Global Independent Analytics
Radostina Schivatcheva
Radostina Schivatcheva

Location: Bulgaria

Specialization: Sustainable development, International relations, Comparative European politics, European integration, Eastern European politics and EU-Russia relations

Montenegro, ‘a pawn in the Great Powers’ games’

Does NATO need Montenegro?

In December 2015, NATO officially invited Montenegro to become its 29th member state. Montenegro is a tiny country with a population of 620,000 and armed forces that barely number 2,000. In spite of the small size of Montenegro’s military Philip Breedlove appraised very positively the performance of Montenegro’s troops in Afghanistan, even suggesting that their good performance is one of the reasons for potentially placing Montenegro on the fast-track towards NATO membership. But while Montenegrin elites have pushed relentlessly forward with the membership application, the country has been shaken by mass protests against the prospect of membership in the Alliance. Those Montenegrins, who still remember the 1999 NATO bombing, would prefer neutrality, yet, as soon as ‘the beginning of a beautiful alliance’ - if to quote Jens Stoltenberg – will be put in motion, there is hardly a chance to avert the course.

Back in 1999

NATO bombed Montenegro in 1999. The bombing destroyed a military airfield and damaged the civilian airfield in Podgorica; it also destroyed the transportation hub Murino, a military base in Danilovgrad, and a radar device on the coast. Ten Montenegrins were killed, three of whom were children. Still, today after 16 years, nobody has been held responsible.

One Montenegran recollects the event: “I remember watching from the balcony how Podgorica airport was burning. That day I went to [the city of] Niksic and on the way there I met just two cars. I remember that the bus attendant did not want to take the money for the tickets and just kept saying, “Children, who know what will happen tomorrow? You see that bombs are falling, better drink some juice somewhere with the money””.

But today, the Montenegrin government does not use any negative words in regards to NATO both in the media and in official negotiations. Italian naval carriers and US destroyers are frequently moored in the ports of Bar and Tivat.

The change is exemplified by the fate of the underground military airport Shipchanik. The airport housed 26 military aircraft. NATO’s bombs struck a hole in the hill and the Yugoslav military aviation in Montenegro was in flames in an instant. Now, the Shipchanik tunnel has been converted into a tasting room for the Montenegrin winery Plantage. The winery produces the wine Vranac, a favourite with tourists. No memento reminds the tourists of the former airport and its fate. Right after the NATO membership invitation was issued, thousands of Montenegrins gathered to protest the prospect of NATO entry.

“This is the beginning of a very beautiful alliance.”

With these words NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg officially invited Montenegro into the Alliance. The man who undoubtedly played a key role in securing this invitation is Milo Djukanović, the current Montenegrin Prime Minister (inaugurated in 2012). Critical voices point out that the invitation will have flattered his already over-inflated ego as well as that of his ruling clique. Djukanović also bears responsibility for the decision not to hold a public referendum on NATO membership, opting for parliamentarian approval only. Even though 84% of the citizens want a referendum on this issue, once again the defence of the public is firmly taken outside the realm of public politics and into the dark corridors of parliamentary politicking.

Thus, to understand the militarization of yet another Balkan ‘democracy’, it is necessary to shed light on the political path of the man who has been at the helm of the country’s politics for the past 20 years. Milo Djukanovic, hailed by Radio Free Europe (RFE) as “the smartest man in the Balkans” was inaugurated in 2012 as the Montenegrin Prime Minister. Radio Free Europe describes Djukanovic admiringly: “А person doesn't remain at the pinnacle of power in a country in a volatile region like the Balkans for two decades - as the Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has done -- without knowing how to determine which way the wind is blowing and how to reinvent oneself”.

This laudatory attitude is hardly shared by many of his compatriots. In October 2015, the Montenegrin capital Podgorica was paralyzed by three-week long protests. The protests were launched by a demonstration demanding the creation of an interim government to organise Montenegro’s ‘first ever free and fair elections’. Raso, a 30-year old protester, told the AFP news agency that: “More than 25 years in power would be too much even if Milo Djukanovic was Mahatma Gandhi and not such thief”.

Djukanovic was first elected as prime minister in 1991 at the age of 29. This was the first paid job he has ever held. Since then, he has served five terms as prime minister and one term as Montenegro's president (1998-2002). Since 1998, Djukanovic has been the unchangeable president of the biggest Montenegrin party, the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPSM); DPSM was originally the Montenegrin branch of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. When Djukanovic first emerged on the political scene, he was a close ally of Slobodan Milošević. In 1996 however, he turned against Milošević, abandoning the traditional joint Serbian and Montenegrin vision for an independent Montenegro instead. RFE describes Djukanovic’s transformation by saying: “At the first opportune moment, in 1998, he dumped Milosevic and remade himself as a pro-Western reformer”. Paradoxically, this ‘laudatory’ characteristic of Djukanović by RFE completely coincides with the way he is described by his critics: “The Prime Minister Milo Djukanović, a corrupt opportunist well-connected to the shadowy networks of organized crime and intelligence services, in power since the Fall of the Berlin Wall, even called those who are against NATO membership ‘the enemies of the state’”.

Critical analyses also point out that during his time on the top, Djukanovic has cemented his power through his control over state institutions. “Djukanovic’s longevity in power can be attributed mainly to his absolute control over the police-intelligence apparatus in the country”, says Filip Kovacevic, chairman of the Movement for Neutrality of Montenegro (MNM). “Since the early 1990s, he has had the ultimate power to reward and punish and was brutal in destroying all political opponents”.

