NATO Anniversary Highlights Divisions in Montenegro

June 5, 2018
A year after the country joined NATO, membership of the Western military alliance still sharply divides Montenegrins, many of whom cannot forgive the alliance for the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.
Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic(left) and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg in NATO HQ on May 4, 2018. Photo: NATO

As the Montenegrin government marks the first anniversary of NATO membership with a celebration in the royal capital Cetinje on Tuesday, for the large community of ethnic Serbs in the country, joining the alliance is still seen as an illegal decision that was imposed on them without a vote.

The government argues that membership of the alliance is a historic achievement for a country which gained independence just 12 years ago, but for the opposition parties, pro-Serbian organisations and the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church in the country, NATO is the organisation which bombed the country in 1999, during the Kosovo war.

Meeting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday, Montenegro’s president Milo Djukanovic said that accession also means stability for the Western Balkans.

“Montenegro has confirmed its stable, decisive commitment to a European and Euro-Atlantic course. All last year’s events, especially the outcome of the elections [which his party won], convincingly confirmed that,” Djukanovic said, also referring to the alleged Russian-backed coup attempt in October 2016 which Montenegro’s authorities claim was planned to stop the country joining NATO.

Stoltenberg thanked Montenegro for committing to increase the number of troops it is deploying to the alliance’s training mission in Afghanistan, and welcomed the country’s decision to increasing defence spending “with a clear plan” to invest 2 per cent of GDP in defence by 2024.

But an MP from the pro-Russian Democratic Front opposition alliance, Slaven Radunovic, said on June 3 that over the last year, the country’s citizens have not seen any benefit from NATO membership.

He also said that by joining NATO, it become acceptable for the will of the people not to be respected, and that Djukanovic has just used NATO to further strengthen his power.

The anti-NATO movement Freedom to the People said the membership decision was made against the will of the majority of the people by avoiding a referendum, and was therefore “illegal and illegitimate”.

Marking the anniversary, Italy and Greece will begin NATO air patrols over the Montenegrin skies as the country does not have its own fighter planes.

Last year, Montenegro asked NATO to help secure its airspace; the alliance’s air policing missions protect the skies of those allies that do not have their own air force.

Djukanovic thanked Italy and Greece for their decision to take control of Montenegro’s airspace, saying this was a very tangible benefit of joining.

Polls show persistent anti-NATO sentiments

A public opinion survey conducted by the prominent CEDEM monitor in May suggested that 47 per cent of Montenegrins are against NATO membership, while 45 per cent said it was good for the country.

Since joining, the number of NATO opponents appears to have risen. In December, CEDEM’s poll suggested that 42.5 per cent of Montenegrins were pro-NATO while opponents had 38 per cent support.

Political and military analyst Aleksandar Dedevic said that despite the benefits of membership, a large section of the Montenegrin public has retained its negative attitude towards the alliance.

“Opponents of NATO membership in Montenegro are still numerous but this is the case in some countries that formed the alliance. Don’t forget, Montenegro is the only country which joined the alliance after it was bombed by the alliance in 1999,” Dedovic told BIRN.

The large Serbian community is especially opposed, owing to NATO’s role in bombing Yugoslavia in the late 1990s in air strikes aimed at forcing Serbia to withdraw its forces from its then province of Kosovo.

Traditional ally Russia, whose ties to Orthodox Christian Montenegro date back to the reign of Peter the Great, has also vocally opposed Montenegrin accession to the alliance.

Montenegro accused Russia of being behind the foiled coup attempt last October which the government claimed was intended to topple the pro-Western government and derail NATO accession. Moscow denied the claims.

Dedovic said however that the security and military reforms which came with NATO membership are significant and have already positively influenced quality of life in Montenegrin society, while the most important benefits will be more visible over the longer term.

“In the short term, [membership] helps position Montenegro on the international scene,” he argued.

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