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A NATO future for the Western Balkans?

June 4th, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

Montenegro attended its first NATO summit on 25 May, and will officially become the security organisation’s 29th member on 5 June. Despite anti-NATO protests at key moments during the accession process, and strong opposition from the country’s pro-Russian Democratic Front, the small Balkan state has proven an unwavering commitment to becoming a part of Europe’s main defence provider. Montenegro joining the alliance is seen as a historic shift from East to West for the country – and one that is likely to have long-term ripple effects throughout the region.

Despite having a small army of only 2,000 soldiers, what Montenegro is contributing in exchange for NATO protection is extremely valuable to the organisation. The country has the last stretch of northern Mediterranean coastline between Gibraltar and Syria not controlled by the alliance, territory which also explains Russia’s interest in the small Balkan state. By becoming a NATO member instead of duplicating neighbouring Serbia’s balancing act, Montenegro is choosing a future of stability, security and cooperation – and it’s doing so in the hope that its people will soon see the proof of this.

Montenegrins’ mixed reactions to this historical event are completely natural. Alongside Serbia, it was one of Yugoslavia’s two constituent republics during the Kosovo War, and as such Montenegro was also one of the target of the 1999 NATO bombings; eighteen years later, the country’s population remains evenly divided on NATO membership. The memory of the war and the losses suffered continue to constitute a significant influencer – and some Montenegrins are still highly sceptical of both the alliance and the future this move will bring for the country.

Another significant influencer is the cultural connection to Russia, coupled with the gratitude for their financial help that some Montenegrins continue to feel. Even before declaring independence in 2006, Montenegro was and had been for decades considered one of Moscow’s traditional allies and friends. In 2015, Russia accounted for one-third of the foreign direct investment in Montenegro, and this investment was largely concentrated in beachside real estate and development deals that Moscow had been building for a decade.

In April of this year, however, in retaliation to NATO’s invitation to join the alliance, Moscow banned wine imports from Montenegro, and warned its citizens of anti-Russian “provocations and detentions” if they chose to visit the Western Balkan country. The warning did not go ignored, and Montenegro soon saw a significant decrease in the number of Russian tourists coming to their seaside resorts.

Despite these divisions and tensions, however, the results of the 16 October elections were taken as the population’s approval of NATO accession, even though the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) were accused of unfairly rallying voters to its side through their coup attempt declarations. The simpler reality was that the opposition was not convincing enough to win – and with the recently-opened trial to investigate the accusations that it was Russian forces who organised the attempted coup, it remains to be seen if anti-NATO sentiments will be strong enough to have an impact at the next election.

With the Western Balkans being neglected by the European Union, Russia has been taking advantage of a window of opportunity to exert and even increase its influence on the politics of the region. Although Serbia is and has always been the main country of interest and its most reliable ally, Russia has sought to maintain involvement in the region wherever it could. As a result, alongside Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have also refused to enforce the European Union’s and United States’ sanctions against Moscow. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov rushed to meet President Putin after finally allowing the Social Democrats to form a government last month, and Bosnia-Herzegovina finds itself consistently needing to tread carefully due to Russian support for the tension-fuelling endeavours of its Republika Srpska.

With understandably more positive memories of the NATO intervention, Kosovo is where the security organisation finds its most pro-American ally in the region. The Balkans’ youngest country, however, is currently in the midst of a political crisis of its own, with Prime Minister Isa Mustafa losing a no-confidence vote last month and snap elections set for June. Kosovo is also the only country in the region without its own military, and President Hashim Thaci’s plans to turn Kosovo’s security forces into a national army continue to be opposed by both Serbia and the United States.

In Kosovo, Russia also has more of an indirect interest, as it sees the non-Slavic, largely Muslim Balkan country merely as an instrument that it can use in its relationship with Serbia. The support that Serbia enjoys in the Security Council is something that the West will have a tough time replacing – and it would be better off trying to make it less necessary.

Consequently, although it can be seen as the natural course of events for Montenegro, NATO’s first expansion in eight years is also a sign of the times. With Russia becoming more active, and the European Union becoming less involved, a need for the reassertion of alternatives is increasingly being felt in the region. The expansion is also meant as a message for President Trump – that the alliance is not “obsolete”, and that countries eager to join still exist.

As long as the European Union continues stalling its expansion in the Balkans, Moscow will continue to support pro-Russian parties in the countries of the region, who will in turn attempt to maintain the internal political tensions. Russia is also likely to concentrate most of its attention on Serbia from now on, as Serbia is dependent on Russian gas, and the latter can successfully use this dependence against them.

This leverage that Russia has over Serbia also impacts the likelihood that its relationship with NATO will change significantly. Although a future where Serbia is likely to become surrounded by NATO countries exists, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia constant in their desire to become members, and the rest of its neighbours already part of the alliance, it will be a while before Serbia moves forward from occasional military exercises with the organisation. Even if the Serbian government does decide to forgo the country’s military neutrality, it will have a tough time getting the nearly two-thirds of Serbs who view NATO as a threat behind their decision.

The Western Balkans know that, in the long-term, they have more to gain from the West than the East – and the European Union’s continuous stalling leaves a void that needs to be filled. Kosovo, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, all have their internal battles to fight first – and it will be some time before they are ready for full membership of the North Atlantic organisation.

Similarly, Serbia has an easier time keeping peace both internally and externally by treading the fine line between the West and the East. Aside from a necessary friend in Russia, Serbia also has a population that is already dissatisfied enough with the government’s decisions – and one that is likely to react if its hopes for the future are ignored again.

Montenegro joining NATO perfectly sums up the Western Balkans’ current position between the West and the East, the state of their relationship with the European Union, and their hopes and expectations for the future. Despite the centuries-old ties and shared Orthodox and Slavic culture, the Western Balkans are not a top priority for Moscow. What is a priority for them, however, is to try and prevent NATO enlargement, particularly when the alliance makes a move in one of Russia’s traditional areas of interest. This, coupled with what must be hoped to be a temporary disinterest on the part of the European Union, means that there is room for alternatives in the region – and stronger engagement with and on the part of NATO, regardless of how far it goes, will bring nothing but benefits to both sides and Europe as a whole.


Image: Montenegrin Army soldiers (Source: CRNAGORAMNE)

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.