This article is part of our special report Montenegro: Breaking the stalemate?.
Montenegro will finish the ratification procedure of its NATO accession with a vote in parliament in the coming months. Public opinion is evenly divided for and against NATO membership, but it is unlikely that a referendum will be called over the issue.
Montenegro, a country of 620,000 inhabitants, with an army of under 2000, signed its NATO accession agreement on 19 May 2016, paving the way for the small Western Balkan country to become the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 29th member state.
So far, 24 of the 28 NATO members have ratified the accession of Montenegro to the military alliance. The remaining countries are Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and the US.
Montenegro is expected to ratify its NATO accession after all 28 current members have completed the ratification, possibly in May. Ratification is expected to take place even if part of the opposition continues to boycott parliament. In spite of its participation in the boycott, the moderate opposition is expected to cast its votes in favour of NATO.
Montenegro would become the third NATO member in the Balkans, after Croatia and Albania, which both joined in 2009.
NATO membership was a central issue in Montenegro’s 16 October general election, with the vote marking the latest episode in a power struggle between Russia and the West over the Balkans.
On the day of the vote, a coup attempt took place, which is still being investigated. The plot was foiled only hours before it was due to be carried out, but would have caused heavy bloodshed and plunged the tiny country into turmoil.
The Trump card
Momčilo Radulović, president of the European Movement Montenegro, told euractiv.com that despite Trump’s concern that the US has little to gain from Montenegro’s membership, he would follow the advice of defence specialists who want the country in NATO.
“In theory, he could [deny ratification], but the chances of that, based on the opinion of all the authoritative specialists, is that he wouldn’t. I think the foreign policy of the USA is bigger than Trump. He is not the only actor, and in Congress, in the Senate, there is wide majority for Montenegro’s NATO membership. The latest decision of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Senate was taken unanimously [on 6 December]. So the ratification process will be completed. Of course, we are not at the top of the agenda,” Radulović said.
Speaking to euractiv.com, western diplomats expressed worries that if the US fails to ratify Montenegro’s NATO accession, it would signify that “Trump doesn’t care” for the Western Balkans, and a signal to Russia that it can have the upper hand among EU hopefuls Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Another fear they shared is that the US could lose interest in Montenegro as part of “bigger deal” with Russia.
Conservatives close to Trump have said that Montenegro’s NATO accession makes no sense.
But Radulović took a different view.
“Of all the Mediterranean countries, from Portugal to Turkey, all the coastal countries are in the NATO club, except Montenegro. And I seriously doubt that even Trump, making a deal with Putin on other geopolitical issues, would deprive his own country of greater stability in this part of Europe,” he said.
Montenegro’s ratification is expected to take place even if part of the opposition continues to boycott parliament over allegations of electoral fraud. In spite of their participation in the boycott, the moderate opposition is expected to cast its vote in favour of NATO.
Asked if the option for a referendum on NATO, as demanded by the opposition, was a realistic option, Radulović answered:
“I don’t think so. Opposition URA and SDP will vote for NATO. The result will be 59%.”
URA, United Reform Action, has 2 MPs in the 81-member parliament, and SDP, the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro, led by Ranko Krivovapić, has 4MPs. Both parties are considered the ‘moderate opposition’ in contrast with DF.
“DF has been promising military cooperation with Russia, they are not hiding it. But if NATO says ‘no’ to Montenegro, it will be a final blow. The pro-Djukanović government will fall down and they will come into power,” Radulović said.
Asked if early elections, as demanded by the opposition, were a possibility, he replied:
“I do think so. Because when I look at the configuration of the cabinet, it looks to me like a temporary government. And some solutions advocated by the government look like temporary solutions. But you never know, sometimes temporary solutions are the longest-lasting.”
Asked if the current stalemate could be called a political crisis, he said he would rather call it “government intermezzo”.
Queried if he thought his country was at a crossroads, Momčilo Radulović conceded and said the issues will be resolved by the end of the first half of this year. “But even by the end of the year, it will be OK. If the US says yes, it will be solved,” he added.
Sonja Drobac, the editor of TV Prva, a national channel, was more careful with her estimation of SPD leader Krivovapić’s loyalty to NATO. Asked if Krivovapić would vote for NATO, she answered:
“Yes, I think so, but he made very strong connections with Russia also, during the last 2 years.”
Because of these strong connections, Krivovapić and the URA were not returning to parliament, she said.
Asked if she would describe the situation as a political crisis, Drobac answered: “Maybe we are not in a political crisis, but there is a huge potential for that. It depends on Russia, the USA and EU.”
Drobac stated that Montenegro was a “very divided country” and that ten years after the 2006 referendum for independence (which passed by 55.5%), 45% of Montenegrins still didn’t accept the country’s independence.
“It was complicated before, now it’s even more complicated because of NATO-Russia antagonism,” she said, adding there were very few chances for a referendum stressing that the pact would pass in parliament.
Russian diplomat Alexandr Botsan-Kharchenko recently said that it was not his country’s business to impose its views, but a referendum on NATO in Montenegro would be the best solution, under the circumstances.
“The fact that Montenegro avoids the referendum by itself shows that it is not confident in its results. Opinion polls show roughly a 50-50 split. But if the referendum would show such a result, how can [the government] say that a majority is for NATO? In my view, such a division of public opinion suggests that the decision should not be rushed,” the diplomat said, as quoted by RIA Novosti.
The Montenegrin government cites a survey showing that 47.3% of the citizens of Montenegro support the country’s membership in NATO, 37.1% oppose and 15.6% are undecided. Some sources claim that the supporters in this survey were inflated by 11%.
The majority of those interviewed by EURACTIV quoted polls saying that roughly 39% were in each camp, while more than 20% of Montenegrins were undecided, making it difficult to have a clear picture what people prefer.