Members of Montenegro’s parliament on Friday ratified the country’s NATO membership treaty while thousands protested outside the old royal palace in the town of Cetinje where the ceremonial session took place.
The vote marked the final steps in the country’s long drawn-out accession process.
Membership of NATO was supported by the ruling coalition and by smaller parties representing the country’s Bosniak, Croat and Albanian communities.
Most opposition parties boycotted the vote in Cetinje, however, citing their frustrated demand for a referendum on the issue.
While the session was ongoing, thousands of people, mostly drawn from the large Serbian community, protested outside, demanding a referendum.
Some chanted “Treason!” and “Thieves!” as lawmakers from the ruling pro-NATO coalition arrived for the vote. A banner read: “NATO killers, your hands are bloody!”
Some of the protesters torched a NATO flag chanting “Killers, killers.”
“NATO is a criminal military alliance,” former Yugoslav president Momir Bulatovic said.
Membership of NATO remains highly controversial in politically divided Montenegro. A poll conducted in December 2016 showed only 39.5 per cent of Montenegrins were in favour.
The large Serbian community is especially opposed, owing to NATO’s role in bombing Serbia in the late-1990s, aimed at forcing Serbia to withdraw its forces from the then province of Kosovo. Russia has also vocally opposed Montenegrin accession to NATO.
The pro-Russian opposition Democratic Front, which organised Friday’s rally, has vowed to freeze membership of the alliance if it wins the next parliamentary election.
The Front said parliament’s approval of the accession treaty was illegal as a large majority of Montenegrin citizens strongly oppose NATO membership.
Front leader Milan Knezevic told the crowd on Friday that MPs had signed Montenegro’s “capitulation”, promising new anti-NATO protests in the days to come.
The government insists that joining NATO will bring stability and economic benefits to the tiny Adriatic country.
“In the current geopolitical environment, Montenegro must rationally look at all options and make a decision that will best protect its national, security, and economic interests,” Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told parliament on Friday.
Markovic said membership of NATO did not mean “forgetting the innocent victims,” mentioning the six civilians killed in air strikes on the northern village of Murino in 1999, during the NATO campaign in former Yugoslavia.
Montenegro joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, PfP, back in 2006.
It expected to become a member of NATO by the time of the alliance summit in Brussels in May.
However, besides complex procedures at home, ratification of Montenegro’s NATO accession protocol has had to pass through the parliaments of all 28 member states.
So far, the protocol has been confirmed by 26 members, but The Netherlands and Spain have yet to ratify the treaty.
NATO membership has angered traditional ally Russia whose ties to Orthodox Christian Montenegro date back to the reign of Peter the Great.
Montenegro accused Russia of being behind a foiled coup attempt last October aimed at toppling the pro-Western government and derailing NATO accession. Moscow denied the claims.