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In Giant Step Toward West, Montenegro Joining NATO On June 5

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic

Montenegro will take a giant step toward integrating with the West when it officially becomes the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at a ceremony in Washington on June 5.

The small Balkan country is joining at a time when the alliance -- created to counter Soviet aggression -- looks to curb Russian attempts to increase its influence in Eastern Europe.

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic is to officially hand over Montenegro’s accession instrument at a ceremony at noon in the U.S. capital.

Montenegro's flag is to fly over NATO headquarters in Brussels for the first time on June 7.

Montenegro has achieved a "civilizational turning point, attaching itself to the Western system of values," a government statement said in announcing the ceremony.

Nestled on the Adriatic Sea between Croatia and Albania, tiny Montenegro and its $69 million annual defense budget may appear to have little military value.

Its army of some 2,000 soldiers will barely make a ripple in NATO forces, but its 293-kilometer coastline is a strategic parcel of real estate -- the penultimate piece in the Adriatic puzzle.

With the former Yugoslav republic securely in the fold, NATO will control the entire coast of the Adriatic, from the heel of Italy's boot to the rugged shores of Greece, except for a 20-kilometer stretch of land held by Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Montenegro’s accession "reaffirms to other aspirants that NATO’s door remains open to those countries willing and able to make the reforms necessary to meet NATO’s high standards, and to accept the risks, responsibilities, as well as benefits of membership," the U.S. State Department said in a statement.

Montenegro’s accession also marks the end of a long and often arduous road to membership that the Kremlin has repeatedly tried to derail.

Moscow has said in various contexts that Podgorica's NATO course runs counter to hundreds of years of "fraternal relations" between the two mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian nations.

Russia also wields considerable economic power, as it is the largest investor and an estimated 7,000 Russian nationals permanently reside in the nation of about 620,000.

Russians own about 40 percent of the country's desirable Adriatic Sea coast and Russian tourists account for as much as one-third of overnight visits in Montenegro.

Despite all its saber rattling, analysts said it is unlikely Moscow will take any real action over Montenegro’s accession.

"The Kremlin isn't ready to commit significant resources to keep Montenegro out of the U.S. orbit," said Maksim Samorukov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will also participate in the Washington ceremony to welcome Montenegro as the alliance’s newest member.