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Are Montenegro's pro-Western leaders, including former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (pictured), trying to "drag" the Balkan country into NATO against public opinion, as Moscow claims?

Montenegro and Serbia are Russian President Vladimir Putin's "red line" in Europe, judging by year-end headlines in Belgrade's tabloid press.

Drawing on unnamed diplomatic sources, those stories in the Serbian capital claim that Putin has a plan for a new "world order" in which Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- designated "militarily neutral states" -- would serve as buffers between NATO and Russia and its allies. The same sources are quoted as saying, in line with this vision, that Putin had advised U.S. President-elect Donald Trump not to "force through" Montenegro's membership in NATO.

The details of Putin's grand strategic plan may or may not be entirely accurate, but the extent of Moscow's hostility to Montenegrin NATO ambitions has been clear for some time. Podgorica has been under intense pressure from Moscow to drop its EU and NATO membership bids.

Given questions about the future direction of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia, there have been expressions of growing concern in Montenegro that its steadfastly pro-Western stance might go unrewarded.

In that context, a prospective visit from a "troika" of U.S. senators was seen as a welcome show of support. John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Lindsay Graham (Republican-South Carolina), and Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota) were expected to stop over in Montenegro on January 3 on their way back from a tour of the Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine. As it turned out, the visit was postponed at the last minute, although McCain thanked Montenegro for its assistance in the global fight against terrorism and reiterated his support for Montenegro's NATO hopes.

For some in Montenegro, NATO membership increasingly looks like a question of political life and death, as that small Balkan state finds itself on the front lines of what could become a new Cold War. Recent reports suggest Russia has applied pressure to derail Montenegro's NATO accession or EU integration.

For years, Russia's "new rich" have been investing in and acquiring property in Montenegro. In popular coastal resort towns like Budva, Russian is a second language, enjoying parity with Montenegrin.

But relations have begun to sour. A case in point is Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, once seen as a potential savior of Montenegro with his investment in local aluminum production, who is now suing the Montenegrin state over purported losses. Many Russians seemingly believed that their investment in Montenegro would be repaid in political influence.

Yet Podgorica remains stubbornly committed to forging ties with the West. This year Montenegro could become the 29th member of NATO, a process that could conclude with a ratifying vote in the Montenegrin parliament in the spring. (So far 19 of 28 NATO members have approved Montenegrin membership, which was endorsed in Warsaw in July, and the U.S. Senate could vote later this month on ratification.)

Moscow has responded by ratcheting up the pressure.

Sergei Zheleznyak, a senior official within Russia's ruling United Russia party, issued a warning to the Montenegrin government on December 26, during his most recent visit to Belgrade. "The Montenegrin authorities are making a mistake in trying to speed up the country's entry into NATO, knowing that the majority of their people are opposed to this. An attempt to force through NATO membership is not in Montenegro's or NATO's best interests, and it can easily lead to instability in the country, in the Balkans, and inside NATO," Zheleznyak said after talks with officials from the Serbian ruling party.

His statement echoed Moscow's official line. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed recently that "frantic attempts are being made to drag Montenegro into NATO" before the handover to the Trump administration in the United States in January. At a recent OSCE meeting in Hamburg, Lavrov said, "We are not interfering in this process, but I think that the unattractiveness of these frantic efforts is clear to everyone."

But reports of a botched coup in Montenegro in October could put a real dent in Lavrov's charge.

Montenegrin authorities last month issued international arrest warrants for Russians and Serbs accused of involvement in that purported plot, which allegedly sought to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister and take over parliament on election day.

Podgorica has said it has no evidence of high-level Russian official involvement in the abortive coup, and the Kremlin has denied involvement. But it could not have been reassuring for Montenegrin officials to see one of the suspects in the coup plot practically rubbing elbows with Russia's Lavrov last month.

Russia's line about a lack of support for NATO membership in Montenegro also might not reflect reality.

"The official invitation to join NATO and signing of the Accession Protocol were the best things that happened to Montenegro in 2016," Darko Sukovic, a prominent Montenegrin journalist, has said.

