Pro-Russian parties in Montenegro are stoking unrest in an apparent bid to sabotage Podgorica's hopes of receiving an invitation from NATO next week to join the alliance.
For weeks, pro-Russian protesters led by the right-wing New Serbian Democracy (NOVA) party, have taken to the streets of Podgorica to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and either snap elections or an interim government.
Djukanovic, who refuses to step down, has accused Russia and Serbia of instigating the turmoil in the run-up to the meeting of NATO's foreign ministers in Brussels on December 1-2.
He has suggested the goal is to make Montenegro look unstable, discouraging NATO from taking it in. The alliance itself has not committed to issuing an invitation but has offered Podgorica strong encouragement in its quest to become a member while linking progress to reforms.
Asked by media earlier this month to explain why he accuses Moscow over the protests, Djukanovic said, "there is no need for an interpretation, Russia has sent three very clear and very direct messages through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs."
Moscow, which accuses the prime minister of "demonizing" Russia, has repeatedly encouraged Montenegrins to look askance at NATO. It has called the alliance's extension into the Balkans a "provocation" and warned that closer integration with Europe will not lead to Montenegro's prosperity.
Most recently, on November 23, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Montenegro's entry into NATO would be "another blow to European security and to relations between Russia and NATO."
Analysts say it is impossible to know for certain if Moscow is actively encouraging the protests in Montenegro. But they say such efforts would fit a pattern of Kremlin behavior that is well established.
"Russia is definitely against the NATO membership of any country [and] we know that [the issue] started the conflict in Georgia [and] it has played a very important role in the conflict with Ukraine," says Wolfgang Petritsch, president of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation and a former top international representative and negotiator in the Bosnian and Kosovo crises of the 1990s.
"The Western Balkans is not considered by Moscow as a first-rate strategic priority [but] wherever there is an opportunity, Moscow takes advantage of it," Petritsch adds.
Edward Joseph, executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies -- both in Washington, D.C. -- agrees. "We don't know the extent of Russian involvement but we know that there is the potential, and certainly the interest, for Russia to be involved in an attempt to destabilize Montenegro and prevent it from entering NATO," he says.
Russia has a strong potential for influence in Montenegro because Montenegrin society itself is divided over whether to join the alliance.
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.
However, the number of Montenegrins saying they support NATO membership has steadily grown with time. A poll conducted by the same group last year found 45 percent of respondents opposed joining the alliance.
In organizing protests against Podgorica's efforts to join NATO, pro-Russian parties have combined that issue with remaining anger among many ethnic Serbs in Montenegro over NATO's bombing of targets in Serbia in 1999.
The bombing forced the then-president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 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 Montenegrin voters decided by a narrow margin for independence.
The protests have at times turned violent since they began in late September.
In the worst incident, some 5,000 demonstrators massed around the parliament hurled Molotov cocktails at police on October 24. Dozens of demonstrators and police were reported injured.
Since then, the protests have moved off the street and into assembly halls, where they continue to take place but on a much smaller and more peaceful scale.
The party leading the protests, NOVA, is Montenegro's second-largest party, with deputies in parliament and a large support base among ethnic Serbs. It has a pro-Serbian, anti-NATO, and pro-Moscow platform and includes many former supporters of Milosevic. Another small party with a similar support base, Movement for Change (Pokret za Promene), is also taking part in the demonstrations.
Many other opposition parties, however, have refused to join the protest coalition. They object to NOVA's right-wing, anti-NATO stance even as they support early elections or the formation of an interim government.
Ironically, NATO's insistence on making any invitation to Montenegro contingent on Podgorica's progress in tackling corruption and improving the rule of law could directly answer some of the protesters' own demands for change.
"Montenegro is a very strong aspirant for membership," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on October 15 on a visit to Podgorica. But, he added, "Full implementation of reforms is key."
The protesters accuse Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists, which has dominated Montenegrin politics for 25 years, of corruption and cronyism as they demand he step down to prevent Montenegro's further European integration.
NATO already includes three Balkan states as members: Albania, Croatia, and Slovenia.