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As NATO Membership Gets Closer, Montenegro Feels The Heat From Russia

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcomes Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Dukanovic prior to a working session at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, 21Jan2013

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (R) welcomes Prime Minister of Montenegro Milo Dukanovic prior to a working session at the European Union headquarters in Brussels, 21Jan2013

Apparently Moscow's red line against NATO membership extends well beyond Moscow's old empire.

Concern about further expansion of the Transatlantic alliance has driven Moscow's harsh policies in its immediate neighborhood -- with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia particularly feeling Russia's wrath. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calls the prospect of such expansion "the last straw."

And now Moscow is seeking to extend the No-NATO zone farther west, beyond the former Soviet space -- and even beyond the old Warsaw Pact. The next country in Moscow's sights seems to be the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro.

Podgorica has been pushing to join the Western alliance almost since it became independent of Serbia in 2006. It was given a NATO membership action plan in 2009, and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic continues to hope a membership invitation will be on the table at the NATO summit in Wales in September.

But as Montenegro approaches the red line, signs of Moscow's discontent have been unmistakable, says analyst Milan Nic, director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava.

"Russian foreign policy has been much more assertive in the Western Balkans in the last half a year, specifically trying to prevent NATO enlargement," Nic says, adding that the Kremlin is "focusing on Montenegro in particular."

The pressure has been building gradually.

Moscow has said repeatedly in various contexts that Podgorica's NATO course runs counter to hundreds of years of "fraternal relations" between the two Slavic, Orthodox Christian nations.

In January, Moscow State University's Institute of Experimental Economics and Finance (the institute was founded by Aleksei Ulyukayev, currently Russian economic development minister) issued a report entitled "Montenegro: The Price of Eurointegration." Although the report wasn't released publicly, it was widely reported in the Russian press.

"Getting rid of the 'unnecessary' Russian presence"

According to the media accounts, the report estimated Montenegro's European-integration policies will cost the country $1.5 billion over the next 10 years. The report suggests that Montenegrin politicians, in order to persuade the European Union that they are combating organized crime and corruption, will begin "pushing Russian firms out of the country and taking away their property."

There are an estimated 7,000 Russian nationals who are permanent residents in Montenegro and Russians own about 40 percent of the country's desirable Adriatic Sea coast.

Analyst Nic says the process of preparing for NATO membership has meant "more light and more questioning of Montenegro's relations with Russia" and of high-level corruption that "can make [Montenegro] vulnerable to Russian pressure."

In April, the official Russian government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" published an article headlined "The Unfriendly Face of Montenegro" that cited the Moscow State University report and attacked Podgorica's Europe-integration course.

The article quoted unnamed "diplomatic sources" as saying that "getting rid of the 'unnecessary' Russian presence" in Montenegro is a "fundamental demand" of Podgorica's perspective NATO partners.

As evidence that this process is under way, the article cited a long-running dispute between the Montenegrin government and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska over the ailing Podgorica Aluminum Plant (KAP). The plant was this week taken over by local businessman Veselin Pejovic amid charges that Deripaska's management team ran the foundry into the ground and racked up more than 350 million euros of debt.

The "Rossiskaya gazeta" piece concluded with a list of "countermeasures" that it claims are being "seriously discussed" in the Kremlin, including the tried-and-true tactic of "regulating" of Montenegrin wine exports to Russia to attacking the country's Russia-dependent tourism industry by introducing a visa regime.

In April, when Podgorica announced it would join with EU sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea, Russia's Foreign Ministery accused Montenegro of "forgetting" the support Russia had given during the 1999 NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

In May, the Podgorica website, quoted Russian Duma Deputy Mikhail Degtyarev, of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, as saying Montenegro would be "a legitimate target of Russian missiles" if it joins NATO.

Seeking a balance

These themes have also been echoed within Montenegro itself. The Belgarde's B92 news agency said local analysts are comparing Moscow's messages "to the days of the Cominform, when the former Soviet Union openly threatened Yugoslavia…with military intervention."

Analyst Jelena Milic, of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, says the anti-NATO campaign in Montenegro is being conducted by "the so-called Putin orchestra."

"That orchestra comprises opposition parties that strongly oppose NATO membership for Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, and certain nongovernmental organizations and media," Milic told RFE/RL's Balkans Service.

Goran Danilovic, head of Montenegro's right-wing New Serb Democracy party, which advocates ties with Belgrade, tells RFE/RL the government "is using the crisis in eastern Europe" to push a policy that "opposes the will of the citizens of Montenegro."

Srdjan Milic, head of the opposition Socialist People's Party, which supports EU integration, accuses Prime Minister Djukanovic of changing his foreign policy priorities, which he says were formerly aimed at seeking a balance between Russia and the West.

Djukanovic's government claims 46 percent of Montenegrins support their country's NATO membership, but opposition parties believe that figure is much lower and are calling for a referendum. Parties supporting NATO membership hold about two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

It isn't clear what NATO leaders will offer to Montenegro when they meet in Wales in September -- it could be anything from a diplomatic demurral to a concrete offer to become the alliance's 29th member.

Either outcome will send a message to Moscow.

"I think that what we can do is to speak a language that is understood in the Kremlin," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels in March when asked about the impact on NATO of the crisis in Ukraine. "That means determination, that means Western unity, and it means giving a realistic Euro-Atlantic perspective to countries that so wish."