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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (right) met with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic in Brussels on January 26.

With the country on the brink of becoming NATO’s 29th member, the stakes for Montenegro are high.

Although an accession protocol has already been approved by 23 of the alliance's 28 member states, the process has been delayed in the U.S. Senate. Opponents of NATO expansion see this as a last chance to block the Balkan country's long-expected membership.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been visiting the region this week. Speaking to journalists in Sarajevo on February 2, Stoltenberg said NATO was aware of reports of increased Russian influence in the Balkans and of Russian intervention in political processes in Montenegro.

"We are following that very closely. We work with partners, including Montenegro, to help them strengthen their intelligence capacities and defense institutions," Stoltenberg said, answering a journalist's question.

A day earlier, two Montenegrin opposition politicians rushed to Moscow and were received by the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksei Meshkov.

Meshkov reportedly told Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, leaders of Montenegro’s Democratic Front, that "dragging Montenegro into NATO may cause a rift in the country's society," according to the Russian TASS news agency.

Stoltenberg said he was not concerned that the misgivings about NATO expressed by U.S. President Donald Trump would delay U.S. approval of Montenegro's membership.

"I am confident that the accession protocol will be ratified by the Senate. It has already passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it has strong bipartisan support," he said after meeting the Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic.

'Useless Defense Dependent'

Opposing Montenegro's NATO membership, Doug Bandow, senior fellow at The Cato Institute, claimed that "the Balkans is irrelevant to U.S. security and only indirectly relevant to the protection of Europe."

If he were still around, it easy to imagine the 19th-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck immediately tweeting his own warning to Bandow about the importance of the Balkans to European peace.

“If there is ever another war in Europe," the Iron Chancellor reportedly said at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, "it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans.”

Bandow argues that, if Montenegro becomes a member of NATO, "Americans will have yet another essentially useless defense dependent, this one a corrupt, longtime one-party gangster state. Quite a model for future alliance expansion."

The former prime minister of Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, was regularly accused of corruption by members of the opposition, but these accusations were never substantiated.

Djukanovic was the dominant figure on the Montenegrin political stage for a quarter of a century, until stepping down as prime minister after the October 2016 elections.

His Democratic Socialist Party (DPS) narrowly won the elections but was only able to form a parliamentary majority in partnership with deputies from smaller groupings representing Montenegro's various ethnic minorities.

However, the events surrounding Montenegro's October elections were dramatic even in the currently volatile Balkan context.

During the night before the election, only hours before polling booths opened on October 16, Montenegrin police -- with help from neighboring Serbia's security service -- detained 20 people suspected of plotting a violent overthrow of the government.

Former Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (file photo)
Former Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (file photo)

According to reports based on sources within the Serbian security services, the plan called for the assassination of Prime Minister Djukanovic.

Although he relinquished his prime ministerial role, Djukanovic remained as the leader of the DPS. In an interview with the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List, Djukanovic said that the attempted coup was "the last attempt to divert Montenegro from the course it has been following for the past 20 years -- namely, its desire to join the EU and NATO."

On the subject of the alleged assassination plot, Djukanovic suggested that the real target was something bigger than himself.

"The target was not Milo Djukanovic as such, but the legitimate prime minister who is taking his country into the EU and NATO," he said. "They wanted to send a message to others [in the Balkans] as well. Having in mind that most countries in the region are currently at different stages of Euro-Atlantic integration, the message was that they would not be allowed to make those decisions based on their national interests."

Djukanovic added that the alleged plotters also "wanted to send a message to NATO and the EU -- that there would be no enlargement without approval from Russia."

Djukanovic also said that we "can only speculate" about allegations that Russia was involved in the foiled October plot.

Nonetheless, he added that "Moscow officials had been issuing warnings to Montenegro to stay away from NATO, arguing that it would destabilize the country."

"As our membership talks progressed, the tone of those warnings was becoming harsher," he said. "That was followed by obvious [Russian] support for Montenegrin opposition groups ahead of the parliamentary elections. We are talking about anti-NATO, anti-European, and, in essence, anti-Montenegrin parties run by the same people who had been the foremost opponents of Montenegro’s declaration of independence [in 2006]. They continued to receive substantial support from Moscow in their struggle to reverse the country’s decision on NATO and EU membership."

Litmus Test?

Although Moscow made an official announcement after the failed coup attempt that Russia had nothing to do with the events in Montenegro, Djukanovic described the Kremlin's statement as "not convincing."

Michael Haltzel, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins' Center for Transatlantic Relations, has suggested that the U.S. Senate vote on Montenegro could be seen as a litmus test for the United States' foreign-policy independence.

