Tusk warns Montenegro, Western Balkans, against ‘alternatives’ to EU

Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković and Council President Donald Tusk [European Council]

European Council President Donald Tusk warned yesterday (26 January) against “nationalist rhetoric” in the Western Balkans that may seek to divert Montenegro, and other countries, from their Euro-Atlantic path.

Tusk spoke to the press after receiving Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković in the new Europa building of the Council. Marković took office recently following dramatic elections last October, marred by accusations of a coup attempt.

Serbia unmasks plot to sway election in neighbouring Montenegro

Serbia has detained a number of people over a suspected plot to sway the outcome of Montenegro’s 16 October election, the Serbian prime minister said yesterday (24 October), citing “undeniable and material” evidence found by his country’s security services.

Cyber attacks shut down media and party websites and Montenegrin authorities suspended instant messaging services for much of election day, saying illegal “direct marketing” – believed to refer to opposition campaigning – was taking place.

Montenegro hit by cyber-attacks on election day

The Ministry for Information Society and Telecommunications of Montenegro has announced that several important websites were targeted by cyber-attacks on Sunday (16 October), the day of the country’s parliamentary elections.

The vote, in which veteran Prime Minister Milo Djukanović’s party came out ahead but without a parliamentary majority, was billed as an opportunity for voters to endorse his pro-NATO and pro-EU stance, instead of pursuing closer relationships with traditional allies like Serbia and Russia.

NATO and Russia's influence dominate Montenegro vote

NATO membership will be a central issue in Montenegro’s general election on Sunday (16 October), with the vote marking the latest episode in a power struggle between Russia and the West in the Balkans.

Following the events which surrounded the elections, the entire opposition started a collective boycott of all parliamentary sittings. As of January 2017, 39 of the 81 MPs were boycotting parliament, requesting new elections to be held no later than 2018, when the next presidential elections are scheduled.

Tusk said that Marković updated him on the current political and economic situation in the country.

“I encouraged Marković the prime minister to nourish a close dialogue with the opposition for the benefit of the whole country and to clarify some remaining questions surrounding the so-called coup attempt. This could help to restore trust and promote dialogue”, Tusk said.

He further complimented Montenegro for being the “frontrunner” in the accession negotiations the EU is conducting with candidate countries.

Talks started in June 2012 and 26 chapters have been opened so far, which is more than with any other candidate country.

The crucial chapters are 23 and 24 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights, and Justice, Freedom and Security. Montenegro has a sad history of corruption and organised crime in which even the name of former PM Djukanović has been involved.

NATO bid puts Montenegro government to the test

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic survived a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (27 January) in the wake of an invitation to join NATO, but had to rely on the votes of an opposition party after his own coalition partner abandoned him.

Tusk said he encouraged Marković, who is from Djukanović’s party, “to re-double efforts so that recent reforms on the rule of law, the fight against corruption and against organised crime are felt by ordinary people”.

“It is an important benchmark by which our member states and also Montenegrin citizens, will judge the success of this government. I know that with your personal experience and determination you will succeed”, Tusk said.

The Council President didn’t publicly mention Russia, but without any doubt his most important message was about the geopolitical risks for Montenegro and the Western Balkans against the ambitions of Russia to assert its domination in the region.

“Unfortunately, today, nationalistic rhetoric and populism is gaining ground across Europe, including in the Western Balkans. The enemies of liberalism despise our freedoms and free trade, they promote national egoism, speak of violence and disregard the rights of their peers and neighbours. They stand against your Euro-Atlantic future, they speak of alternatives to Europe”, Tusk said.

Before the election, Djukanović said that Russia was financing the opposition in order to derail Montenegro’s imminent NATO membership.

Montenegro becomes NATO’s 29th member

NATO will sign an accession agreement with Montenegro today (19 May), paving the way for the small Balkan country to become the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 29th member state, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Montenegro signed its accession agreement with NATO last May, but ratification is yet to be completed. Among others, the USA has yet to ratify the agreement, and Montenegro itself needs to pass the ratification in its parliament, which is unlikely to happen so long as the opposition is boycotting it.

“There is no better alternative for the Western Balkans than the European Union and all that it represents. We know this from experience: the European Union has the potential to unite countries and peoples in the region, to overcome the hatred of the past for the sake of a common future and to bring stability and reconciliation”, Tusk said.

Marković thanked the EU for continuing to support Montenegro, “despite the challenges it is facing”. He said that the October 2016 elections were “the best organised elections so far”, and that they confirmed the Euro-Atlantic orientation of his country.

The OSCE’s final report on the Montenegrin elections, just published this week, says that “the elections were held in a competitive environment and fundamental freedoms were generally respected.”

Marković stressed that doubts surrounding the fairness of the elections were not founded and said he was open for dialogue, so that the opposition could return to parliament.

Balkan candidates hope to reinvigorate EU bids with new strategy

Enlargement has fallen off the EU’s list of priorities and the Union is more than likely to shrink before it grows again. But the Western Balkans are still aspiring EU members and a new strategy has been developed that hopes to put them back on Brussels’ immediate agenda.

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