Montenegro is a small country in the Balkans. With 650 thousand people (equivalent to little less than half of the population of Porto Alegre, Brazil), it became independent from Servia-Montenegro union in 2006 with support from Western countries. In last months country was shaked by protests, political tensions and interference from Russia, with the backdrop of dissatisfaction of the government in power since 1991 and the acceleration of the integration process to NATO, the Western military alliance.
PROTESTS, NATO AND RUSSIAN INTERFERENCE
The Montenegrin government gave time for the mobilization was dissolved until October 10th. The deadline was not met. On 17th October in the morning, police began dismantling camp in the square, resulting in violence, but the gravest situation occurred hours later when police blocked a march to the Parliament. As well as civilians, the following brawl left hurt the vice-president of the Parliament (opposition) and at least three other members, as the leader of DNP, and the arrest of two members, two journalists and congressional aides. The two leaders of the Democratic Front, Nebojsa Medojevi (PzP) and Andrija Mandic (NOVA), would have been "brutally beaten". In adittion to opposition parties, civil groups and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro asked investigation on the police action.
Violence came back to the streets one week later. Democratic Front sponsored free transportation to the demonstrators went to Podgorica, gathering five thousand people in the protest (photo) asking againg for output Djukanovic, an interim government and new elections. But this time demonstrators closer to the Parliament tried to break into the building, and there were violent clashes with the police again. At this time Andrija Mandic was arrested and fifteen people were hurt.
Protests and the followin brawls on 17th and 24th had huge repercussion inside Montenegrin politics and outside the country, and raised the question about the real motivators of the protests, as the Russian government, and their political agenda, which would prevent accesion of Montenegro to NATO. Since then internal political diferences on support or not the government and about entry into alliance stressed, and the small Balkan country found itself in the midst of a conflict between West and Russia.
Before protest on day 24, Djukanovic had already said publicly that he suspected that nationalist Great Serbia movement were behind the demonstrations, and that opposition, which would be getting Kremlin support, wanted to overthrow the government and cancel country´s independence in order to prevent NATO expansion in Balkans. But the Deputy Prime Minister Dusko Markovic went further: said to have on hand concrete information on financing of protests by Russia and the presence of Serb nationalists. Ministry of Foreing Affairs of Russia had deplored violence against protesters, and also commented that the entry of Montenegro into NATO would increase instability and division among it´s citizens. Branko Lukovak, former Foreign Minister of Montenegro, responded by accusing Russia of interfering openly in Montenegrin politics. After the episode of the 24th, Moscow issued a statement saying it was buffled by the charge that would be involved in the protests and that it didn´t have any basis. But this time reaction in Montenegro came in an official statement: the Ministry of Foreign Relations said that Russian declaration was a confirmation that the country would be involved in anti-NATO protests, and that the wail of Moscow by the use of "excessive force" against "paceful protests" ignored the protesters used Molotov cocktails and had tried to break into Parliament.
Both Djuokanovic and his Deputy Markovic considered Russian declarations as very clear sinals of Moscow´s involvement in the protests. According to a Serbian foreign policy expert heard by Radio Free Europe, political tensions between Montenegro and Russia increased after Djukanovic made a visit to Washington, and protests erupted after the General Secretary of the organization, Jens Stoltenberg, was in Podgorica. The visit to Washington took place on April 2014. It had been criticized by Russia. The government of Djukanovic responded by saying that his goal were about national interests of Montenegro, dealt about integration into European Union and NATO, but it wasn´t anti-Russia, and reaffirmed cooperation and longstanding respect between two countries.
Meanwhile the opposition leaders deplored the government charges that were supported by Russia, Democratic Front boycotted the meetings in the Parliament, and Medojevic (PzP) went to Brussels explain the opposition positions. Since then protests lost breath on the streets and won the Parliament galleries, this time with fewer protesters and without significant episodes of violence. At the same time discussions about the probable Russian involvement and the negotiations between Montenegro and NATO gained strenght.
In an interview with a Kosovo News site, Nebojsa Medojevic said Prime Minister Djukanovic had finally shown his "dictatorial face". When asked about Russia´s support and the opposition to NATO by Democratic Front, he said his party, PzP, leader of Front, was part of European party Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists that advocates the Montenegro entry in NATO, and Russia´s support to the movement was "more than ridiculous". He said the confusion was deliberately created by people infiltrated among protesters to cause confrontation with police in front of the Parliament, and the cameras had filmed everything on site. Protesters had alerted about masked people in the crowd. According Medojevic, there are videos that show hooligans with balaclavas leaving the ruling party bulding and witnessed soccer fans already involved in others confrontations. These fans would act as agents of the regime.
