What You Need To Know:
✅ Montenegro will be officially integrated into NATO military alliance, further souring relations with the Russian Federation.
✅ Momcilo Radulovic, the President of European Movement Montenegro said it has always been Montenegro’s plan to join the EU and NATO
✅ On Russian sanctions: “Montenegro is following EU policy in these matters,” said Momcilo Radulovic.
✅ “It is obvious now that Russian friendship lasts only until the point where Montenegro or any other country from the western Balkans shows its own will and its own interest to protect its own interests” – Momcilo Radulovic.
✅ Montenegrin society remains deeply divide over NATO membership. No referendum was held over the question of joining NATO, possibly because the government feared they would lose, said Tim Judah, correspondent for The Economist.
✅ Memories of the Kosovo War continue to influence politics in Montenegro, including regarding NATO membership, said Tim Judah.
In a setback to the Russian Federation, Montenegro will join its northern Mediterranean neighbors in NATO, when it is officially integrated into the military alliance on June 5, 2017. Following its independence from Serbia in 2006, the Balkan country cultivated a strong friendship with Russia, which has since soured as a result of Montenegro’s pro-West trajectory.
NATO enlargement is a disputed issue between the West and Russia today, especially regarding Montenegro. It was by absolute chance that it was Montenegrin Prime Minister, Dusko Markovic, who was in the global press spotlight during the NATO summit in Brussels last week when US Preident Trump pushed him while making his way to the podium.
In October 2016, Russia was allegedly involved in a coup to overthrow Montenegro’s government. There are now claims that Montenegro has barred certain Russians and Ukrainians from entering the country in a response to Moscow’s ban on Montenegrins traveling to Russia.
Hromadske spoke to Momcilo Radulovic, President of European Movement Montenegro an organization of experts present in all EU states that puts forth recommendations to the direction of the Union, and correspondent for The Economist Tim Judah on this Balkan country's road to NATO.
According Momcilo Radulovic, his country has joined the EU sanctions against Russia and some of its officials. “Montenegro is following EU policy in these matters. It might happen that Montenegro will add a few names to this list," he said.
While he is certain that Russia has blacklisted Montenegrin officials, Radulovic said “This is only the tip of the iceberg. Russia is doing many more things against Montenegro.” The failed coup, cyber attacks, and economic sanctions are among the things that have spoiled the relationship between the two countries.
“It is obvious now that Russian friendship lasts only until the point where Montenegro or any other country from the western Balkans shows its own will and its own interest to protect its own interests,” said Radulovic, adding that it has always been Montenegro’s plan to join the EU and NATO.
We have heard from Montenegrin media that Russia has written a black list of Montenegrin officials that would be banned from the entry to Russia, which is not yet confirmed. In response, the Montenegrin media also reported that Montenegrin government has compiled a black list of Russians who would be banned from entering Montenegro. Do you have any confirmation of this information?
Momcilo Radulovic: We have to divide those two issues in this moment because it is obvious and it is a fact that the Russian list of people from Montenegro—Montenegrin officials who are proclaimed to be persona non grata in Russia—already exists. But it is not public and Russia officials have rejected to publicize the list. But they said and have instructed through a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia that all citizens of Montenegro should ask in the Embassy of Russia in Montenegro if they are allowed to travel to Russia, which is quite unusual. On the other side, Montenegro, in this moment, as far as I know, does not have its own list with these names. But Montenegro has already joined EU sanctions, in general, against Russia, including some of the Russian officials. So basically, Montenegro is following EU policy in these matters. It might happen that Montenegro will add a few names to this list and it still in the area of speculation who might be on this list. But in this moment, it might be said some of the names that were deeply involved in the attempt of the coup in Montenegro, will be on that list.
Are there any assumptions who could be these people that were involved? In the alleged coup d’état in Montenegro last year?
Momcilo Radulovic: As I heard also from media reports and speculations, they are people like Russian tycoon Timofeyev, the owner of this TV station and some other people around him, will be on that list or might be on that list. Because it was obvious in the middle of these happenings, the elections in Montenegro, this TV station had a significant propaganda impact in Russia and also in some media here.
