Montenegro's Moment

Why NATO Should Act Fast

John Kerry greets Montenegro's Defense Minister Milica Pejanovic (L) as she and Foreign Minister Igor Luksic (R) join the session welcoming Montenegro as a new NATO member, in Brussels, December 2015. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

By finally inviting Montenegro to join NATO, the treaty organization has taken a significant step toward ending Russian chicanery in this small but significant Balkan country. But it will have to act fast to secure its gains. If NATO fails to close the deal, Moscow will have an opening to further destabilize the region and undermine Western interests in Bosnia–Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia.

In principle, there is little reason to fear. Completing the process of membership requires that Montenegro iron out a few technical details regarding its accession and that the legislative branches of NATO members, including the U.S. Senate, approve the formal protocols. But all this takes time, and Montenegro faces elections in October. This creates a perfect opportunity for Russian subversion.

The potential for Russian interference was evident in October, when Montenegrin protesters and police clashed during demonstrations against the country’s President, Milo Djukaonovic. Although officials in Moscow denied Djukanovic’s allegations that they orchestrated the protests—and clearly many protesters were demonstrating over corruption and the state of the economy—speculation about Moscow’s role mounted when the archbishop of the staunchly pro-Russia Serbian Orthodox Church publicly lamented Montenegro’s separation from “Mother Russia.” Meanwhile, in neighboring Bosnia, Russia has become openly partisan in favor of the separatist Serb leaders. The Russian ambassador there recently injected himself in a tense controversy over a highly provocative referendum that could put the country’s stability in jeopardy. The idea that Moscow would show restraint next door in Montenegro, with a chance to thwart the country’s NATO bid in the balance, is farfetched.  

Protests in Montenegro.
Riot police protect themselves with shields during clashes with protesters in front of the parliament building in Podgorica, Montenegro, October 2015. Stevo Vasiljevic / Reuters

Moreover, Russia has the tools at its disposal to influence next October’s elections. In addition to the Serbian Orthodox Church and avowedly pro-Serb parties, there is residual anti-Americanism in Montenegro among leftists and green party activists. Elections in Montenegro

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