"The U.S. Senate should ratify Montenegro’s membership as soon as possible, and President Trump should formalize it," Haltzel wrote. "For Trump to do otherwise would show the world that during his presidency the Kremlin will exercise unprecedented influence on U.S. foreign policy.

Acknowledging that Podgorica finds itself on the brink of NATO accession at a time of fraught international relations and rising tensions in the Balkans, Djukanovic indicated that Montenegro was still correct to pursue membership in the alliance, saying that the country was now "in the right place at the wrong time."

Should Montenegro eventually join NATO, it will become the third ex-Yugoslav country to enter the alliance, after Croatia and Slovenia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Recent comments by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic have not helped soothe the volatile atmosphere in the Balkans (file photo).

Whether it is stocking up on weapons, proposing to redraw borders, or simply a claim like the one made this month by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic about being ready to send in troops if Serbs in Kosovo are threatened, the Balkans feels once again like a powder keg.

Then Nikolic doubled-down on his comments, telling reporters, "If the need arises, I will go to war myself, along with my sons."

Perhaps Nikolic should let his two sons speak for themselves.

Interviews conducted by RFE/RL's Balkan Service suggest that bellicose language is regarded by many young people in the region as a disturbing echo of the destruction of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed of 1990s -- even if they have no personal memories of those years.

It seems that the younger generation in Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro does not see war as the answer.

Marko Milosavljević, an activist with Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, has a short but clear message for political leaders: "Do not play with the [slogans] of the 1990s."

His group was recently involved in a civil action in the northern Serbian village of Beska, where convicted war criminal and former Yugoslav Army officer Veselin Sljivancanin was invited to take part in a campaign event organized by the ruling Progressive Party.

'Incendiary' Statements

Marko and his fellow activists sought to disrupt the event with a banner demanding silence from Sljivancanin and more attention for the victims of war. The activists were thrown out and, reportedly, beaten up.

"We believe that in a democratic society, the ruling party should not be promoted by a war criminal," Milosavljevic told RFE/RL in Belgrade. As far as he and his friends are concerned, insult was added to injury when the Progressive Party announced that "a group of hooligans had interrupted the party gathering and brutally attacked its participants."

Talking about his own postwar generation in Serbia, Milosavljevic said that young people know little about the crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s or the causes of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. But, he added, they are well aware of what misery comes with any war, and they are not prepared to take up arms.

"Whenever new elections are looming, our politicians dust off their old rhetoric, and they even seem oblivious to how incendiary some of their statements are," Milosavljevic said.

Growing Tensions

Young people in Gorazde, one of six eastern Bosnian enclaves besieged by the Bosnian Serbs during the war (1992-95), are more aware of that conflict, reminders of which are still present in many forms all around them.

Asmir Jamakovic is about to graduate from high school. He was born after the war, but he is closely following the saber-rattling in the region.

"I don't think that anybody would dare to start a war after what happened here," Jamakovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I even believe that my parents' generation did not want a war but that they were manipulated by their political leaders."

Local peace activist Ermin Basaskic nevertheless sees potential for conflict.

"At a time of growing tensions, such as over the referendum in Republika Srpska," Basaskic said of the decision by the ethnic Serb-majority entity of Bosnia to mark statehood day on January 9, a controversial date linked to prewar Serb nationalism, in defiance of the Bosnian Constitutional Court. "Even people formerly engaged in campaigning for peace are spreading hate speech, and are retreating into their ethnic cocoons."

History Repeating?

Igor Jankovic, a young journalist from Foca, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, says that in the event of a new conflict he would take his wife and children to join the flow of Syrians and Afghans who have traveled on foot to Western Europe. That seems to be a popular attitude among his peers across the region.

A lab technician at Gorazde hospital in eastern Bosnia, Alen Muhic, knows about war and atrocities. His Muslim mother was allegedly raped by a Serb, and left the baby behind in the hospital after giving birth.

"The politicians are responsible for the warmongering, but it is not their children who would be doing the fighting. Personally, I would pick up my suitcase and head for the West," Muhic said.

Many students at Niksic University in Montenegro would like to leave the past behind and to look to the future.

Mitar Radulovic told RFE/RL in Podgorica that he is particularly concerned about hate speech on social networks. "My father took part in the fighting in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s. It did not bring any good to us or to them," he said in a reference to Croats and Bosnians. "Nobody would like to see the conflicts of the past repeated."

Edin Kanka Cudic, from the Alliance for Social Research and Communication, sounded less optimistic. "In Bosnia, we have the absence of war but no real peace yet. Civil society is very weak. It is not able to stand up to nationalism," Cudic said. "Young people who were born after the Dayton peace agreement [in 1995] could be manipulated to take part in some new conflict. Whoever has any experience of war would leave the country immediately in case of any confrontations."

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

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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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