Montenegro's parliament has ratified a pact on NATO membership, marking a historic turn toward the West amid protests from traditional ally Russia and the country's pro-Russian political opposition.
Lawmakers who convened in the historic city of Cetinje on April 28 voted 46-0 in favor of ratifying the accession treaty with the Western military alliance. Opposition lawmakers in the 81-seat legislature boycotted the session.
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told parliament that NATO membership will provide Montenegro a guarantee for the country's future security and economic progress, and for regional stability.
"This day will be marked among the brightest in our history," Markovic said.
Montenegro's former prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, also hailed the vote as historic by saying it was the most important decision the country has made in recent years.
"After long suffering and roaming through history, [Montenegro] is finally in the position where it logically, historically, civilization-wise and culturally belongs," Djukanovic said.
Several hundred opposition supporters gathered outside parliament before the session, some chanting "Treason!" and "Thieves!" as lawmakers from the ruling pro-NATO coalition arrived for the vote. A banner read, "NATO murderers, your hands are bloody!"
Russia angrily criticized mostly Slavic, Orthodox Christian Montenegro's bid to join NATO.
"We must acknowledge with deep regret that the current leadership of the country and its Western patrons did not listen to the voice of reason and conscience," said Russia's Foreign Ministry, which contended that "nearly half" of Montenegro’s population opposed the move.
It added that "Moscow cannot fail to take the strategic consequences of this step into account."
"So we reserve the right to take decisions aimed at protecting our interests and national security," the ministry said.
Montenegro's government urged lawmakers to approve the admission protocol. Officials have said that joining NATO will bring stability and economic benefits for the 645,000 residents of the former Yugoslav republic.
"In the current geopolitical environment, Montenegro must rationally look at all options and make a decision that will best protect its national, security, and economic interests," the government has said.
Montenegro is expected to become a full-fledged member of the alliance in early June.
Two NATO countries -- Spain and the Netherlands -- still must give final approval to Montenegro's accession before it can become NATO's 29th member.
Spain's upper house of parliament still has to ratify the move, and Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told parliament on April 28 that Spanish legislators are expected to ratify it within 10 days.
The Dutch Senate approved it on March 23, but the decision will not be official until after a two-month period for a potential referendum expires.
In the expected case that a referendum is not called in the Netherlands, the decision will take effect under Dutch law on June 1.
Montenegro's military has about 2,000 troops. The country borders Serbia, which has close ties with Russia and is not a member of NATO.
Earlier in April, Montenegrin prosecutors formally charged 14 people, including two Russians and two opposition leaders, with plotting to overthrow the government in October 2016.
A Podgorica court on April 13 said lawmakers Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic of the Democratic Front, two Russians, nine Serbian citizens, and one other Montenegrin were charged with "creating a criminal organization."
The Russians were also charged with "terrorism."
The court will decide on May 5 whether to accept the indictments.
Montenegrin officials allege that Serbian and Russian nationalists plotted to take over parliament during the October 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership to halt Montenegro's bid to join NATO.
Prosecutors said the Russians, identified as Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were based in Serbia and were allowed by authorities there to return to Russia. They remain at large.
Accused lawmaker Mandic on April 13 called the charges "a staged political process against the opposition."
Montenegro's special prosecutor has said "Russian state bodies" were involved in the alleged coup, something Russia denies.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AP