties” and the Orthodox faith in foreign policy, Euro-Atlantic integration in the Balkans, where sympathy for Russia is commonplace, is seen as a provocation.

Meanwhile, this process does not really have an anti-Russian sentiment from the point of view of Montenegro and other countries in the region. Local elites perceive both NATO accession and EU integration (both processes are seen as interrelated) primarily as vehicles for joining the club of the most developed countries and, at the same time, as a security guarantee – regardless of the degree of interest in cooperation with Moscow.

Some experts believe that it would be unreasonable for Russia to react to Euro-Atlantic integration in the Balkans (Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo are NATO candidate states) by making serious military or political decisions. After all, the Russian-Western conflict has already gone too far, although the balance of power does not really ever change in Europe. Still, Moscow’s rhetoric as regards assessment of external threats and Russia’s interests does not soften.

At the same time, the example of Montenegro shows that Russia is prepared to respond to the disloyal “Slavic brothers” with harsh economic and political measures. The Russian authorities have recently banned imports of Montenegrin wine, which has dealt a serious blow to local producers. They have also launched a negative media campaign accompanied by a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the alleged threat to Russian citizens in order to curtail tourist flows. Russian tourists are the most numerous among foreign visitors to Montenegro – they account for a quarter of the tourist flow while revenue from tourism is equivalent to one-fifth of the country’s GDP.

According to diplomatic sources, many of the Montenegrin political elite and executives of local companies are blacklisted. Prime Minister Duško Marković, Speaker of the Parliament Ivan Brajović, former Prime Minister and the leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists Milo Đukanović as well as ministers and MPs who voted for the country’s accession to NATO are banned from entering Russia. At least 70 individuals are currently subjected to sanctions.

Russia has been conducting a very negative information campaign against the Balkans built largely on exaggerating the conflict potential of the region. It offers support to Serbian nationalist circles, especially in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. At the same time, all negative manifestations in the region are blamed on Western partners who played a key role in ensuring security in the 1990s.

The concept of military neutrality is being promoted as a counterbalance to the expansion of NATO (respective declarations have been signed between United Russia and a number of political parties in the region – most of these parties are insignificant). This is seemingly part of a propaganda campaign since Moscow is all too aware that the idea of neutrality is unrealistic under the present circumstances due both to the political aspirations of political elites and the weakness of the economies of the Balkan states dependent on Western financial assistance. Russia’s promises to “guarantee neutrality” cannot be taken seriously; if only because of its limited resources in the Balkans, including its lack of a military leverage in this distant region.

Besides, one should not forget about the existing obligations of the parties as regards cooperation with NATO assumed as part of the implementation of peace agreements, which is also true of Russia’s main partner in the region – Serbia. Formally, Belgrade has no intention of joining NATO. However, it has been developing close cooperation with this organization as part of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP), having provided NATO representatives with diplomatic immunity and freedom of movement on the territory of Serbia, among others.

The efforts of Russian propagandists and anti-NATO activists in the Balkans often appear coordinated. They comprise a standard set of slogans which describe NATO’s actions as “aggressive” or “destabilizing” and people’s attitudes towards the organization are mostly presented as negative.

It is argued in the case of Montenegro that the overwhelming majority of the population is against NATO accession although the results of opinion polls published in recent years have revealed that there is now an equal number of opponents and supporters of integration with NATO, if not more proponents for the latter. Russian state-owned television channels report on the “brutal suppression of anti-NATO protests in Montenegro” while airing video footage of clashes between activists of the opposition Democratic Front alliance and police forces in 2015 when they tried to break into the parliament building. As a matter of fact, the issue of NATO is of secondary importance for Montenegrins who are rather more concerned about socio-economic problems, which is evidenced by the fact that only a few hundred people participated in an anti-NATO rally on the day that a vote was being held in the parliament on NATO accession.

While the protocol of Montenegro joining NATO was sitting in the US Senate waiting for ratification, Moscow even leaked a rumor concerning suspension of the integration process. The television channel “Tsargrad” owned by an “Orthodox millionaire” Konstantin Malofeev presented it as a “major geopolitical victory”. It is precisely Malofeev’s channel which has carried out the most aggressive attack on the Montenegrin foreign policy course over recent months. Open calls to deprive the Đukanović party of power have been voiced on the network. Moreover, Đukanović himself has been accused of smuggling human organs. NATO accession induced bloodshed was predicted and direct support for the pro-Russian Democratic front, whose leaders were involved in the attempted violent coup, has been expressed.

Obviously, the views of the majority of the Montenegrin political elite and their assessment of what is in the interest of the country are left out of the picture. The media practically ignore the current reality in the Balkans which has witnessed an intensification of the processes of European and Euro-Atlantic integration since the end of the conflicts of the 1990s at a time when Russia had yet to begin feeling threatened.

Observers believe that the Kremlin continues to influence the political situation in Montenegro following its NATO accession and strives to mobilize the nationalist circles in the Balkans using the well-entrenched interethnic contradictions and by seeking new possibilities to interfere.

Moscow not only treats NATO’s expansion as a threat but also EU enlargement. The EU remains the main structure engaged in reforms and post-war reconstruction in the Balkans. Russian diplomacy describes these processes as “an attempt to impose dangerous ideas leading to curtailed independence and sovereignty in the region by pseudo-democratic structures” as opposed to the “Orthodox-Eurasian discourse” which in fact means solidification of the dividing lines in a multinational and multi-confessional environment. This is accompanied by ever closer ties between Russian representatives and the most conservative element of the clergy who promote Serbian nationalism and anti-Westernism.

Still, support of nationalist-and-conservative forces in the Balkans which promote re-orientation towards Russia (like the Montenegrin Democratic Front) will not result in a withdrawal from the current integration projects or closer ties with Moscow. Russia has no positive, let alone universal or realistic, agenda for the region. Implementation of new economic projects in the Balkans will be dependent on the degree of mutual understanding between Moscow, the EU and US. No political forces in the region interested in confrontation and willing to seriously risk access to Western investment and technologies are powerful enough to backpedal.

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