Two diplomats interviwed by Radio Free Europe who made their careers in the Balkans region, Edward Joseph and Wolfgang Petritsch, had different positions regarding Russia´s interference in Montenegro. Joseph said the NATO error to continuosly keep Montenegro out of the alliance saying this, he considers dangerous, gave opportunity for Russians intervening and destabilizing the country. One reason why Montenegro had not been invited to join NATO would be the penetration of Russian secret service in the country. On the other hand, Petritsch said that despite the Balkans are second priority for Russia and it would be nice to integrate Montenegro to NATO and also EU, the main cause of the crisis was the "dysfunctional behavior" from Podgorica, which would be provocative especially in a context of increased tension between Russians and Westerns with the crisis in Ukraine. He also pointed out that Montenegro receives large Russians investments, and it´s strange now Podgorica acuse Moscow of intervation. Both countries have always been historically very close, which would be of concern to Brussels, and Russia has always opposed the entry of any country to NATO.
MONTENEGRO AND NATO: AN INCREASING INTIMACY
The protests and the ensuing accusations that Russia would be involved in them in order to destabilize Montenegro and prevent their entry into NATO occured at a time of growing closer and intensification of negotiations between the alliance and Podgorica. According to the Serbian foreign policy expert quoted above, protests erupted after General Secretary of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, visited Montenegrin capital to treat accesion of the country.
The Stoltenberg´s visit to Podgorica took place between June 11th and 12th 2015. The purpose of the meeting with Djukanovic and government officials was to assess progress of internal reforms based on the 2010 Action Plan to join NATO. The objectives of the Plan are to focus effort especially on security sector, intelligence, rule of law reforms, the work with the public opinion and intensify meeting between government leaders and military alliance in order to assess and accelerate necessary reforms. The intention was to complete the final entry of Montenegro to NATO in December 2015.
In the meeting Stoltenberg and Djukanovic reaffirmed the neeed to meet the objectives of the Action Plan for entry in December. The head of NATO also highlighted the financial and operational help of Montenegro´s militaries for the alliance in Afghanistan. He said the country had made a "real progress" towards reforms, the intensification of talks with NATO and political cooperation with it´s members, but stressed the need to improve the reforms of the country´s laws and increase public support.
On August 10th Parliament of Montenegro put on the agenda a draft resolution to support the country´s entry into NATO. The project was supported by 49 of 81 MPs and it´s goal was to strenghten support of the members of the House to integration. The resolution, however, didn´t specify how the membership would be made.
Jens Stoltenberg made another visit to Podgorica on October 15th, two days before the clashes in the streets of the city. The discussions focused mainly on reforms of law and public support. The General Secretary pointed out that the talks with Djukanovic government were "very fruitful", that country had made great strides on laws reform, contributed the the missions of the NATO and the UN and that it was likely that in less than two months the Foreign Mministers of the alliance would decide on invitation for membership. For Djukanovic, Montenegro should be a model preparation for integration to be followed by other countries.
It´s important to say that in this context of intensification of the meetings between Djukanovic and Stoltenberg, the progress of the Action Plan and the resolution supported by most of Parliament that started the permanent demonstrations. Although the deadline for the mobilization was closed until October 10th, it was only on 17th that police took action and there was violence. As for protesters it was important to show their disatisfation for Stoltenberg, for the government wasn´s good there was confusion just before the meeting on 15th. The violence on 17th was followed by already mentioned manifestation and new violence on 24th.
Until November 2015 the Montenegrin public opinion was partly divided about NATO membership. A survey commissioned by a Western agency showed that 34,8% of respondents considered joining the right path for the country, while 34,7% considered the wrong path. The remaining 30,4% had no position or didn´t know answer the question. That is: the number of people for and against the entry of Montenegro was the same. In recent months have been a drop in supporting the accesion. Most (51%), however, considered country would enter the alliance sooner or later. Regarding the protests, 27,6% saw them as positive and 47% negative (33,3% of these very negative), and 53,5% said they wouldn´t achieve their goals compared to only 15,0% who though so. Interestingly, when asked about the impact of NATO for the country, most people believed that membership could offer to Montenegro a better relation especially with the US and the EU, strengthening peace, security, stability and protection of country´s borders. The lower impact would be the relation with Russia.