Brutality marked the suppression of the latest anti-government protest in October 2015. Those who protested and opposed Djukanovic have been condemned as pro-Russian and pro-Serbian. At least three opposition leaders and several MPs were injured and two journalists were arrested during the violence, which erupted when protesters tried to march toward the Parliament in Podgorica. A group of 125 prominent intellectuals, independent journalists and civil society activists announced a ‘Protest Memorandum’, which condemned the violent dispersal of the peaceful demonstration.

‘A pawn in the great power games.'

But in spite of the moral character of Montenegro’s Prime Minister, or maybe precisely because of it, in December 2015 the mood at NATO’s headquarters was celebratory – Montenegro was officially invited to join the alliance.

Two questions emerge with regards to Montenegro’s invitation to the Alliance. First of all: does NATO need Montenegro? NATO hardly needs another military base along the Adriatic coast, even though some have argued that “Montenegro’s inclusion plugs a gap along the coastline and turns the Adriatic, finally, into NATO’s private pool”. The second question is whether Montenegro needs NATO’s collective security assurance. Other analysts point out that “surrounded by much more powerful neighbours, with a growing share of the Albanian population, Montenegro can guarantee its sovereignty and territorial integrity perhaps only in this way [by joining NATO]”.  However, Montenegro is surrounded by NATO member-states and attack from its neighbours seems extremely unlikely.

The discussion in the American press and the statements of NATO officials eschew any possible justification discussed above. Only one theme dominates the discourse: Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO is a message to Russia that NATO’s eastwards expansion will continue. Reuters reports that NATO diplomats have stated that the inclusion will send an unequivocal message to Moscow that Russia does not have a veto on the alliance's eastward expansion, even if Georgia's membership bid has been complicated by its 2008 war. The message from the White House is that Montenegro’s membership would “demonstrate the credibility of NATO’s Open Door policy”.

The focus of the Atlantic West on Russia’s reaction has been so strong so as to prompt the question if anybody of the geopolitical players cares for Montenegro. The civil organization MNM draws attention exactly to the ‘missing Montenegrin’ in this highly geopolitical drama. MNM points out that Montenegro is hardly mentioned in the discussion of the implications of its membership. Thus, the current alliance discussions are an example of the haughty disregard with which the desires of the Montenegrins are held in the Atlantic headquarters. The Montenegrins are indignant at the state of affairs in which ‘Montenegro is a mere pawn in the Great Powers’ geopolitical chess game’ and ‘all that matters is that NATO is on track in implementing its plans’ and that Russia reacted not only negatively, but ‘in fury’.

You can enter, but you can never leave...

In December 2015 Montenegro has been shaken by mass protests against the prospect of NATO membership. The powers that be would much prefer a situation, in which militant Montenegrin crowds demand a NATO entry, rather than the current state of affairs, where only corrupt Montenegrin elites wave the pro-NATO banners. Stoltenberg had to admit that Montenegro has “to continue to make progress in demonstrating public support for Montenegro's NATO membership”. CNN grudgingly cites Sputnik News, referring to the “ongoing anti-government protests with thousands of citizens gathering in ... the country's capital, Podgorica, to demand that Montenegro stays out of the U.S.-led NATO military bloc”.

 The majority of people in Montenegro prefer the option of military neutrality, argues MNM, citing a survey conducted by the IPSOS agency.  

Could Montenegro stay neutral, when faced with such overwhelming pressure to join NATO? Some analysts claim that Montenegro’s NATO entry is ‘not a foregone conclusion’. The harsh answer is that currently it is beyond the power of the civil society to stop the process. Counterfire argues that had Montenegro been issued an invitation, its rejection could have an impact on the Balkans in inverse proportion to the country’s size to the disadvantage of the US. “This would then be the very first such rejection by a membership invitee in the history of NATO’s otherwise unblemished expansion eastwards”. It seems that not only the process is unstoppable, but that it could not even be slowed down. Reuters reports that Stoltenberg expects accession talks to proceed quickly, suggesting that the small Balkan state may become a member at the July summit of NATO leaders in Warsaw.

Overshadowed by the grand geopolitical interests, nobody quite cares about what political directions the Montenegrins would rather take.

An award instead of an ‘happy’ ending

If this little geopolitical drama would be an Oscar-nominated movie, this is the time in which the credits will be showing, and of course Milo Djukanovic ought to receive a prize. The man is lauded by RFE as “the smartest man in the Balkans”, “the embodiment of Montenegro’s wild beauty” and as the “modern leader”. Everybody who has Facebook can become his friend, and therefore he surely deserves an international recognition. His talents were duly and favourably noted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). Consequently, OCCRP recognized Mr. Djukanovic as the “2015 man of the year in organized crime”.

Vanja Calovic, Director of the Network for Affirmation of NGO Sector (MANS), a civil society organization based in Montenegro, justified the award in this way: “This is a deserved award. Djukanovic, the last European dictator, has captured our country for his own private interests and turned it into safe haven for criminals. While he, his family and friends enriched themselves, ordinary people suffer from poverty, injustice and lawlessness, while those who dare to talk about the corruption become his targets”.

Yet as deserved as his award may be, in this drama Djukanovic has been a supporting actor. This is due to the fact that throughout the NATO membership application process, Montenegro has only been “a mere pawn in the Great Powers’ geopolitical chess game”.  

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