NATO Montenegro readies to join organisation in setback for Russia

Montenegro's Prime Minister Dusko Markovic did not mince his words when Russia last month announced a ban on imports from the Balkan country's biggest winemaker.

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Protesters burn the NATO flag on April 28 during a demonstration against Montenegro's accession to the Western military bloc play

Protesters burn the NATO flag on April 28 during a demonstration against Montenegro's accession to the Western military bloc

(AFP/File)
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Montenegro's Prime Minister Dusko Markovic did not mince his words when Russia last month announced a ban on imports from the Balkan country's biggest winemaker.

"It is clear that the decision is in the context of (Montenegro's) NATO membership," he said, pointing out that Russian citizens had "lost an opportunity to consume the best wines".

On May 25, Markovic will sit on the leaders' table at a NATO summit in Brussels and a few days later, his country of 620,000 people should formally become the alliance's 29th member.

The process has riled Moscow, which has long considered Montenegro's predominantly Slavic Orthodox population to be within its sphere of influence.

But the accession is expected to pass without the chaos that some had feared on the streets of the ex-Yugoslav republic, where NATO membership remains a divisive issue.

In 2015, news of Montenegro's accession spurred sometimes violent protests in the capital Podgorica, organised by pro-Russian opposition parties.

Much of the scepticism stems from NATO's bombing of Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 during the Kosovo war.

But after Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006, closer ties with the West were hotly pursued by former premier Milo Djukanovic, who dominated the country for a quarter century until stepping down at the end of last year.

Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov wrote on Twitter that the military value of Montenegro was "zero".

But according to Srdjan Vucetic of the Centre for International Policy Studies, "its political and strategic import is considerable".

"Viewed from the Kremlin... any gain for NATO is a loss for Russia," he wrote.

Adriatic domination

With Montenegro on board, NATO now controls all of the Adriatic coast.

And the presence of its troops in Kosovo and Bosnia "indicates that the alliance remains ready to engage if armed conflicts were to recur," in the Balkans, wrote Janusz Bugajski at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a US think tank.

Only Serbia and Macedonia keep their distance from NATO -- the latter is formally a candidate to join, but the process has not advanced since 2008.

After US President Donald Trump last month signed off on Montenegro's accession, Russia slammed the process as "deeply erroneous" and harming stability in the Balkans.

But the pro-Russian opposition in Podgorica has been weakened by the indictment of its leaders, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, over an alleged coup plot in October.

Montenegrin officials asserted that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the attempted power grab that aimed to prevent NATO accession -- by overthrowing and even assassinating Djukanovic.

His opponents point to persisting mysteries around the plot, alleging that the whole affair was a political set-up to weaken them.

Judicial authorities have never explained how they got wind of the conspiracy, foiled just ahead of a general election that was narrowly won by Djukanovic and his allies.

The defence for some of the 23 accused, most of them Russian-speaking Serbs, further noted that police have never produced the weapons intended for use in the attack.

Yet many details have been disseminated to Western media who are "keen to take the Podgorica government's version of events at face value," said Marcus Tanner, an editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Turning west

Moscow's wine blockade -- officially over sanitary failings -- prevents Montenegrin exports worth an annual 1.7 million euros. This is nothing compared to the 450 million euros that make up Montenegro's total foreign trade, most of which is with the European Union.

The country is an official candidate to join the 28-member bloc, and it joined forces with the EU in 2015 by imposing sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine conflict.

"We are not dependent on Russia or Serbia, we are on our way to the EU and NATO, whether they like it or not," said Dragan Petrovic, an economist, 45.

The crucial tourism sector seems more delicate: one in three visitors is Russian, according to the Montenegrin statistics office. In April, Moscow denounced "an increase in anti-Russian hysteria" in Montenegro.

But in 2016, when the crisis was most acute, Russian visitors were up four percent from the year before to 317,000, according to Montenegro's national tourism organisation.

And Russian bookings for this summer are already up by two to three percent.

"There has not been and there is no Russophobia," insisted Oleg Tretyakov, a 45-year-old lawyer living in Montenegro along with 12,000 other Russians.

Russian citizens hold some 70,000 properties and injected 52 million euros in the country in 2016.

Marat Gelman, the Russian director of an art centre in Montenegro's coastal town of Kotor, said deteriorating relations between Moscow and Podgorica had adversely effected local Russians' business interests.

But he said they were keen to see the country join NATO "because they want stability for their businesses here".

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