In your opinion, why does the Russian side need this story? In a few days, Montenegro will become a NATO member. So what’s the point to initiate this story with the entry bans?
Momcilo Radulovic: Not only that. This is only the surface. This is only the tip of the iceberg. Russia is doing many more things against Montenegro, including this attempt at a coup, which was obviously organized with the consent—silent, direct or indirect consent—of the Russian authorities. Because some of the people from the Russian intelligence forces were involved in that. Economic sanctions against people, media pressure, cyber attacks—those are some of the things that are on the list of the pressures that Russia is imposing on Montenegro in the last year or two. It is very unfortunate because no one expected that in Montenegro this to happen in such a strong and energetic manner, since our long-lasting friendship with Russia. Because it is obvious now that Russian friendship lasts only until the point where Montenegro or any other country from the western Balkans shows its own will and its own interest to protect its own interests. Because our interest is to join the EU and the Euro-Atlantic integration and to join NATO. It was never hidden at the time Montenegro was gaining independence in 2006. Even from 2006 until today, Montenegro leadership was never hiding this intention. But in that time, relations between NATO and Russia were different. But when the situation between NATO and Russia began worsening, also the Russian attitude towards Montenegrin membership was also getting negative. We didn’t expect this to be such a strong scale. I think it’s strategically very wrong from the Russian side because they are breaking up a centuries-old friendship with Montenegrin people. Because this is not accepted that in the 21st century, in the time of modern communication, a country big and strong like Russia is not allowing or trying to not allow other independent countries and friendly countries like Montenegro to choose its own way in terms of international relations, in terms of development in economic and political sense.
In 2013, Russia tried to ask the Montenegrin government for the permission to use its military facilities in the north Mediterranean. And it was rejected because obviously the Montenegrin government decided to enter the North Atlantic Alliance instead. Could it be the reason that Russia is so worried that Montenegro joins the North Atlantic Alliance because it loses any hope to control the North Mediterranean?
Momcilo Radulovic: It is a fact, Russia can or cannot accept that NATO is controlling in this moment, all countries of the North Mediterranean, from Portugal to Turkey. So Montenegro was the last piece of this puzzle, and we have chosen our way, because for us, it was much more natural to join all our neighbors. All our Mediterranean neighbors are already in NATO—we didn’t feel any pressure from them. It was our choice; it was our interest to join NATO. We were not endangering the interests of Russia. When we were defining our own interests, we didn’t calculate our own interest to damage Russia, but only to benefit us—Montenegrin citizens and society. So I don’t see why the reaction of Russia is so strong and with such hostility. I can understand the global interests of Russia but I do believe there are always modalities to fulfill these global interests of Russia in a moderate way, through modern diplomacy, through economical interests and through political cooperation. Not through open confrontation and certain kind of new war they are waging against us.
The question of NATO membership has been a very divisive issue in Montenegro. Hromadske discussed Montenegrin attitudes towards joining NATO and the impact membership will have on the country's future with Tim Judah, Balkan correspondent for the Economist.
Following elections in Montenegro in October 2016, the government took steps towards NATO membership. No referendum was held on this important question, "Possibly because the government feared it would lose," said Judah.
Montenegro remains deeply divided over the NATO question. Public opinion poll results often depend on how questions are posed, Judah explained: “In opinion polls, if you ask people, do you support or are you against NATO, or you don’t know. You get, maybe, 36-37% for NATO, the same against, and then a large amount who would say that they don’t know. If you ask people only if you are in favour of NATO membership or against, then it depends on the poll. Some polls show a small majority in favour, and some show a little bit against.”
Memory of the Kosovo War also results in opinions on the NATO question being split along ethnic lines: “74% of its 620 000 people are of Orthodox Christian heritage and either identify themselves as Serbs or Montenegrins. Certainly, the vast majority of Serbs are still very bitter about the Kosovo War, the bombing of Serbia and, to a lesser extent, of Montenegro, and would never be reconciled to joining NATO," Judah said. "Then you have ethnic minorities, primarily Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and ethnic Albanians. And they are completely in favour of NATO membership.”
