Serbia and Montenegro, two predominantly Orthodox Christian nations, have historically close ties with Orthodox Russia. When the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukrainian crisis, these two Balkan countries, both EU membership candidates, reacted differently. The Serbian government stated that it would never impose sanctions on its traditional ally Russia, while their Montenegrin counterparts supported the measures taken by Brussels. The Montenegrin opposition, which is pro-Serbian, vehemently criticized the government, claiming that the majority of the country’s people are not in favor of such a policy toward Russia. The government defended its stance, insisting that it had not imposed sanctions, but was obliged, as an EU membership candidate, to follow the common EU policies agreed in Brussels. The RFE/RL program “Bridge” (Most) moderated by Omer Karabeg brought together two high-ranking officials, one from the Montenegrin government, the other from the opposition, to discuss the country’s stance on the issue.
Relations between Montenegro and Russia were the main topic of debate between our two interlocutors: Miodrag Vukovic, a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists and chairman of the Committee of International Relations of the Assembly of Montenegro, and Vasilije Lalosevic, vice president of that country’s opposition Socialist People's Party.
Here, they discuss whether the Montenegrin government’s decision to follow EU policy toward Russia means that Montenegro has introduced sanctions against Russia, why Russia reacted so sharply and whether Montenegro faces consequences for its decision?
RFE/RL: At the beginning of our debate, I would like to get one thing straight: did Montenegro impose sanctions on Russia because of its role in the Ukrainian crisis? There are different interpretations of this in Montenegro.
Vukovic: It is not about sanctions that Montenegro introduced, it is these are the expected and deliberate actions of the government and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As a country in the process of European integration, Montenegro supported EU measures against individuals from Russia and Ukraine who were banned from entering the territory of the European Union, as well as their access to their financial resources that are in bank accounts in EU countries. Montenegro has not initiated any concrete sanctions to anyone, especially not to Russia.
Lalosevic: The Montenegrin public, but also the media in the region and some foreign media are spreading the information that six countries outside the European Union, including Montenegro and Albania, joined the European Union in introducing sanctions against Russia. This has stirred up the public and political scene in Montenegro. After that the President of the [opposition] Socialist People's Party Srdjan Milic visited Moscow and had meetings, in the Duma and in the Chamber of Commerce to demonstrate that any official statement, even from the Prime Minister or a senior official, does not represent the will of the majority of the citizens of Montenegro. We made it clear that our delegation didn’t go to Moscow to apologize to anyone, but to say that anyone’s issues with Russia will not have an effect on the cooperation between Montenegro and Russia.
RFE/RL: Therefore, your opinion is that the decision of Montenegrin government to join the EU sanctions does not reflect the will of the majority of Montenegrin citizens?
Lalosevic: Yes. I say this from the standpoint of the traditionally good relations between Montenegro and Russia during all these years and decades.
Vukovic: If the government of Montenegro is a product of majority support in the election, then it is logical to conclude that the measures taken by the Government reflect the mood of the majority of citizens. Therefore, the story presented in the media that 90 percent of the citizens of Montenegro are against the decision of the Government to join the European Union sanctions is completely incorrect. The story that 90 percent of the population does not support the government's decision is intended to give the impression that someone is working against the interests of the state. What should one expect from a state, which aspires to become a full member of the European Union, but that it would share EU views and values and try to harmonize its policy with the policy of the EU?
RFE/RL: Mr. Lalosevic, on what basis do you claim that the government's decision does not reflect the will of the majority of the citizens of Montenegro?
Lalosevic: In the past weeks many people who are directly interested in traditionally good relations with Russia raised their voices. For example, tourist associations have warned that the government must be cautious in its statements about Ukraine and Crimea, because the number of Russian tourists visiting Montenegro could decrease. Their data show that Russians make up about 50 percent of all foreign tourists in the hotels on the Montenegrin coast. And not only that, Russians own 9 percent of the property in Montenegro held by foreigners. And even in developed countries such as Germany, the biggest companies have appealed to Chancellor [Angela] Merkel asking her not to support the American initiative for tougher sanctions on Russia.
RFE/RL: Mr. Vukovic, Russia reacted very sharply to the speech of Prime Minister Djukanovic at the Washington based Atlantic Council in early April and to the fact that Montenegro supported the measures of the European Union.
Vukovic: It's true. I perceive that as a reaction of a big country involved in the conflict which is being called the great crisis in Ukraine. However, official Moscow did not interpret that in the same way as the patriotic media in Montenegro that announced a tsunami going from Moscow toward small Montenegro and terminating all economic and diplomatic ties. So [under this scenario] Russians will not come here anymore, not to invest, not to rest. Mr. Sergei Grizunov [Ph.D., professor of Moscow State University and a member of the Advisory Council of the Russian Parliament] commented on this, saying that ‘statements about Montenegrin politics and its officials interpreted by the media and some political structures should be viewed from the perspective that it is propaganda similar to that of Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic.’ "
Lalosevic: I have in front of me a letter of Mr. Andrei Nesterenko, the Russian Ambassador in Montenegro, which he sent to the Montenegrin newspaper “Pobjeda” in which he says the decision of the Montenegrin authorities to support the European Union sanctions against Russia cannot be excused with any kind words and that it will have its place in the history of both countries. So there is a certain tone that suggests that anger still exists. This letter by the Russian ambassador was a reaction to the claims of Mr. Grizunov in his interview for “Pobjeda”. Mr. Nesterenko wrote that Mr. Grizunov’s assessment of the current Russian-Montenegrin relations is provoking a dilemma because Mr. Grizunov failed to mention the very good traditional relations between the two countries.
RFE/RL: Mr. Lalosevic, do you think that Russia should be Montenegro’s privileged partner?
Lalosevic: We certainly should continue the process of European integration, but we also should have good relations with one powerful country such as Russia, which is not an EU member, but is a very powerful member of the [U.N] Security Council that invested a lot in Montenegro in the past ten years in various sectors, from the metal industry to tourism. Of course, I'm absolutely against the idea to give privileged status to any country. We need to develop good relations based on respect for Montenegro’s integrity and sovereignty, but we have to make sure not to make a mistake toward any big and powerful country that is traditionally friendly to Montenegro and whose investors are willing to invest in our country.
RFE/RL: Mr. Vukovic, do you think that Montenegro, as a candidate for European Union, must specifically be careful not to make Russia angry?
Vukovic: Montenegro needs to take care of itself. Russia is one of our major international partners, but Montenegro does not have to change its national priorities because of that, namely the Euro-Atlantic integration. These priorities absolutely don’t degrade our relationship with Russia. We have our own original, authentic, national state policy guided by self-interest that is fortunately in complete harmony with the dominant political and social values that are practiced in most countries of the European Union.