Allegations of a cooling relationship between Montenegro and NATO is disinformation and fake news, defence minister Olivera Injac told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Montenegro, a small Adriatic country, joined NATO in 2017, completing the alliance’s military domination of the Balkan peninsula’s Western shore.
Recent press reports, however, began questioning the intentions of the new government.
A political shift towards Belgrade is the most often voiced claim pointed at the self-ascribed technocrat government put in power last December after an umbrella alliance representing a broad political spectrum from Western-integrationist parties to pro-Serb nationalists managed to dethrone the socialists who had ruled for three decades.
The concerns, initially shared by some politicians in Brussels, have since been mitigated by Podgorica’s continued cooperation with the EU, and apparent willingness to push forward reforms in the country considered by many the frontrunner of the bloc’s moribund enlargement process.
Meanwhile, however, critics have begun to point to an alleged drift in security policy to bolster claims of the pro-Serb forces within Montenegro’s government.
The chief of these is last month’s decision to scrap the previous government’s plans to send 30 troops to the NATO’s KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
Injac said there is no change from previous policy and that the two Montenegrin personnel already part of the mission will stay in place.
“I’m not a politician, and really not interested to discuss and to comment on the political relations,” the minister, previously a university professor, said, adding that “these are political calculations in media.”
“The flag is there, we are present in Kosovo, we are recognised as a credible allies,” she added.
The concerns about a security policy shift were compounded when reports emerged in Croatian media that Montenegro will not send a a new military attaché to the embassy in Zagreb after the current mandate expires.
“It’s not true at all, it’s absolutely fake news,” Injac said, who said that the position will be covered on a “non-residential basis” away from Zagreb, adding that security and defence relations between the two countries are “at the highest level.”
Citing learning from the experience of partner countries like Slovenia, Injac said that cost-saving on residential positions will allow Montenegro to grow its defence attaché network and improve bilateral relations with other countries.
“So, you know, what is the problem? I would say that someone wants to miscalculate this, you know, and disinformation or fake news is used in a wrong context,” she said.
The country’s €4.7 billion GDP tourism-dependent economy has been battered by border closures and pandemic restrictions.
With looming repayments on a $944 million Chinese loan for the construction of a highway mired in delays, environmental concerns and corruption allegations, the tightening of spending comes as no surprise.
Nevertheless, Injac said that while many ministries have to considerably tighten their belts, the country is still planning to reach 2% of GDP for defence spending by 2024, and it will remain stable at 1.72% of GDP in 2021, slightly up from 1.71% from last year, to be bumped up to 1.81% in 2022.
Asked about the security situation in the region, where Croatia recently announced it will buy fighter jets from France and non-aligned Serbia received Russian tanks, Injac said that there is room for improvement in regional relations.
“I think that for last year and half during the COVID-19 crisis, I would say regional relations have not been very frequent or dynamic,” she said.
According to her, “we have to build more direct and dynamic relations and meetings, frequent ways to communicate and to overcome disputes.”
“Regional security of Western Balkans is always something what could be challenging, but it’s always depends on political elites who are in power,” she said.
“It depends on regional initiatives and regional security and from my point of view, it could be better,” she added, calling for intensifying cooperation initiatives in the coming year and a half.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]