Can Europe Make It?

NATO expansion in the Balkans: a dangerous gamble

NATO’s attempts to rapidly incorporate fledgling Balkan states could yet backfire.

Harry Blain Robert Benson
5 June 2017
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The picturesque Bay of Kotor waterfront in Montenegro. Pixabay. PD.In mid-March, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, one of the most experienced lawmakers in the country accused his colleague and fellow Republican of “working for Vladimir Putin.”

This outburst wasn’t caused by allegations of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election or the growing list of scandals surrounding the Republican White House. Instead, it was about a country with a population half the size of Milan’s, an economy around three times smaller than Vermont’s, and a standing army slightly outnumbered by the South Yorkshire Police.

According to Senator John McCain, the tiny Adriatic state of Montenegro is carrying “the democratic aspirations of free peoples in Southeastern Europe” as it prepares to become the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Opponents of its accession, he argued, are “prevent[ing] this small, brave country from joining in the defence of the free world”, thereby “achieving the objectives of Vladimir Putin.”

The narrative is familiar: the people of an emerging democracy – formerly under Communist rule – seeking protection from a dictator who still sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as “a major geopolitical disaster.”  

But some questions remain unanswered. Why is NATO so keen on admitting a new member that will have, by far, the smallest military budget in the Alliance? Has the Russian government tried to obstruct its membership bid – and if so, why? How will Montenegro’s accession affect the wider politics of the region? And – a question that has been frequently ignored – what do Montenegrins think of NATO?

While most Western media reports have described Ukraine or the Baltic states as the main powder kegs on Europe’s periphery, Montenegro and the Balkans have been largely overlooked. Yet, it is here that NATO expansion presents a potential security flashpoint: one that Europe is approaching with troubling complacency.

“A majority of citizens remain sceptical”

After the U.S. Senate ratified Montenegro’s accession to NATO by a margin of 97-2, John McCain praised the vote as “a strong message that Russia’s malign influence in the region will not be tolerated, and that Vladimir Putin will not have veto power over the democratic aspirations of free peoples.”

Until recently, the leader of these “free peoples” was Milo Djukanovic, who “ruled almost constantly as premier or president of Montenegro” from 1991 through to the decade following the country’s independence in 2006.

Djukanovic and his political allies have long supported membership of the Alliance, while strongly resisting opposition demands for a referendum on the question. Their strategy worked: in late April, parliament approved NATO accession by a vote of 46-0, with dissenting MPs not only refusing to participate, but holding a “‘shadow’ assembly session”  in the village of Murino, where “six civilians including three children were killed in a NATO air strike” on April 30 1999.

Murino was not the only village targeted in the 78-day long bombing campaign unleashed on Serbia and its semi-autonomous republic of Montenegro that year. NATO’s mission in Montenegro was entirely consistent with its Balkan-wide strategy of deploying overwhelming air power – even in regions historically opposed to President Milosevic – to force Serbia to withdraw from its southern province of Kosovo.

Despite pleas from the Washington-aligned government­ in Podgorica­ to suspend NATO air raids, Montenegro was subjected to fierce night-time sorties, including a devastating attack on the small town of Gosici near the international airport. A Washington Post article from May 1999 described the carnage: An elderly woman instantly killed by “a shrapnel wound in the head” while fleeing “what appeared to be cluster bombs”; fist-sized holes in the plaster of nearby farm houses; and “pill-sized pieces of shrapnel” strewn across empty streets. CNN's Mike Hanna also described the attacks surrounding the capital as “exceedingly intense.”

Overall, the UNHCR estimated that the war resulted in the displacement of over 850,000 people across the Southern Balkans – the vast majority after the NATO offensive began. Although Milosevic’s brutal campaign against ethnic Albanians is well-documented, the ferocity of the bombing campaign has left a profound legacy in Montenegro and the wider region. International human rights groups accused NATO of war crimes, prompting the Montenegrin Committee of Lawyers for Human Rights to file suit against their government in 2005 for failing to investigate alleged atrocities.

