This article is part of our special report Montenegro: Breaking the stalemate?.
Stuck in a geopolitical tug of war over its NATO bid, Montenegro wants the United States to guarantee that it will ratify its accession protocol. American diplomats told EURACTIV that the process will take time but that US policy should not change.
Montenegro, a country of 620,000 inhabitants, with an army of under 2,000, signed its NATO accession agreement on 19 May 2016, paving the way for the small Western Balkan country to become the transatlantic alliance’s 29th member.
So far, 24 of the 28 NATO members have ratified the accession of Montenegro. 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 accession.
But a major hurdle before the vote in Podgorica is US ratification, which was not completed under the Obama administration, despite significant lobbying by Montenegrin diplomats.
Some Republicans believe that Montenegro’s NATO membership is “pointless but relatively harmless”. Other US conservatives question the consensus in Montenegro over NATO accession as it has been portrayed by certain right-wing media as “a mafia state”.
In Republican realist publications like The National Interest, the arguments ironically resemble those in Russia. For example, Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, warned last June of “a new Cold War” in the event of Montenegro’s NATO accession.
A shadowy pro-Russian and pro-Serbian group called in4s set up billboards in Montenegro last November, conveying the message that Trump and his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin had similar ideas to reform the international system, and that tiny Montenegro wouldn’t count in a big deal between the two.
American diplomats in Podgorica told EURACTIV that ratification in the US Senate could take time but that the country could count on continued US support.
A US official said that Trump’s presidency wouldn’t affect relations between Washington and Podgorica, and that the US policy of promoting democracy in the Balkans would not change.
Regarding the ratification, which at the moment is stuck in the Senate, the diplomat said that “with any new administration things take more time”, but in substance, he indicated that Montenegro has nothing to worry about.
A few days later, at the Munich Security Conference, US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs John Heffern conveyed a similar message to Prime Minister of Montenegro Duško Marković.
The State Department will continue to work intensively in order for the Senate to ratify the Montenegro-NATO Accession Protocol as soon as possible, Heffern said.
He added that he strongly supported NATO’s open door policy and the right for every country to apply for membership “without the interference of third parties”, alluding to Russia’s opposition to further NATO enlargement.
Asked about widespread allegations that Russian money served to fund political activities in Montenegro, the US diplomat told EURACTIV that the Western diplomatic community in Podgorica believed that a lot of funding went to the Democratic Front, the hardline opposition, in particular before the election.
A lot of huge election billboards were visible at that time, and a lot of money went to the media, but the US has no proof where the funding came from, the diplomat said.
Asked if there was a political crisis in Montenegro, the US diplomat said that the opposition was trying to paint the situation as a political crisis. The diplomat described it as a “stalemate” rather than a political crisis.
Push for early elections
The opposition, consisting not only of the DF, but also of United Reform Action (URA) and the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro (SDP), is pushing for early elections to be held next year, coupled with the regular presidential election. URA has two MPs in the 81-member parliament and SDP, led by Ranko Krivovapić, has four.
Both parties are considered the ‘moderate opposition’ in contrast with the DF, the main difference being that they are expected to vote for NATO.
Regarding the push for early elections by the opposition, the diplomat said “If the government gives in, and the opposition loses again, what will they do?”
URA MP Nedjeljko Rudović said on Saturday (18 February) that the opposition should jointly define its conditions for holding early elections and come up with a platform to overcome the crisis.
According to Rudović, the government will try to stay in power at all cost. While the authorities accuse the DF of having tried to stage a coup d’etat during the 16 October elections, the opposition claims it was the DPS who staged a fake coup, to be able to persecute the opposition.
“We do not agree to have a role in the theatre of the absurd directed by the DPS. Therefore, there are no negotiations with them until we find out who is responsible for the state of emergency on the election day and until they accept repeating elections that were held 16 October, i.e. to conduct early elections,” Rudović said.