Don’t be fooled: Joining NATO doesn’t mean Montenegro has changed

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Srdjan Cvijic
Srdjan Cvijic

Montenegro’s NATO membership has been in the pipeline for years. But only in the past few months, since Montenegro adopted tough EU-led sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, has Russia raised concerns. Though the government in Podgorica has maintained that its move is in no way “expressing an anti-Russian mood”, Moscow called the final talks to join NATO an “openly confrontational step”. In truth, Montenegro’s NATO membership, as well as its EU accession, represents little more than a domestic political game, not progress for the country.

Montenegro has no strategic significance for Russia. The Kremlin has some leverage over Balkan political developments, but it knows too well that the region is firmly attached to the EU. For NATO too, Podgorica’s membership is merely of symbolic significance. The alliance wants to signal the continuation of its “open door policy” and edge closer to the more strategically-important Belgrade. For the Montenegrin government, though, the NATO controversy is of greater importance. It’s good politics, as it signals to a part of the Montenegrin electorate that the West accepts its government as a serious partner. The issue is also useful in dividing the Montenegrin opposition, whose protests last year were first directed against widespread corruption and nepotism but they quickly transformed into anti-NATO demonstrations.

The same individuals, families and political and business elites have controlled the country’s politics and economy for more than 25 years

A poll last year found that Montenegrins are evenly split over the NATO issue. 37% oppose joining NATO, 36% approve joining, and 26% are undecided. The Montenegrin government has since commissioned polls showing the pro-NATO camp to be slightly ahead, but the number of citizens against remains high. This is no surprise given the enduring legacy of the NATO bombings against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. For parts of Montenegro’s opposition, their anti-NATO stance is thus being utilised as an easier means of garnering popular support than putting forward a credible, alternative set of domestic policies.

Though NATO is not a catch-all vote magnet, accession to the European Union remains very popular. But the country finds itself in something of a paradox; it is the champion of European integration in the Western Balkans, but it is the only country in the region that did not experience a change in government after the introduction of the multi-party system in 1990. The same individuals, families and political and business elites have controlled the country’s politics and economy for more than 25 years.

The ruling party’s tight grip on the state, poor record on the freedom of the press, absence of free and fair elections, harassment of civil society activists, corruption and creeping influence of organised crime all question the country’s EU accession path. Negotiations towards a transition government, tasked with creating a level playing field for all parties in the elections expected by October, could signal that the ruling party is giving up its grip on power. Yet the OSCE’s electoral observation mission has reported various irregularities that stem from what they describe as “the continued blurring of the line between state and party”.

The EU should not indulge the deception that Montenegro is changing for the better just because it’s joining NATO

With this in mind, the EU should ensure that past mistakes are not repeated. The EU’s failure to appropriately deal with voluminous allegations of electoral fraud in Montenegro’s 2013 presidential elections illustrates its passive approach to crisis and inability to adapt its conditionality mechanisms to the evolving situation in enlargement countries. Assurance of a level playing field for the upcoming parliamentary elections should therefore be linked more directly to EU accession progress in other fields.

Political forces in the Balkans demonstrate an infinite capacity to manipulate the EU – and now NATO – to serve their domestic political interests. This is much easier at a time when the EU’s commitment to integrating the region is at a historical low. Montenegro and the Western Balkans represent a perverse poker game in which everyone’s cards are on the table yet the players continue to bluff. The EU should not indulge the deception that Montenegro is changing for the better just because it’s joining NATO.

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