This history helps to explain why U.S. diplomats have privately acknowledged that the task of “increasing public support for NATO membership” in Montenegro is “an uphill battle where a majority of citizens remain sceptical.” For example, in 2008, according to the U.S. embassy in Podgorica, support for accession was at just 28 percent.

A separate diplomatic cable on “Establishing a NATO office in Montenegro” concurred with this view, recommending a more sophisticated and better resourced “communications strategy” aimed at “engaging the Montenegrin public on the benefits of Montenegro membership.”

Since then, although there are indications of an uptick in support for membership, the picture is generally “sharply divided”: a late 2016 poll, for example, found that“39.5% would say yes, 39.7% would say no, while the rest (20.8%) didn’t want to commit.” The Western media invariably describes the Montenegrin opposition to NATO as “pro-Russian,” implying that this is a marginal position held, at best, by small but loud political factions. However, the evidence suggests that many not only adopt a stance of strict neutrality, but represent a broad popular coalition.

Yet, as the opposition gathered to protest April’s parliamentary vote, Prime Minister Dusko Markovic was dismissive: “Let them play, let them celebrate, organise an assembly, write a declaration... and drink a beer.”

“Russians are capable of all sorts of dirty tricks”

Instead of questioning why so much of the population remains sceptical of NATO membership, news coverage has been dominated by a story of political intrigue spread by the former Prime Minister. According to Mr. Djukanovic, law enforcement foiled a Russian-backed coup and assassination plot against him just before last October’s election.

Montenegro’s Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić agreed that “Russian state bodies were involved at a certain level”, mainly through a Moscow agent whose “sole motivation” was “to prevent Montenegro from entering NATO.” 14 individuals, including two Russians and two Montenegrin opposition leaders, were indicted for their involvement in the alleged conspiracy in April.

Reflecting the general response in Washington and in European capitals, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson endorsed this version of events, telling ITV that “Russians are capable of all sorts of dirty tricks.”

Normally, in dealing with a country plagued by what U.S. diplomats call “rule of law concerns”, such spectacular accusations wouldn’t be so readily accepted. And yet, they only received serious scrutiny from Al-Jazeera, whose reporters found inconsistencies in the testimony of key witnesses and deep suspicion of the government’s story. This is not surprising when Djukanovic, the leading proponent of the allegations, has been described by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) as “one of the world’s worst caretakers of government.”

The OCCRP even named him the “2015 Man of the Year in Organised Crime” for his work in building “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organised crime havens in the world,” with “career highlights” including “extensive cigarette smuggling with the Italian Sacra Corona Unita and Camorra crime families”; selling off a state-owned bank to his family members; and “handpick[ing] prosecutors” who “are famous for investigating leaks to journalists but not crime figures or corrupt deals.”

A new flashpoint?

Although, in this context, there is reason to be extremely sceptical of official accusations against Russia, Moscow is clearly concerned about further NATO expansion in the Balkans. At the start of Montenegro’s accession talks in 2015, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin warned: “Moscow has always said that the continued expansion of NATO, of NATO military infrastructure in the east, cannot but lead to a response from the east, that is from Russia.”

Since the end of formal hostilities in the Balkans in 1999, the United States and its allies have succeeded in dramatically expanding NATO’s presence in the region, admitting in quick succession the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, while entering into negotiations with Bosnia and Macedonia.

With Montenegro’s accession, NATO adds one of the smallest militaries on the continent. However, it ensures strategic control of a vital region on both the periphery of the European Union and the former Russian Empire. The isolation of Serbia, Russia’s only historic Balkan ally, is now complete.

Yet, the awkward mix of geopolitical competition and ethnic politics in the region is far from over. And as the political divisions in Montenegro have shown, NATO’s gamble of rapidly incorporating fledgling Balkan states could yet backfire. 

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