Montenegro's Euro-Atlantic choice deserves Western respect

Though it is not widely understood, Montenegrin membership of NATO will be a landmark achievement and should be viewed as a major step forward in guaranteeing the security of Britain and mainland Europe, and completing the post-WWII circle

Montenegro's Kotor Bay
Daniel Hamilton
On 3 August 2015 13:54

In the crowded field of discussions about key actors in global geopolitics, Montenegro is rarely mentioned. True, with a population of little more than 600,000, the country will never be a significant player in the classic military, industrial or economic sense.

It is a country, though, that is on the verge of making a significant contribution towards European security and Euro-Atlantic policy priorities.

Last month, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Igor Lukšić and Justice Minister Zoran Pažin in order to iron out any remaining logistical hurdles in the country's path towards NATO membership.

With only minor issues left to resolve, the country appears likely to receive a formal membership invitation during the course of 2016.

While little has been written on the issue, Montenegro's decision to press ahead with NATO membership is a notable one for three reasons.

Firstly, the decision essentially formalises Montenegro's decision to pursue a full-throttled Euro-Atlantic agenda.

While neighbouring Serbia has deployed a triangulation agenda of seeking EU membership while disavowing NATO membership and ludicrously claiming to have "balanced" relations with Moscow and Brussels, Montenegro is expressly aligning itself with a pro-western policy stance that includes Washington D.C. as well as Brussels.

Secondly, its accession "seals" a maritime border around Europe, providing a collective security guarantee that stretches all the way around from Estonia's eastern seaboard to Turkey's northeastern borders with Georgia and Armenia, and southern frontiers with Syria and Iraq.

The only exceptions will be a fifteen-mile stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is entirely encircled by NATO states.

This leaves mainland Europe and the United Kingdom with arguably the strongest domestic military protections in history -- guarding against Russian aggression from the east, entryism from the Middle East and any future threats of hostile invasions, of whatever description, from North Africa.

Montenegrin membership will be a landmark achievement and should be viewed as a major step forward in guaranteeing the security of mainland Europe and completing the post-WWII circle.

In addition to the security benefits Montenegro's NATO membership will provide, it is also significant from the perspective that it will essentially deny Russia the chance to construct the naval base it so passionately wants inside the Mediterranean and Adriatic region to replace their jeopardised facility in Syria.

Given the overtures made to Cyprus at the height of its financial crisis and Moscow's offer to pay down Greece's debts in exchange for control of the port of Thessaloniki, Montenegro's decision is important.

Secondly, the decision to press ahead with NATO membership comes at the risk of a tremendous economic cost to the country and a personal, political risk to both Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and President Filip Vujanović.

Public opinion in Montenegro is far from “sold” on the idea of membership. Indeed, a March 2014 poll found that 46 percent supported membership as opposed to 42 percent who were opposed -- a fairly even split.

To press ahead with such a landmark redefinition of a country’s foreign policy stance, from one of cautious engagement with Russia to a relationship status defined by distrust, carries both risks and opportunities.

Over the past two decades, Montenegro's economy has largely been kept afloat by a buoyant domestic property market fuelled by buyers from the Russian Federation -- a considerable number of whom have used pilfered state funds in order to make their acquisitions in the small, Adriatic state.

The relative robustness of the Montenegrin economy versus that of the rest of Yugoslavia played a contributing role in the country's 2006 independence referendum that passed by just 0.5 percentage points, or 2,000 votes.

While many Russians buying property in the state have taken advantage of the country's previous, "citizenship-by-investment" regime and will view NATO membership and ultimate EU accession as a positive thing, Montenegro's general direction of travel does not favour further Russian investment.

Indeed, looking at the example of Porto Montenegro, presently the country’s largest infrastructure project which will see the construction of a luxury marina to rival that of Monte Carlo, the bulk of funding has come from Canadian investors, with no effective Russian involvement.

In connection with the general point on the economy, both Đukanović and Vujanović (who have effectively ruled the country in tandem since the late 80s) have based much of their political longevity upon their ability to steer a steady ship through difficult times -- dodging the worst of the 90s sanctions on Yugoslavia, amicably divorcing the country from Serbia and attracting vast amounts of investment capital to the country to fund genuinely impressive infrastructure projects.

While it is likely that the two men have drawn the conclusion that the Russian cash cow has run out of milk in respect of the Balkans and may view an EU path as way of keeping the milk flowing, antagonising Russia is a risky move nonetheless.

In the face of opposition from both the Russian Federation and influential internal political actors, the choice Montenegro has made to pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration is a significant one.

The country and its government deserve the support and respect of the Western alliance as they continue to implement the reforms necessary to secure the country’s future as a stable, vibrant democracy.

Daniel Hamilton is a Senior Director at a global business advisory firm and an expert on the South Caucasus.  He writes in a personal capacity

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