Montenegro's former prime minister accused Russia of seeking to destabilize the Balkans following a thwarted attempt to overthrow Podgorica's pro-Western government.
Milo Djukanovic, who stepped down after an alleged plot emerged on election day in October aimed at preventing the small Balkan country from joining NATO, said that pro-Moscow groups "harnessed a lot of destructive material toward Montenegro" in that coup attempt.
Montenegro is now "in the line" of Moscow's attempts to expand its influence in the Balkans, and pro-Russian opposition parties are ready to use "bloodshed and a coup" to install a pro-Kremlin government, Djukanovic said on February 21 in an address to Socialist Democratic Party youth in Niksic.
"A new, puppet government would only serve the interest of Moscow, which wants to send a message to Europe and NATO that they cannot expand in the Balkans without its consent," said Djukanovic, who engineered his country's bid to join NATO.
Russia has frequently criticized the enlargement of NATO -- which now includes the three Baltic states and several former Warsaw Pact nations -- and does not want any more countries to join the alliance. The former Yugoslav republics were never part of the Soviet bloc and all of them have sought to join the European Union.
Of that group, only Montenegro is seeking to join NATO, however. The Western military alliance has approved Montenegro’s membership application, and earlier this month, Germany and France became the latest of the 24 members to approve its entry into the 28-member bloc. Only approvals from Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United States are still pending.
Although there was some doubt in the United States about the new administration’s attitude on the issue, a key Senate committee voted to support Montenegro’s bid on January 11. Top U.S. senators Bob Corker and John McCain have predicted the full Senate would approve the bid “soon.”
Speaking in neighboring Kosovo, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, voiced his concern "about ways that Russia has influence in the region that is not as helpful at times, particularly in the media with disinformation and political influence."
"The stability of the western Balkans is of critical importance for NATO because security and stability in this region is important to the security and stability of Europe, a Europe that's whole, free and at peace," he said.
Montenegrin prosecutors have accused Russia and its secret service operatives of plotting the election-day coup attempt that included alleged plans to kill Djukanovic and take over parliament. Some 20 people -- including two Russians -- have been accused of taking part.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in the plot. But it has openly supported nationalist parties and groups opposed to Montenegro's NATO membership.
With reporting by AP and Kurir News Agency