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Russia Exploits Montenegro’s Vulnerability and Western Mistakes

Edward P. Joseph (L) and Wolfgang Petritsch (R)

Montenegro’s invitation to join NATO, anticipated as early as December, has been threatened by two mistakes, one by the West and the other by the government, according to two diplomatic experts on the Balkans.

The country’s path to join NATO has been imperiled by opposition protests demanding the NATO bid be subjected to a referendum and insistence that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic resign his office. They cite widespread corruption and cronyism. Djukanovic’s government maintains that Russia and his opposition have joined to upend the NATO membership.

RFE/RL contacted Edward P. Joseph, who served in numerous international missions in the Balkans and was deputy head of the OSCE mission to Kosovo, and Wolfgang Petritsch, who also has served in Balkan posts and was Boznia and Herzegovina High Represejtative

RFE/RL talked to both diplomats about the situation. Both of them were asked the same three questions.

The questions and their responses, as edited, appear below.

RFE/RL: The opposition protests in Montenegro have taken place in the final stage of Montenegro’s campaign to join NATO ... Djukanovic has accused Russia and certain nationalist circles in Serbia of supporting his opposition’sattempt to torpedo his country NATO membership bid.

Edward P. Joseph

Edward P. Joseph, Executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a Lecturer & Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Joseph served in numerous international missions in the Balkan, including in divided cities of Mostar, Brcko and Mitrovica. He was Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.

Joseph: … It is not clear whether this discontent will spread. What is clear is that there is an increasing, very serious risk of Montenegro’s destabilization because of the West’s continuously postponing the invitation to joinNATO. This is a mistake that the West, principally Washington, has made by failing to recognize the threat that Russia can pose in the region and its potential to make mischief by using provocative measures and other sophisticated techniques in the media to try to create disturbances and appearances of instability. Jeopardizing Montenegro’s entry to NATO would be a very serious problem. So, whatever the grievances are -- and perhaps there arequite legitimate ones related to wages and the political situation – that shouldn’t prevent Montenegro from advancing to NATO membership. That is the most important thing, for NATO to anchor Montenegro in the West and then continuously work on its internal reform, so to address and prevent these kinds of protests …in the future.

Wolfgang Petritsch

Wolfgang Petritsch is President of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation and Joseph A. Schumpeter Fellow at Harvard University. He was High Representative in Bosnia (1999-2002), the EU Special Envoy in Kosovo (1998-9.) and EU Chief Negotiator at the Kosovo peace talks in Rambouillet and Paris (1999).

Petritsch: There are several aspects to this issue. First, Montenegro was very welcoming for Russian investments and there are many Russians who havebusiness contacts or who bought land in the country. That was what Mr. Djukanovic obviously wanted and this trend has been around for many years. Therefore, it is now a bit strange that he is complaining about Russian meddling.

At the same time, clearly there is a political and strategic dimension to all of this. Russia is definitely against the NATO membership of any country. We know that it started the conflict in Georgia. It has played a very important role in the conflict with Ukraine. But, the Western Balkans is not considered by Moscow as a first rate strategic priority. Nevertheless, wherever is an opportunity, Moscow takes advantage of it. This is clearly directed against the West in general because of the renewed tensions over the annexation of Crimea. This is not the time of the Cold War butit is a very contentious issue.

However, the main reason for the protest is in fact the dysfunctional state of Montenegro and its government.Mr. Djukanovic has been around for too long already. He, with some of his cronies, has exploited the office for his own benefits and people have nothing to show for it. There are mafia structures integrated into the government. Brussels is extremely concerned about the situation.

We need to be aware that as long as there is no a real democracy in Montenegro, others who are not interested in democracy --like Russia-- will take advantage of deteriorating economic, social and political situations there.

RFE.RL: Does it mean that Djukanovic’s accusation that Russia is meddling is justified or is it an attempt to divert the attention from the opposition’s accusation of misgovernance?

Joseph: We don’t know the extent of Russian involvement but we know that there are the potential and certainly the interest for Russia to be involved in an attempt to destabilize Montenegro and prevent it from entering NATO is clear.

…The wider concern is that Montenegro, having fulfilled all the requirements to join NATO, has not been allowed to enter the Alliance. By continuously keeping Montenegro out of NATO, [the West] is simply inviting an opportunity for disturbances to spread and potentially inviting Russian involvement and others who would seek to prevent Montenegro from entering the Alliance.

Does that mean Djukanovic has nothing to answer for? Of course not. He has to answer on a range of issues, including the rule of law, corruption, the state of economy and wages.

But we are facing a regional concern and the threat of a resurgent, malign Russian interest in the Balkan region. Thus, it would be a very, very serious mistake if Montenegro didn’t advance and get membership in NATO at the next summit.

Petritsch: There is a concern in Brussels that what is really going on in Montenegro is actually because of very friendly relations in the past between Podgorica and Moscow…We don’t know how deeply Montenegro is cooperating with Moscow [B3] . For that reason, NATO has security concerns.

RFE/RL: Will this crisis in Montenegro accelerate its integration into NATO out of fear in the West that the country could be exposed to a risk of further Russian involvement? Or, if some political circles in the West harbor suspicions that Montenegro is not politically stable will they opt for postponing Montenegro’s admission? Which option is more realistic?

Joseph: The potential is for both options. We have to remember that one of the major reasons why Montenegro wasn’t offered the membership at the last summit in Cardiff was the allegation of Russian penetration into its intelligence services. Well, if it was the case, then we can see the obvious interest for Russia to penetrate more widely in society. So, on one hand, yes, there is a possibility that someone says – look, this country is too unstable to bring into NATO; we don’t want to import problems

On the other hand, the wiser interpretation is – now we see how vulnerable Montenegro is to the extent that we keep its membership in NATO as an open question. Until we answer that question, the opportunity for imported destabilizationthrough Russia are growing. Therefore, the wise course for NATO is to close the open question and bring Montenegro into the Alliance. At the same time, [it needs to] work with the government to address the legitimate concerns of the public and the opposition. That is the smart thing to do. The unwise and dangerous thing to do is to continue, because of the Montenegrin opposition protests, to keep the country out of NATO. That would be a serious mistake.

Petritsch: It is a very tricky situation. For regional security it is extremely important that countries like Montenegro join NATO and, eventually, also the EU. The very clear prospect is out there, but a precondition for euro Atlantic integration is that the Montenegrin state and the government become accountable and -become a Western-style democracy. Therefore, it will be a very difficult decision for NATO. On one hand, to keep Russia out, on the other hand to instigate domestic reforms in Montenegro.