Photo Credit: Balkan Insight
With Russo-Western relations tanking over Ukraine and tense over Syria, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has gained a new relevance a quarter century after the Cold War. Europe’s primary adversary of old is returning with a seemingly sophisticated form of hybrid warfare combined with aggressive military posturing and nuclear saber rattling. In addition to reassuring peripheral allies with words and deeds, NATO must respond strategically to recent tactical surprises, such as annexing Crimea, destabilizing Donbas, and deploying to the Middle East. The recent invitation to Montenegro for membership in NATO sends a strong signal to the world that the West will support and defend those countries-in-transition willing to play by the rules. Moreover, the move offers sound security benefits that outweigh the costs of politically antagonizing Russia in the current environment of heated rhetoric and potential escalation.
Since achieving independence, Montenegro has oriented toward integration in Western institutions, particularly NATO. In 2006, the newly sovereign state established official ties with NATO under the Partnership for Peace program. A few years later this cooperation transitioned into an ongoing Membership Action Plan (MAP). Though not a formal member as yet, Montenegro has already contributed to alliance operations. Montenegrins joined the NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as well as anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia.
With a small military of only a few thousand, Montenegro offers many more geostrategic gains for NATO defense planning against threats from the east and south. Adding the small Balkan nation would link alliance territory in Greece and Albania to Croatia and Italy. Montenegro provides contiguous land for military mobilization as well as full NATO coastline coverage of the Adriatic Sea. This positioning gives NATO a better bulwark against any Russian meddling in the Balkans. More importantly, the new presence also enables a more effective response to security concerns emanating from the Middle East, including the migrant crisis and foreign fighter threat.
Though desirable from a geostrategic standpoint, Montenegro arguably falls short of the values touted in the NATO alliance. Since late September, Democratic Front (DF), a bloc of nationalist opposition parties with pro-Russian leanings, has organized protests calling for an end to the 26-year rule of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Voicing legitimate political and economic grievances, many Montenegrins remain appalled by the incumbent’s attempts to rig elections in 2012. Buying voters by linking political loyalty to job security in state-controlled sectors certainly mocks the democratic principles promoted in NATO.
The nature of current civil unrest in Montenegro must be examined though, particularly alleged Russian involvement. On October 24th, a few thousand demonstrators camped outside the parliament building in Podgorica. At sundown, the protests became violent with DF organizers reportedly leading a chant of “Russia,” then throwing rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails. Police responded proportionally, quickly dispersing the riots using teargas. At least 15 police officers and 24 civilians were injured. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement only a few hours later condemning the supposed crackdown and lambasting Montenegro for its planned ascension into NATO.
Amid these internal and external pressures, the government has shown willingness to play by the rules championed in the West. For example, following European guidance, the ruling party initiated high-level political dialogue with the opposition. DF refused to compromise, instead pushing for more protests and thus losing support from other sympathetic parties. A movement for fairer elections and more competitive markets has now been co-opted into a debate over NATO membership. This unhelpful shift in focus explains why ongoing demonstrations only draw a few thousand people at best.
Like several countries before, Montenegro embodies a country-in-transition on a promising path to greater integration with the West. With strong historical and cultural ties to traditional Russian ally Serbia, many Montenegrins still feel conflicted in joining NATO, which bombed their homes during the 1999 campaign against Kosovo. Support has steadily risen in recent years though as a 45% majority recognizes a new strategic environment, including a revisionist Russia and destabilized Middle East, threatens Montenegro. Indeed, over 70% of Montenegrins anticipated achieving membership last year.
Cognizant of but undeterred by the recent political instability, NATO is making a smart decision in inviting Montenegro to join the defensive alliance. The formal invitation to Montenegro sets NATO up for a solid deliverable at the Warsaw Summit in 2016 that in fact boosts the security of the regional bloc. Sensible enlargement is also useful at this stage to reassert the resilience of transatlantic unity and openness of Western institutions amid ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine. Furthermore, with NATO deterrence underlying Montenegrin national security, the opposition in favor of dialogue will receive more political space to mobilize the frustrated public toward addressing legitimate grievances, not promoting a greater Russia agenda. Ultimately, NATO membership to Montenegro in the near term offers the best chance for the West to guide its gradual transformation into a more democratic and prosperous country.
Peter J. Marzalik