While there have been accusations of Russian interference in Montenegro circulating in local media, there is no concrete evidence that Russia attempted to use the divide over NATO membership to their own advantage. Nevertheless, Judah insisted that the situation in Ukraine has influenced attitudes towards NATO membership.
Would you agree that the country, Montenegro, is currently deeply divided over the issue of NATO membership? What consequences could this have for the future of the country?
Tim Judah: Well, it is clear that Montenegro is deeply divided like it’s been on many things over the last hundred years. There was no referendum on NATO membership, but possibly, because the government feared it would lose. It said that the last election, last October, was effectively the referendum, which they won. Opinion polls, if you ask people, do you support or are you against NATO or you don’t know. You get, maybe, 36-37% for NATO, the same against, and then a large amount who would say that they don’t know. If you ask people only if you are in favour of NATO membership or against, then it depends on the poll. Some polls show a small majority in favour, and some show a little bit against.
Do you have any confirmation that Russia really has compiled a black list of Montenegrin officials who are banned from entry into this country?
Tim Judah: No, personally, I don’t have any confirmation of that, but that is what was reported in Pobjeda, which is a Montenegrin daily newspaper. And then other people, other news agencies picked that up. I think that one of the spokespeople of the Russian Foreign Ministry or a Senior Russian Official said that he knew nothing about it. But that was what was reported in a Montenegrin newspaper.
Do you see any real attempts by Russia to utilize the current divide in Montenegro for their own interests?
Tim Judah: I think it is probably a bit late for that, since Montenegro will join NATO on June 5th . What we had in October was a very strange affair in which the Montenegrin authorities claimed that Russia, or Russians, it is not very clear, or the people connected to the Russian Intelligence Service, those two people who were indicted. They claimed that they were behind some sort of coup attempt which aimed at derailing Montenegro’s path towards NATO, and that court case has just begun. But it is a very strange court case, and like everything else, divides Montenegrins between those who believe that there was a coup attempt and those who believe that the whole thing was a kind of theatrical production done by the government in order to get people to come and vote on election day. Because the arrests happened before election day, but it was all announced on election day.
What does becoming a member of NATO mean for the future of Montenegro?
Tim Judah: I think that once it is a member of NATO, it is a member of NATO. Officially speaking, the opposition say that if they ever came to power, they would hold a referendum on whether to withdraw or not. It is not really clear that you would do that. But I would like to point out that in Montenegro, no government has ever, in history, since the beginning of time, changed power through an election. I mean, that may one day it might happen. But it has never happened until now.
What do you think of the memory, the pain of the Kosovo War? Is it still present in Montenegro and affecting attitudes of people towards NATO, towards the West? What do you observe?
Tim Judah: Well, that is basically what is reflected in pro- and anti-NATO. Let me just explain that basically Montenegro is a small society. 74% of its 620 000 people are of Orthodox Christian heritage and either identify themselves as Serbs or Montenegrins. Certainly, the vast majority of Serbs are still very bitter about the Kosovo War, the bombing of Serbia and, to a lesser extent, of Montenegro, and would never be reconciled to joining NATO. Montenegrins are more divided, because some look at what’s happened to you in Ukraine. Some people might be against NATO, but many Montenegrins, ethnic Montenegrins, are in favour of joining NATO. They look at what happened to you in Ukraine, and they think, like you thought, that Russia was your great brother, your great friend. They think that, well, Serbia is ours, we have said great relations with Serbia, but we don’t know what will happen in the future. Maybe in the future, a future Serbian leader would try to whip out ethnic tensions amongst our ethnic Serbs and try to take over the country. And, again, in the future. So Montenegrins, some are against NATO, but others are certainly for it because of that reason, looking to example of what happened in Ukraine. And then you have ethnic minorities, primarily Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, and ethnic Albanians. And they are completely in favour of NATO membership. If you did a poll only of ethnic Serbs and ethnic Montenegrins, you would probably, I can’t swear on this but I suspect you would find a majority against NATO membership. But if you do as all polls have done, only on citizens of Montenegro, then you get a more or less division down the middle.
/Text by Tanya Bednarczyk & Chen Ou Yang