PODGORICA -- Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic says his country seeks membership in NATO and the European Union "because we follow our interests" and that he is surprised by Moscow's angry reaction to Podgorica's westward pivot.
Speaking to RFE/RL two weeks after NATO formally invited Montenegro on December 2 to join the alliance, Djukanovic also said he believes Moscow's reaction is more about Russia-NATO relations than about Montenegro itself.
"We have to note that this coincides with a serious worsening of the relations between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the European Union," Djukanovic said in a December 13 interview. "I think that's where the crucial part of the explanation lies."
Djukanovic said the level of Moscow's hostility to Montenegro's efforts toward greater European integration has surprised him because the small Balkan country's actions pose no threat to Russia.
"I have to admit that for me this is surprising," he said. "Surprising that a state of that size, that strength, that power, that seriousness, with that much history, allows itself to meddle in this direct way into something that is the internal political relations [of Montenegro]."
In response to NATO's invitation to Podgorica, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said December 2 that Moscow would look at possible retaliatory measures.
The chairman of the defense committee of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Viktor Ozerov, said that Russia would freeze joint projects with Montenegro including defense cooperation.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also warned December 2 that the invitation would "only further complicate relations between Russia and NATO."
Moscow has long opposed Montenegro's efforts to join NATO, with Djukanovic previously accusing the Kremlin of stoking unrest in the country in a bid to make it look like an unstable and therefore unattractive candidate for the alliance.
Pro-Russian parties in Montenegro staged antigovernment protests in Podgorica for weeks in the run up to the December 1-2 meeting of NATO foreign ministers, which issued the invitation.
The protests, at times violent, have since diminished in size but not ended entirely.
On December 12, some 800 protesters gathered in Podgorica to demand the resignation of Djukanovic and either snap elections or an interim government. Reports on Russian state television about the latest demonstration inflated the number of protestors to "thousands" and suggested the country was on the verge of chaos.
A 'Russian Friend In NATO'
Djukanovic told RFE/RL he regretted Moscow's stance because Podgorica's move westward is not "against" Russia.
"I am sorry that all of this happened because I am someone who doesn't think that Montenegro opts for membership in the European Union or NATO in order to be against someone, therefore not even against Russia, with which we have traditional, centuries-long, official mutual relations," he said.
"I don’t think we need to abandon tradition or history, nor do I think that it would adversely affect Russia if it has friends in NATO," he added.
Membership in NATO has been a divisive issue in Montenegro, particularly for segments of the society who identify strongly with Serbia and continue to resent the alliance's bombing of targets in Serbia in 1999.
The bombing forced the then Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, to stop operations by security forces that were driving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. Montenegro was united with Serbia until 2006, when Montenegrins voted by a narrow margin for independence.
A public opinion poll conducted by the Podgorica-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) on November 12 showed respondents evenly split, with 36.5 percent in favor of joining NATO and 36.2 against -- an insignificant difference given the poll's margin of error.
Asked if he feared that in future elections the pro-Russian, anti-NATO opposition could come to power and derail Montenegro's move into the alliance, Djukanovic told RFE/RL he sees no such possibility.
He said the opposition offers a retrograde view of Montenegro as still tied to Serbia, rather than being an independent country. He said this does not appeal to most voters.
"They are not [just] in opposition to authority, they are actually in opposition to Montenegro as a state, and that is a problem for them as they can hardly win the majority of votes of the citizens of Montenegro with such a political platform," he said.
While pro-Russian parties have focused on an anti-NATO platform in recent years, all opposition parties -- including pro-European ones -- also frequently fault Djukanovic himself for being in power too long. Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists have dominated Montenegrin politics for 25 years.
Asked by RFE/RL how he defends one person remaining in office more than two decades, something usually only dictators and autocrats do -- he said it was a measure of the opposition's weaknesses.
"We won despite our weaknesses because we had very, very bad competition that unfortunately never changed," he said.
Montenegro will become NATO's 29th member state if the legislatures of all the existing members approve its inclusion in the alliance. The lengthy approval process means that final confirmation of the membership invitation Montenegro received on December 2 could still be months away.