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The political consequences of NATO membership for Montenegro

Montenegro’s NATO membership has opened new avenues of military cooperation and greater political influence. A politically divided Montenegro continues to see NATO as a pillar to its stability.

June 28, 2021 - Visar Xhambazi - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Articles and Commentary

Montenegrin ceremonial guard at the Romanian National Day military parade in 2019. Photo: M.Moira / Shutterstock

Montenegro has pursued a continuous pro-Western outlook under the leadership of Milo Đukanović, who has ruled the young state as either prime minister or president since 1991. This Euro-Atlantic approach has encouraged the nation to adopt the Euro as its national currency, declare independence from Serbia in 2006 and even start EU accession negotiations in 2010. At the same time, the country successfully joined NATO seven years later.

Montenegro recently celebrated its fourth year of NATO membership, which has had major political and security consequences for the country. However, the new government in Podgorica has raised concerns over Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic approach.

Đukanović’s 30-year rule was disrupted by last year’s assembly elections, when his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS), did not secure a majority of votes. Instead, the main opposition parties established a coalition that accounted for 41 out of 80 seats in the Montenegrin assembly.

The opposition elected Zdravko Krivokapić as the country’s new prime minister. His election saw the government raise concerns over the country’s Western outlook. Certainly, Krivokapić has been a long-term sceptic of NATO and EU integration and has supported maintaining close ties with Russia.

Despite this, any fears regarding this rhetoric were soon put to rest as Krivokapić stated that Montenegro will commit itself to the rule of law and its international obligations under his leadership. Montenegro’s continued Euro-Atlantic commitment subsequently appears to be a promising development. This is an important signal considering the positive outcomes that four years within the Alliance have produced so far for the country.

The transformation of Montenegro

Following the violent breakup of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, the term ‘Socialist’ was removed and the country became the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This state consisted of two republics: Serbia and Montenegro.

The relationship between Serbia and Montenegro was the most amicable one in Yugoslavia, as the two nations share clear cultural and religious ties. Moreover, the countries have been close allies throughout history and fought alongside each other against the Ottomans in the 19th century, as well as the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

In 2003, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was transformed from a federal republic into a ‘union state’ called the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. However, the union state was short-lived and only three years later a referendum regarding Montenegrin independence took place. This vote required half the population to participate and demanded that at least 55 per cent of Montenegrins support secession in order for any change to be valid. The validation threshold was narrowly passed by 0.5 per cent in favour of independence.

Since 1991, Milo Đukanović and his DPS party have governed Montenegro and have maintained great influence over the direction of the country. Beginning his political career as a proud Yugoslav, Đukanović made a dramatic shift and chose to distance himself from Yugoslavia and Milosevic’s regime. He developed closer ties with the West and began to follow a strictly pro-Western foreign policy agenda.

He took advantage of every political opportunity available to bolster this relationship. For example, he used the Dayton Accords as a means of opening direct communication with the United States in 1995. During the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, Đukanović negotiated with NATO member states in an attempt to limit airstrikes in Montenegro. Furthermore, he publicly apologised for Montenegro’s role in the bombing of Dubrovnik, Croatia in 1991. These political manoeuvres would serve him well in the following years.

While he was distancing himself from Yugoslavia and establishing direct lines of communication with Western countries, Đukanović began to support the idea of a separate Montenegrin identity and an independent Montenegrin state.

The Road to NATO

In 2003, when the country became the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, it applied to be part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. This marked the country’s first move to establish ties with the world’s largest military alliance. PfP is a programme that focuses on establishing a consolidated network of institutional relationships between non-member states and NATO.

This was a remarkable move at a time when anti-NATO sentiment was high in the country due to its aerial campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Shortly after its declaration of independence in 2006, Montenegro joined PfP and began preparing for accession to NATO, which issued a formal invitation in 2015. In 2017, Montenegro became a fully-fledged member state. This represents the country’s greatest success regarding its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.

Despite this achievement, pro-Western alignment remains unpopular in the country. For instance, when Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017, public opinion was divided. According to CEDEM polls conducted in the same year Montenegro joined NATO, 51 per cent of respondents opposed NATO membership. Moreover, when asked about NATO’s role in the world, 54 per cent of respondents said they had a negative perception of the Alliance.

