Montenegro is expected to receive an invitation to join Nato within days, much to the chagrin of Russia, whose influence over the country once dubbed “Moscow on Sea” has fallen dramatically.
Podgorica is determinedly pursuing integration into both Nato and the EU, while its relationship with Russia has become increasingly acrimonious.
A spokesperson for Nato confirmed to bne IntelliNews that the question of Montenegro’s membership is on the agenda for the Nato foreign ministers summit that will take place in Brussels on December 1-2.
Podgorica has been disappointed in the past, but current indications are that it will manage to secure the coveted invitation this time. After the latest meeting between Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Montenegro’s foreign and defence ministers on November 25, Nato said in a statement that it welcomed “the country’s significant progress on reforms”.
This would be good news for Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic’s government, which has increasingly given euro-Atlantic integration priority over preserving its relationship with Russia. Indeed, there is widespread speculation that Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its junior partner the Social Democrats Party (SDP) are only holding their coalition together to ensure that Montenegro does not miss its chance of Nato membership.
But while an October poll from the Ipsos Strategic Marketing agency found that 56% of Montenegrins support Nato entry, the opposition Democratic Front has organised a series of protests demanding, along with Dujanovic’s resignation and early elections, that the government drop its plans to enter Nato.
These sparked a war of words between Podgorica and Moscow after Djukanovic accused Russia and Serbian nationalists of being behind the protests.
“Preventing Nato enlargement into the Balkans is an official objective of Russian state politics, and that is why we have to conclude that the organisers of the protests in Montenegro have a very strong base in certain political, economic, security and other centres outside of Montenegro,” Djukanovic said, according to the Montenegrin government website.
Zlatko Vujovic, president of the governing board of Podgorica-based think-tank Centre for Monitoring and Research (CeMI), points out that while the protests are ostensibly to demand early elections, given that elections are already due to take place in mid 2016 the more likely reason is an attempt to influence Nato’s decision. “The key is the timing - violent demonstrations immediately before a decision on entry to Nato could make it look as if the situation in Montenegro is not stable and the country is therefore not ready to join,” Vujovic told bne IntelliNews.
Protesters clashed violently with police on October 18 and 24, but since then numbers have tailed off with just 1,500 people taking part in the most recent protest on November 15.
Russia has denied backing the protesters, but several recent statements from the Russian foreign ministry and State Duma criticise Podgorica’s move towards Nato entry. For example, in an October 17 statement the Russian foreign ministry claims that Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic integration “does not lead to its consolidation and prosperity”.
Montenegro has close historical and cultural ties with Russia, and in the early 2000s, Djukanovic actively wooed Russian investors. This resulted in 2005 in the acquisition of Montenegro’s largest industrial company Kombinat Aluminijuma Podgorica (KAP) by Cyprus-based Central European Aluminum Company Holding (CEAC), which is owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s En+ Group.
Russian tourists flocked to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, a trend that has continued despite the current tensions between the two governments. In August 2015 the number of Russian tourists visiting Montenegro passed the 100,000 mark, up by almost 20,000 compared to August 2014.
As well as ordinary tourists, Montenegro’s Adriatic reports are favoured by the super-rich, including Russian oligarchs. Deripaska was among the investors in the Porto Montenegro luxury resort in Boka bay.
However, the oligarch’s investment into KAP was problematic almost from the start, and in October 2013 a Montenegrin court declared the company bankrupt. This was followed by the launch of international arbitration by CEAC, which accused Montenegro of forcible expropriation.
But in general Montenegro has not deliberately chosen to damage its relationship with Russia; rather, it is collateral damage in the quest for EU and Nato entry. “The government doesn’t want to damage its good relationship with Russia, but they will do anything to join Nato and the EU,” says Vujovic.
This was demonstrated in 2014, when Podgorica took the step of joining Western sanctions against Russia over the Russian annexation of Ukraine, which president Filip Vujanovic said was because otherwise “the path to the EU would definitely have been slowed, and the relationship with Nato, of course”.
"I think that Russia should understand,” Vujanovic added optimistically, according to RT.
Whether Russia understands or not, it is clearly displeased by Montenegro’s defection. However, Podgorica has already made its decision to, if necessary, sacrifice goodwill from Russia in favour of Nato entry, and is now waiting to see if this effort will be rewarded.
Meanwhile, assuming Podgorica secures its invitation to join Nato at this week’s summit, this could be the green flag for Montenegro’s long-standing coalition to finally disintegrate. The president of the council of the SDP, Rifat Rastoder, said in an interview with MINA news agency on November 26 that he expected the coalition would cease to exist in “a matter of days”.
According to Vujovic future scenarios until the 2016 elections include a technical government made up of representatives of the current ruling parties, a new coalition or a minority government of the DPS supported by the small Pozitivna Montenegro party. In short, the options are wide open.