Montenegro will be pursuing a “zero problem doctrine” with its neighbours, while EU accession remains its main priority, Djordje Radulović, the country’s new foreign minister, told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview only weeks after the EU hopeful saw its first democratic change of power in 30 years.
Radulović said Montenegro wants to implement a “zero problem doctrine” in the region of the Western Balkans but admitted that “from time to time it’s not the easiest task to be done.”
Under the previous government, Montenegro had tense relations with Serbia, which was even accused of having played a role in an alleged coup attempt in Podgorica in 2016.
The new foreign minister, appointed by a fragmented new coalition that took over reigns from the Democratic Party of Socialists who had ruled the country for the last 30 years, described the Western Balkans as “a missing puzzle in one great jigsaw.”
“Without the Western Balkans, the EU as such isn’t going to be a whole,” he said.
At the same time, Podgorica has been consistently advocating for applying “regatta principles” of joining the bloc, admitting states first past the post.
No coupling of candidates
Even though Montenegro is the clear frontrunner of the accession race, it is frequently mentioned in the same breath with its big northwestern neighbour, Serbia, from which it seceded peacefully in a 2006 referendum.
“We don’t like any kind of coupling, … but in the same way, we would like to see all Western Balkan countries in the EU one day,” Radulović said.
Podgorica started accession talks with the EU in 2012 and has so far provisionally closed three out of the 35 so-called negotiation chapters.
“I believe, frankly speaking, that we could have done more, and we should have done better,” Radulović told EURACTIV but emphasised that Montenegro is “not having any second thoughts”.
Almost 80% of the tiny Adriatic country’s 620,000 people support EU integration.
Montenegro voluntarily accepted the EU’s new enlargement methodology presented last spring, which is supposed to breathe new life into the withered enlargement process and inject “political steer” by involving experts from member states in assessing the reforms in the countries.
Asked if this was a positive development that could speed up the process or it rather increased the risk of further blockage by EU countries, Radulović replied: “I don’t think that anyone who is willing to give you €9 billion euros to invest in your region wants to veto anything.”
Even though some Western Balkan countries reportedly feel abandoned as vaccinations kick off in Europe, the young foreign minister said Montenegro is satisfied with the EU’s efforts to help its neighbours access the jabs.
“The EU is more than willing to share with us and to give us the vaccines, definitely. But of course, we have to be realistic and to understand that the whole EU is under huge, huge pressure to vaccinate its own population.”
There are signs of solidarity emerging from some EU countries, with Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania having offering a part of their vaccine consignment from the joint EU procurement scheme to Montenegro.
The European Commission in December also agreed to add €70 million for the Western Balkans on top of the €500 million it has already contributed to COVAX, a global vaccine procurement agency.
Russia, China, Turkey vying for influence
Some pundits pointed out the change of government may open the door for more Serbian and perhaps even Russian influence.
Asked if his government will pursue friendlier ties with Belgrade, Radulović said: “Yes, definitely we want to have better relations with our neighbour and it has to be based on mutual trust, on the on the basis of two sovereign countries respecting non-interference in internal affairs of each other.”
Radulović said it is “totally legitimate” for Russia, Turkey and China to have their interest in the region.
“But however they might be involved in the region, I have no doubt that the idea of the European Union, as such, is superior to any other,” he added.
He said Montenegro and Russia are not enemies, “because we are too small to have enemies anywhere in the world, and definitely not the mighty and powerful Russia.”
Nevertheless, Radulović added that Podgorica would like to pursue its happiness as a sovereign country towards the “political West.”
In line with EU’s foreign policy, the minister said Montenegro intends to keep sanctions on Russia, even though they “harm feelings of one part of our population, who may have some special feelings towards Russia, more than those sanctions harm Russia itself.”
“We will continue to keep a sanctions policy towards Russia, not because we are enemies or foes, but just because we would like to be a member of the EU, as soon as possible,” he said.
Montenegro joined the NATO in 2017, which Radulović sees as a positive development that may also help the country’s EU aspirations.
“If you look at the history a little bit, you might have noticed that every country prior to that had become a NATO member and after that, the EU membership followed.”
Montenegro’s government came into office in the midst a deepening economic crisis, with the European Commission having projected a -14.3% decline in GDP last year, the biggest contraction in the region.
Fears are rising that visitors may not return this summer to the scenic and affordable beaches to support the heavily tourism-dependent finances of Podgorica.
Only days after taking over, the new government announced it would be issuing a eurobond worth €750 million to combat an economic situation described by Radulović as “scorched earth.”
“The new government’s plan is to have a corona-safe destination by next summer, instead of [being] corona-free” at the cost of shutting borders, Radulović said, “which means that we will not be able to eradicate every single corona case in our country but we will have maybe some small hotspots here and there.”
“But tourists coming from Europe will definitely be safe and sound, and those hotspots are going to be under control,” Radulović added.
[Edited by Georgi Gotev/Zoran Radosavljevic]