A high-level delegation from President Putin’s United Russia party is coming to Montenegro in mid-April to improve relations with the majority Orthodox country, which was recently invited to join NATO.
The visit will include meetings with pro-Russian parties, religious leaders, NGOs, business associations, media and the Russian diaspora in Montenegro.
Announcing the visit, the Moscow-based Balkan Centre for International Cooperation said Russia was seriously interested in issues such as Christian civilization in the Balkans and Russia’s role in preserving it, but also in a possible referendum on the country’s NATO membership bid.
It said the intention is to develop new formats of Montenegro-Russian cooperation for the purpose of increasing Montenegrin representatation in Russia’s economics and politics.
“This initiative will be run under the auspices of the United Russia party, the main political forces in the Russian Federation. It is focused on the development of Russia’s relations with the Balkan countries in the interest of consolidation and strengthening the friendship of the brotherly peoples of Russia and the Balkans,” the center’s director, Viktor Kolbanovski, said.
The moderator of the project will be Sergei Zeleznjak, vice-president of the Russian Duma and deputy secretary-general of United Russia’s international board.
Mainly Slavic in ethnicity and mainly Orthodox in religion, Montenegro has a long history of close relations with Moscow, dating back to the reign of Tsar Peter the Great.
Relations cooled in March 2014, when Montenegro imposed sanctions on Russia, joining the EU embargo imposed on 33 Ukrainian and Russian officials, some of them very close to President Putin.
After the invitation was announced, President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Moscow was considering its response to this move.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also released a statement saying that NATO’s invitation to Montenegro “will not promote peace and stability in the Balkans or in Europe in general.”
For years, Montenegro has been labeled the “Russian VIP resort”, as the preferred destination of Russian oligarchs.
In spite of cooling political ties, Russians are still the most numerous foreign tourists in the country. Around 300,000 Russians visit the country each year, making more than a million overnight stays.
Some surveys suggest that more than 40 per cent of real estate in Montenegro now belongs to Russians, mainly to politicians and billionaires.
Russia has also for many years been the biggest single source of foreign direct investment. It accounts for nearly a third of FDI in Montenegro.
According to government information provided to BIRN, since the Russian investment wave began in Montenegro in 2005, around 1.16 billion euros have entered Montenegro