PODGORICA -- Apparently Moscow's red line against NATO membership extends well beyond Moscow's old empire.
Concern about further expansion of the trans-Atlantic alliance has driven Moscow's harsh policies in its immediate neighborhood -- with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in particular feeling Russia's wrath. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calls the prospect of such expansion "the last straw."
And now Moscow is seeking to extend the no-NATO zone farther west, beyond the former Soviet space -- and even beyond the old Warsaw Pact. The next country in Moscow's sights seems to be the tiny Balkan state of Montenegro.
Podgorica has been pushing to join the Western alliance almost since it became independent of Serbia in 2006. It was given a NATO Membership Action Plan in 2009, and Prime Minister Milo Dukanovic continues to hope a membership invitation will be on the table at the NATO summit in Wales in September.
But as Montenegro approaches the red line, signs of Moscow's discontent have been unmistakable, says analyst Milan Nic, director of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava. "Russian foreign policy has been much more assertive in the western Balkans in the last half a year, specifically trying to prevent NATO enlargement," Nic says, adding that the Kremlin is "focusing on Montenegro in particular."
Russia Applies Leverage
The pressure has been building gradually.
Moscow has said repeatedly in various contexts that Podgorica's NATO course runs counter to hundreds of years of "fraternal relations" between the two Slavic, Orthodox Christian nations.
In January, Moscow State University's Institute of Experimental Economics and Finance (the institute was founded by Aleksei Ulyukayev, currently Russian economic development minister) issued a report titled "Montenegro: The Price of Eurointegration." Although the report wasn't released publicly, it was widely reported in the Russian press.
According to the media accounts, the report estimated Montenegro's European-integration policies will cost the country $1.5 billion over the next 10 years. The report suggests that Montenegrin politicians, in order to persuade the European Union that they are combating organized crime and corruption, will begin "pushing Russian firms out of the country and taking away their property."
There are an estimated 7,000 Russian nationals who are permanent residents in Montenegro and Russians own about 40 percent of the country's desirable Adriatic Sea coast.
Analyst Nic says the process of preparing for NATO membership has meant "more light and more questioning of Montenegro's relations with Russia" and of high-level corruption that "can make [Montenegro] vulnerable to Russian pressure."
In April, the official Russian government daily, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" published an article headlined "The Unfriendly Face of Montenegro
" that cited the Moscow State University report and attacked Podgorica's European-integration course. The article quoted unnamed "diplomatic sources" as saying that "getting rid of the 'unnecessary' Russian presence" in Montenegro was a "fundamental demand" of Podgorica's perspective NATO partners.
As evidence that this process is under way, the article cited a long-running dispute between the Montenegrin government and Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska over the ailing Podgorica Aluminum Plant (KAP). The plant was this week taken over by local businessman Veselin Pejovic amid charges that Deripaska's management team ran the foundry into the ground and racked up more than $470 million of debt.
The "Rossiiskaya gazeta" piece concluded with a list of "countermeasures" that it claimed were being "seriously discussed" in the Kremlin, including the tried-and-true tactic of "regulating" Montenegrin wine exports to Russia to attacking the country's Russia-dependent tourism industry by introducing a visa regime.
In April, when Podgorica announced it would join in EU sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea, Russia's Foreign Ministry accused Montenegro of "forgetting" the support Russia had given during the 1999 NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia.
In May, the Montenegrin website IN4S.net quoted Russian Duma Deputy Mikhail Degtyarev, of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, as saying Montenegro would be "a legitimate target of Russian missiles" if it joined NATO.
In Montenegro's Best Interests?
These themes have also been echoed within Montenegro itself. The Balkans B92 news agency said local analysts were comparing Moscow's messages "to the days of the Cominform, when the former Soviet Union openly threatened Yugoslavia…with military intervention."
Analyst Jelena Milic, of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Podgorica, says the anti-NATO campaign in Montenegro is being conducted by "the so-called Putin orchestra," which she told RFE/RL's Balkan Service "comprises opposition parties that strongly oppose NATO membership for Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, and certain nongovernmental organizations and media."
Goran Danilovic, head of Montenegro's right-wing New Serbian Democracy party, which advocates ties with Belgrade, says the government "is using the crisis in Eastern Europe" to push a policy that "opposes the will of the citizens of Montenegro."
Srdjan Milic, head of the opposition Socialist People's Party, which supports EU integration, accuses Prime Minister Dukanovic of changing his foreign-policy priorities, which he says were formerly aimed at seeking a balance between Russia and the West.
Dukanovic's government claims 46 percent of Montenegrins support their country's NATO membership, but opposition parties believe that figure is much lower and are calling for a referendum. Parties supporting NATO membership hold about two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
It isn't clear what NATO leaders will offer Montenegro when they meet in Wales in September -- it could be anything from a diplomatic demurral to a concrete offer to become the alliance's 29th member. Either outcome will send a message to Moscow.
"I think that what we can do is to speak a language that is understood in the Kremlin," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Brussels in March when asked about the impact on NATO of the crisis in Ukraine. "That means determination, that means Western unity, and it means giving a realistic Euro-Atlantic perspective to countries that so wish."