Former Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic, meanwhile, said he was anxious for the country to find a way to secure NATO membership while preventing the deterioration of relations with Russia. "We're entering a dramatic finale. To use a chess analogy, Montenegro only needs a draw in this historic chess match with Russia," he said. "The main thing is not to lose momentum and to finally seal the deal [NATO membership] while avoiding direct conflict with the Kremlin -- with a little help from our [Western] allies, of course."

Edward P. Joseph of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an article co-authored with Sinisa Vukovic, argued recently that Montenegro represents "a litmus test for Trump's Russia policy."

And a recent Wall Street Journal editorial*, titled Patriot Games In The Balkans and published last month, accused "pro-Kremlin forces" of trying to sabotage Podgorica's NATO bid, warning: "Western security is best served by supporting democratic governments of any size facing pressure from regional bullies. The alternative is to deliver another country into Moscow's grip, and whet its appetite to take another."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly attribute quoted text to a Wall Street Journal editorial, rather than to Mssrs Joseph and Vukovic. RFE/RL regrets the error.

Milorad Dodik, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina's predominantly Serb entity Republika Srpska

If it were merely a Bosnian reality show, it might be good fun. But it happened in real life -- and created a diplomatic storm in a teacup.

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the predominantly ethnically Serb part of Bosnia, announced that he had received an invitation to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration. It would make him the only Balkan politician present at the January 20 event in Washington.

Convinced that an honor had been extended to him that was denied even to heads of state in the region, Dodik duly applied for a diplomatic visa as required for travel to the United States.

But almost immediately following Dodik's announcement, Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak made it clear that only ambassadors are invited to the inauguration and that Bosnia would be represented by its Washington envoy. He also explained that any such invitation is normally sent through the Foreign Ministry and would not arrive in the form of a private letter, as Dodik was suggesting.

In response, Dodik presented his "invitation" during a live interview on N1TV, albeit without revealing the letterhead or the signature.

It has since become clear, however, that Dodik has not been invited to Trump's official inauguration ceremony but to a private ball organized by religious and conservative groups (including the Tea Party) on the margins of Trump's inauguration.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo subsequently confirmed that Dodik was not on the guest list at its disposal of invitees to the inauguration. It added that it did not have a list of planned attendees for events on the sidelines of the inauguration.

And in fact, the U.S. Embassy did not issue Dodik a diplomatic visa, reportedly because he would not be representing his country at the event.

But Dodik seemed to be suggesting that there was a more sinister reason behind the perceived snub.

"For procedural reasons, I had applied for the visa earlier, but my request had been denied on the grounds that I am not an official representative of the Bosnian state and am therefore ineligible for that visa, which I have previously been granted on a regular basis," Dodik explained.

He went on to give a detailed account of a conversation he purportedly had a week ago with Hoyt Brian Yee, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. According to Dodik, Yee asked him to renounce his party's policies -- seen by critics as ethnically divisive -- and advised him to cooperate with the Bosnian state prosecutor over the legality of the recent referendum he had engineered in Republika Srpska. He described the dialogue with Yee as "a harangue organized by U.S. Ambassador in Bosnia Maureen Cormack."

"I said that the current Bosnian crisis is mostly the fault of the outgoing U.S. administration, and I asked them to leave Bosnia and stop interfering. I also made it clear that my party will not give up its policies," Dodik insisted.

He added that Cormack had been a part of the telephone conversation.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo gave its own account of Dodik's exchange with the State Department official and reiterated its commitment to the Dayton peace accords.

"As a sign of continued U.S. commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia, and the strengthening of democratic values and institutions in this country, the Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee and Ambassador Maureen Cormack had a conversation with the president of the Serb Republic in order to express our concern over his recent public statements and actions, and to reiterate our previously stated position -- that refusal to cooperate with the [Bosnian] constitutional court is a violation of the rule of law, and that those responsible must face the consequences. We take very seriously every attempt to undermine the Dayton peace accords."

However, on December 27, Dodik was back in Sarajevo to apply for a regular U.S. visa, as he is determined not to miss the ball.

"What is the purpose of presenting a private invitation to a private function as an official summons extended by the U.S. administration to the presidential inauguration? It doesn't make sense. This was an embarrassment that could have been avoided," Minister Crnadak said in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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