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Crisis in Montenegro: on its way to NATO ruling regime bumps into Montenegrin identity

“And what if Montenegro joins NATO?” ask the United States and the European Union. “Why not?” will the NATO foreign ministers expectedly answer at the end of this year. And what does Montenegro think about this? Nobody cares.

According to article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, that country has the right to apply for membership, especially as it has been an OSCE member since 1996. And this as well complies with NATO’s open-door policy. Once in a while, NATO needs to prove the fact that the door is really open. The last time the open-door policy was confirmed for Croatia and Albania.

Moreover, there is a general opinion that Montenegro is fully eligible for NATO membership. First, it is democratic (do not care for peculiarities). Second, it has a growing economy. Third, it has no territorial claims against its neighbors. Let’s give a simple answer to the question “Montenegro in NATO, why not?”. Of course, this also has a reverse side. Too many members may cause a bureaucratic overload: each new national minister should be given time for a speech at the semestrial meeting, each new ambassador should be given an office in Brussels. However, this is more a problem of protocol than politics. In terms of geography, Montenegro will be just another point of NATO presence on the map.

This is what NATO’s security policy experts in Brussels, Washington and London are saying (with no exaggerations). They are asking their own selves if it is expedient to admit Montenegro and are answering yes. In June 2006, due to the efforts of its self-perpetuating ruler Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro broke away from Serbia and a few months later, in December, it already joined NATO’s PfP program. Three years later, in Dec 2009, the country was invited to plan its actions to qualify for NATO membership. In 2010-2014, in order to show their commitment to join NATO, the Montenegrins actively supported its operations in Afghanistan.

In Sept 2014, NATO met in Cardiff to consider its enlargement. And it was there that it decided to open doors for Montenegro and fixed a deadline for the final decision – late 2015. While visiting Podgorica in June 2015, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed the deadline. He said that officially Montenegro would be admitted into NATO in the summer 2016. On Sept 15 2015, the White House announced that during the December meeting the United States would speak for Montenegro’s admission into NATO. On Sept 19, the Montenegrin parliament ruled that the country would join the alliance.

Thus, NATO is consistently doing what it mapped out in 2014. Montenegro will give it one military advantage: Serbia will be cut from the Adriatic Sea. The Bay of Kotor will go under NATO control. Montenegro has a very small army of just 2,000 men and no military duty even though, if need be, it can mobilize as many as 150,000 men. Though traditionally the Montenegrins are considered to be bellicose, their military budget is as small as $28mn. So, its membership will give NATO more political than military dividends. Being a NATO member, Montenegro will have more chances to join the EU. In any case, it will give NATO a bigger presence in the Balkans. "To have the last sort of non-NATO nation like Montenegro in that area join (the alliance) would certainly make the military situation there simpler," U.S. Air Force General and NATO supreme allied commander Philip Breedlove said at a recent press conference.

Once Montenegro joins NATO, it will automatically join all of its decisions. But NATO is now in big conflict with Russia. So, one more motive for NATO is to cut Montenegro from Russia and to show the Russians once again that they have no prospects in the Balkans. In 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that NATO’s expansion into the former Yugoslavian republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro would be considered as a provocation. Now NATO is trying to show to Russia that nobody cares for what it thinks.

The Sept 27, a parliamentary vote in support of Montenegro’s joining NATO was followed by anti-governmental demonstrations in Podgorica. On Oct 17, the police dispelled the protesters camping in front of the parliament building. They arrested eleven people including opposition MPs. Dozens of people from both sides were injured. The authorities claim that the demonstrators sought to seize the parliament building and to organize a coup. NATO membership was not the key topic of the protests, but those opposing it are actively using this matter in their interests. “The policy to integrate Montenegro into NATO implies suppression of any alternative approaches,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a special statement.

