Nato invited Montenegro to begin accession talks on December 2, a move that has already drawn an angry reaction from Moscow.
The news that Nato is opening its doors to Montenegro, once a close ally of Russia’s, comes at a moment when tensions between Russia and Nato are already strained following the shooting down of a Russian jet by Nato member Turkey on November 24.
After announcing the decision to admit Montenegro, which will become the alliance’s 29th member and its first new entrant since 2009, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg praised Podgorica’s reforms at a summit of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels.
“Montenegro has conducted significant reforms. It has shown commitment to our common values, and to international security. I congratulate the government and the people of Montenegro for all that they have achieved ... Nato membership integrates Montenegro within the Euro-Atlantic community,” Nato said at a joint press conference with Montenegro’s foreign affairs minister Igor Luksic.
“Nato’s door is open. Today’s decision is proof of that,” Stoltenberg added.
The decision is a boost for prime minister Milo Djukanovic’s government, which has set Euro-Atlantic integration as its top political priority.
16 years ago, Montenegro was bombed several times during Nato’s bombardment of Yugoslavia over human rights abuses in Kosovo. However, when Montenegro declared its independence in 2006, Djukanvic’s government almost immediately launched its efforts to become a Nato member.
“Exactly nine years ago we stepped on this path ... Today we have the right to be proud that in a relatively short period we have earned the trust of our partners and received invitation for membership,” Djukanovic said at an official ceremony to celebrate Nato’s decision.
In August, the government adopted a resolution on Nato membership, which was approved by the parliament the following month.
Accession talks should begin in early 2016. Once they are concluded, Nato allies will sign an accession protocol which will have to be ratified by parliaments of all 28 member states.
Russia has fiercely opposed Nato's expansion into its traditional sphere of influence, and the invitation will further damage relations between Montenegro and Russia, which historically has close ties with Montenegro and is a major investor in the country.
Montenegro was once so popular with Russian tourists it was dubbed “Moscow on Sea”, but Podgorica has prioritised its quest for EU and Nato membership over preserving its relationship with Russia.
Viktor Ozerov, chairman of Russia’s Security and Defense Federation Council, told RIA Novosti that Russia will stop any joint military projects with Montenegro if the country joins Nato.
Meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman Dmitrij Peskov said that expansion of Nato cannot take place without a reaction from Russia.
"The continued eastward expansion of Nato and Nato's military infrastructure cannot but result in retaliatory actions ... from the Russian side, in terms of ensuring security and supporting the parity of interests," RBC quoted Peskov as saying.
In November, Russia’s State Duma called on Montenegro’s parliament and the parliaments of Nato member states to abandon further expansion of the alliance. A statement from the Duma claims that Montenegro's entry to Nato is not “conducive to the strengthening of peace in Europe”.
Despite the warnings from Moscow, Djukanovic and his government have remained set on securing Nato membership. Djukanovic has also accused Russia and certain factions within Serbia of being behind a series of recent protests in Podgorica that resulted in violent clashes with police on October 18 and 24.
In a response to the Duma’s declaration, Montenegro’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the country has a sovereign right to determine its foreign policy.
“Our Nato integration is in the best interests of the citizens and is not against anybody,” the statement said.
However, Montenegrins are split in their views on joining the alliance. According to a poll conducted by Damar in November, if Montenegro were to call a referendum asking its citizens whether they would support entry to Nato, just 49.2% would vote in favour and 36.1% against. An earlier poll, conducted by Ipsos Strategic Marketing agency in mid-October, showed that 56% of Montenegrins would support joining Nato.