Montenegro is the only country in the Western Balkans with no ethnic majority, meaning none of the ethnic groups make up more than half of the population. According to the 2011 census, 45 per cent of the population identify as Montenegrins. Around 29 per cent identify as Serbs, whilst nine per cent are Bosniaks and five per cent are Albanians. There are also several other ethnic groups present in the country.

The different ethnic communities in Montenegro have contrasting views on the direction that the government should take. While the majority of Montenegrins support Euro-Atlantic integration, Montenegro’s Serbs do not share this sentiment. In the past, opposition parties representing the Serb minority, together with the Serbian Orthodox Church, have held anti-NATO protests and have called for a referendum to be held on membership.

The benefits of NATO membership

Although Montenegro is a small country, with a population of around 620,000 and a territory of less than 14,000 square kilometres, Montenegro’s geostrategic location and access to the Adriatic Sea is particularly useful to NATO.

Montenegro’s membership came at a difficult time in Europe. Russia had already annexed Crimea, fearing further NATO expansion on its eastern flank. NATO membership subsequently diminished Russian influence in Montenegro, which had been using the opposition and the Orthodox Church to promote pan-Slavism by exploiting cultural and religious issues.

Prior to the country’s NATO membership, Russian intelligence allegedly attempted to organise a coup in order to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO and install a pro-Russian government. According to Montenegrin prosecutors, the plotters behind this attempted coup had Kremlin support. Despite this, the allegations were denied by Russia.

Such obstacles did not prevent Montenegro from joining NATO. Membership has provided security guarantees and a sense of stability given Montenegro’s small military force, which has only 2,400 active-duty personnel. The country has modernised its weaponry and has participated in several military and crisis management drills that have provided advanced professional training for its military.

Furthermore, even prior to membership, NATO paved the way for Montenegro to gain greater diplomatic influence. For the first time in 2010, the country contributed a military contingent to NATO operations in Afghanistan. Today, Montenegro participates in NATO’s peacekeeping mission in Kosovo (KFOR), ensuring peace and stability in the Western Balkans. In this regard, Montenegro is a good example of how small countries can contribute to the organisation’s mission.

Most importantly, beyond political and security benefits, Montenegro has become a member of an alliance based on democracy, human rights and respect for international law.

Will the new prime minister change Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic direction?

The 2020 assembly elections resulted in a critical shift in the composition of the executive branch. The DPS lost seats and this created an opportunity for the opposition parties to create a united front and form a new government. For the first time in three decades, the DPS was no longer in power.

This time around, the opposition formed a majority through a three-party coalition under the leadership of Zdravko Krivokapić as prime minister. The election of Krivokapić raised various concerns. Indeed, he has been critical of the country’s entry into NATO and its EU integration in the past and has stated that he would not have recognised Kosovo’s independence if he was in power. Krivokapić considers Serbia to be the country’s main ally and wants to maintain close ties with Russia.

Nevertheless, the opposition leaders agreed that Montenegro should continue its commitment to EU reforms and international obligations. Prime Minister Krivokapić made that clear during his visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

When a journalist asked whether Montenegro will continue to meet NATO’s obligations, Krivokapić said that “…when it comes to getting into conflict with any policy of the alliance, of course we will comply with the policy of the alliance in any such instance, that’s a very clear answer about the path that Montenegro will be taking”.

Despite Krivokapić’s previous statements regarding the EU and NATO, he seems aware of the benefits and significance of NATO membership. The new government in Podgorica will most likely continue to follow the country’s pro-Western foreign policy agenda. Whilst its new government is not very fond of the West, a politically divided Montenegro continues to view NATO membership as a key pillar of its national stability.

Visar Xhambazi is a policy researcher at Democracy for Development (D4D) Institute in Kosovo and a young professional advisor at United Europe in Germany. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia, specialising in US foreign policy and international relations.

This article is part of a special project titled “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank” funded by NATO Public Diplomacy.


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