In response, on Oct 25, Djukanovic gave an interview to Croatian HRT TV company and blamed the Russian authorities and some “Great Serbia” nationalists for the events in Montenegro. He meant that his regime was not to blame. And his appeal to the Croatians was very characteristic.

There is an easy way to prevent Montenegro’s move towards NATO – a nationwide referendum. This is what the opposition insists on but this is also what Djukanovic is trying to avoid.

Milo Djukanovic has ruled Montenegro since 1991. In the times of Yugoslavia, he was a young Communist from the team of Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Union of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic (who was also a Montenegrin). Djukanovic has always been good at dancing to someone’s tune. At first, it was the tune of Milosevic, now, it is the tune of Washington and Brussels. Today, he says that the “European prospect” for the Western Balkans - as the Americans see it – implies NATO’s presence there and that his goal in following it is to ensure good future for his country. Djukanovic is officially regarded as the father of his nation, the one who has wisely led the Montenegrins through the falls of Yugoslavia and the Serbian-Montenegrin union.

However, things are not as good as Djukonavic says. They in the EU regard Montenegro as a criminal state opposing their values – for in Montenegro journalists are often pursued and sometimes even killed. Some European mass media classify the pro-Western Montenegrin regime as “Balkan Putinism.”

The key characteristics of the Djukanovic regime are weak government institutions, puppet mass media, corrupt parliament and judiciary.

The economy is based on nepotism and tax evasion. Elections are used as an instrument for the regime’s reproduction.

Today, western mass media are giving a simple explanation to the disorders going on in Montenegro: the local Serbians are against NATO, while the Montenegrins are not. But things are not that simple. Over the last decade, the pro-Western Djukanovic regime has been trying to cut Montenegro from Serbia. In 2006, Montenegro broke away from its union with that country. Since then Djukanovic has been generating a new national identity for his people. He says that in XV-early XX Montenegro was independent, but the historical truth is that Montenegro was closely tied with Serbia and helped it a lot to revive and to get free from the Ottomans. Montenegrin identity has always been dual. So, now too there are people who oppose the official policy and stick to the Serbian identity.

But Djukanovic is firm in his endeavor to split this duality. His footholds are nationalism and pro-Western orientation. His official policy is Montenegro’s integration into the Western community. His goal is EU and NATO memberships.

In contrast, his people’s historical identity is based on orientation towards Russia. The Montenegrins are even more romantic and emotional in their love for Russia than the Serbians. But now that Russia is in conflict with the West, their country has been forced to join the EU’s anti-Russian sanctions. And this is causing a crisis in their identity. The anti-Russian policy of Djukanovic has caused a cultural split in his country.

The census held in 2011 has shown that for 43.88% of the Montenegrins their mother tongue is Serbian. Only 36.97% said it was Montenegrin. Patriots in Serbia regard the West-sponsored independent states of Kosovo and Montenegro as anti-Serbias. Those advocating Serbian identity were annoyed by Montenegro’s recent steps: the vote for Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO and the law against Serbian orthodox parishes. In order to produce a Montenegrin language, Djukanovic has added three letters to the Serbian alphabet. And now these three letters may cost him dearly.

Most of those protesting against the Djukanovic regime care for economics rather than geopolitics. The average salary in Montenegro is just 480 EUR. Officially, 15% of the Montenegrins are jobless. The EU will hardly help them as they have problems of their own. In such a situation, there is nothing worse than internal hatred and economic discontent being incited by a conflict of identities routed deeply in the culture.

The Montenegrins are tired of Djukanovic. His regime was trying hard to generate a new identity for them but on its way to Europe and NATO it has bumped into their genuine historical identity. The next elections are due to take place in some six months, but the government has never been elected by people’s vote in Montenegro. So, the opposition are looking for solutions. They have no choice but to win. Otherwise, they will cease to exist. In the months to come Montenegro will face growing internal political tension. As a result, it may join NATO and get rid of the tottering Djukanovic regime. Washington’s task here will be to ensure that this geopolitical choice be peaceful.

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