Finding Montenegro in Brussels

June 10, 2017 08:33 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 05:01 pm IST

When world leaders congregated in Brussels late last month for meetings with the EU as well as a summit of NATO, Dusko Marcovic, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, a small country of 6,50,000 people on the Adriatic coast in the Western Balkans, was also present. The media zeroed in on a video in which U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be pushing aside Mr. Markovic in order to get ahead of him for a group photo opp. Ironically, Mr. Markovic was there as a guest of NATO on the verge of Montenegro’s accession to the trans-Atlantic security bloc.

Its Prime Minister may have been shoved, but two weeks later Montenegro is standing firm in Brussels. Last Wednesday, the Montenegrin flag was raised at the NATO headquarters with the country officially becoming a member of the alliance. Earlier in the week, Mr. Markovic had flown to Washington, where he met with Vice-President Mike Pence and attended an accession ceremony. This did not go down well with Russia.

Montenegro’s army is just 2,000 strong and its membership to NATO is being seen as strategic and symbolic, rather than adding any real firepower to the alliance

Montenegro’s accession has been neither straightforward nor substantially embraced by its population. Its mix of ethnicities — Montenegrins constitute 45%, Serbs about 28% and Albanians just under 5% — has contributed to the ambivalent response to NATO. The Albanian population has tended to support the membership, while most of the Serbs were opposed to it in NATO referendums.

Historically, Montenegro has had strong cultural and economic ties with Russia. Slavic people share Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Russians have made investments in the country. Some 2,00,000 Russians visit Montenegro each year and about 80,000 own property there. Earlier this year, Montenegrin authorities accused Russian intelligence of having orchestrated a plot to kill pro-Western former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic during last year’s general elections, a claim rejected by the Kremlin.

Russia factor

Montenegro may have joined NATO, but the game is far from over.

“Russia is opposed to NATO… they would like to weaken NATO,” Richard Connolly, who heads the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham, told The Hindu. “So if you have a country where you know half the population doesn’t favour joining NATO and that half of the population is probably sympathetic to Russia, I don’t think then that would mean that Russia would withdraw its efforts. It would continue… because it makes sense. You now have a NATO member, which could possibly at some point in the future be more sympathetic to Russia.” Greece and Hungary, both NATO members, are known to be soft on Russia, according to Mr. Connolly.

Montenegro’s army is just 2,000 strong and its membership to NATO is being seen as strategic and symbolic, rather than adding any real firepower to the alliance. “Montenegrin accession to NATO is a signal underpinning a basic premise of the international system — countries have the right to choose their allegiances and alliances. For those in countries like Ukraine, that is an important signal,” Dan Hamilton, a former U.S. State Department official who heads Johns Hopkins University’s Centre for Transatlantic Relations, told The Hindu.

Montenegro’s connection with Brussels doesn’t stop with NATO. Not far away from the NATO headquarters, in the European Quarter are a set of gleaming buildings – the EU institutions. Montenegro has been pursuing membership here too, and it is indeed plausible that, in the not-too-distant future, another Montenegrin flag will be hoisted in Brussels.

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