Montenegro’s accession to full membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) took a major step forward this week as the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Balkan country’s membership bid. President-elect Donald Trump has yet to tweet his opinion on this and no comment came for Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. For supporters of NATO and NATO expansion — the government of Canada is one of them — all of this is good news.
With a population the size of Winnipeg and a standing armed forces smaller than a single NATO regiment, Montenegrin membership is militarily inconsequential, but its political and strategic import is considerable. Montenegro may be the tiniest of Balkan states, but it still stands tall as “NATO’s thirteenth ex-communist member” and the “first new member since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.” Such symbolism matters in the shifting landscape of the “old” Euro-Atlantic and global order, to say nothing of the alliance’s increasingly militarized face-off with Putin’s Russia.
Viewed from the Kremlin, however, any gain for NATO is a loss for Russia — and further justification for Russia’s revisionist policies. In this case, the Russian leadership has even more reason to lash out. “How many of you are there?” British writer Rebecca West asked a Montenegrin passerby in 1937. “With Russians, 180 million.” “Yes,” she went on, “but how many without Russians?” “The question is moot,” the Montenegrin said, “for we will never abandon the Russians.”
Never say never. The Balkan country’s accession to NATO began a decade ago, just as the government in Podgorica was falling over itself to welcome Russian investors keen to park their money abroad. The honeymoon did not last, and most Russian-owned assets are now in the hands of either locals or other foreigners. That said, Russia remains dear to a segment of the country’s elite and roughly a third of voters. In addition to cherishing their ancestors who supported pan-Slavic ideals, Orthodoxy, and Russian foreign policy goals, many Montenegrins are still upset about the so-called illegal but legitimate NATO intervention in 1999 to stop Slobodan Milošević’s regime in Belgrade from committing mass murder (“ethnic cleansing”) in Kosovo — specifically the fact that NATO bombs fell on Montenegro too.
News of Russia’s “covert influence” in Montenegrin politics first gained headlines in the fall of 2015 when Podgorica saw intense mass protests against the prospect of NATO membership. No wonder: opposition politicians, civil society leaders, and members of the Serbian Orthodox clergy who led these protests argued that a true government of Montenegro would offer the Russian navy a port on the Adriatic — or at least follow Serbia’s example and declare military neutrality. This past October Moscow allegedly tried to reverse Montenegro’s civilizational U-turn more directly — by attempting to assassinate then-prime-minister Milo Đukanović on the day of Montenegrin election. Stories of failed coup d’états are not exactly rare in today’s Balkans, but suspects have been arrested and further details will be forthcoming.
Đukanović is called the “smartest man in the Balkans” with good cause. The dubious title of Europe’s longest-ruling leader typically goes to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a moustached autocrat who has been in power since 1994. But Đukanović has ruled, co-ruled, and shadow-ruled his country for longer. Presently, he is on another leadership “break” — a stunt he has pulled twice before — retired from the country’s top offices for a year or two but still in charge of the perennially ruling party. Đukanović’s latest decision to lead from behind will probably improve the country’s democracy rankings, thus moving it closer towards European Union membership too.
Over the years, Đukanović and his political allies have done it all. Putting their Marxism behind them in 1990, they proceeded to win every national election since, while systematically privatizing as much of the economy as possible. They supported both Milošević and the democrats who finally deposed in 2000, only to ditch them both when “national interests” changed again. These maneuvers were often risky.
The independence referendum Đukanović’s government called in 2006 was by no means a cakewalk — the European Union insisted on an exceptionally high threshold of 55 percent — but it passed, causing Montenegro to reappear on world maps after a century-long hiatus. Another huge gamble for Đukanović was to publicly declare the country exempt from NATO’s bombing and welcome those fleeing Milošević’s crackdown — thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo, plus a few high-profile representatives of Serbia’s democratic opposition at the time.
Đukanović seems to believe that he has a real chance to go down in history not as a Balkan Lukashenko but as a Balkan Lee Kuan Yew: a visionary leader who, against all odds, managed for years to keep his multi-ethnic, multi-confessional nation peaceful and stable in a volatile neighbourhood, who modernized the country’s economy, and who supported a local brand of “sovereign democracy” that was the best form of government under the circumstances. In fact, Đukanović might say that Montenegro’s democracy is no longer an issue. In contrast to the 1990s, when it was touted as a force for democratic consolidation, NATO is now merely hoping to survive.
One of Trump’s campaign promises was to take the United States out of the organization if other allies fail to contribute more. More significantly, Trump’s hostility towards the nostrums of the so-called liberal international order has the effect of normalizing various alternatives and exceptions within that order, the outstanding case in point being those NATO member countries practicing “post-liberal democracy” and/or “foreign policy independence.”
In this climate, NATO foreign ministers like Canada’s Chrystia Freeland have the added responsibility of reminding all members to adhere to club rules — “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” to borrow but eight words from the preamble of the 1949 Washington Treaty — the alliance’s founding document.