We can perceive by the survey that, yes, support for the entry of Montenegro in NATO is low and has declined in recente months, but stabilized, and that his opposition increased but also stabilized. There was a portion of the population (1/3) relatively indifferent to the question. Moreover, the negative view of the protests by majority delegitimized the opposition´s action about NATO, but also delegitimized the action against Podgorica´s government. Contrary to what´s observed in Brazil, research has shown that the government is one of the most trusted institutions by population. That is: if the support and opposition for entry into NATO were equivalente, there were many people apart of the question and especially a distrust and a negative view of the protests. In practice this meant that central government had confidence (or indifference) of a significant part of society and that it´s way on discussion a pro-NATO political agenda found resistence basically among opposition activists. The greatest concern of the Montenegrin population did not seem to be joining the aliance or the political crisis, but the socio-economic issue: 61% of respondentes being in favor of integration into the EU.
As expected, Russia reacted with criticism. Sergei Lavrov, which had said last September that the NATO expansion attempts was a "provocation" and didn´t help the stability in the region, said that the invitation to Montenegro was an "irresponsable" attitude. Russian senator Viktor Ozerov, head of defense and safety of the Russian Federation Council, said if the membership is confirmed Russia´s pojects with Balkan country would be cut, including military. Despite US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said that the NATO expansion wasn´t direct at Russia or any other country, alliance´s diplomats said the invitation to Montenegro was a clear message that Moscow can´t prevent the expansion of organization because it has no veto power. The background of these statement was in the Georgia War in 2008 when, with support by Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazkia broke out from the country preventing Georgians from entering NATO. A clause of the onrganization doesn´t allow countries with territorial disputes integrate the alliance. The same occured with Ukraine on the Crimea anexation by Russians and the war in the east of the country.
Podgorica showed little worried and said tha the invitation wouldn´t be able to jeopardize it´s relations with Moscow, since Montenegro has few projects and Russian investiments. Some experts also believe that is unlikely that Russians take drastic messures against the Balkan country. Jens Stoltenberg hinted that Montenegro would officially become NATO member at the next meeting of their leaders scheduled to take place this July in Warsaw, Poland.
OPPOSITION GOES TO KREMLIN
A few weeks after the end of the street protests on October 24th, the Montenegrin opposition boycotted the meetings in the Parliament and began to publicly make plans and strategies with Kremlin members in order to block country´s entry into NATO and plan a new politicy for the country.
Another proposal that reinforced the idea of neutrality was making Montenegro the "Balkans Switzerland". This idea was launched by Chairman of Duma Sergei Zheleznyak in presence of Knezevic, Bulatovic and Mandic. The embassador of Slovenia in NATO, Jelko Kacin, said the meeting of three opposition leaders with members of Duma was an interference in Montenegrin politics, and that this attitude was a tipical behavior of the Russian foreign policy. Zheleznyak is under EU´s sanctions for his involvement in the annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Another Russian leader thar received DF members was Sergey Naryshkin, speaker of Duma and also under EU´s sanctions because of Crimea. Naryshkin is chairman of directors council of the Russian TV Channel One, where Andrija Mandic granted an interview defending opposition agenda. In another time Mandic also said that once oppostion rise to power it would lift economic sanctions that Montenegro imposed to Russia throughout 2014 and would revalue the ties with the country built by previous governments. Naryshkin criticized sanctions saying that were illegals and causing serious damage to relations between both countries.
The conclusions of the DF leaders meeting with members of Duma in Moscow was the reaffirmation of opposition to the NATO´s expansion in the Balkans, the military neutrality of Montenegro and the need to hold a referendum to decide on the entry or not the country into alliance.
The reaction in Montenegro on the journey of the Democratic Front leaders was challenged, but of little concern. The mais question was whether it would be acceptable for the country´s politicians to discuss internal affairs with foreigns while they´re boycotting their own Parliament. But the Montenegrin government gave little importance about the possible effects of the meeting. A ruling party representative, from DPS, said the oppositionist don´t have support of the population and therefore the trip to Russia wouldn´t have major impacts on country´s politics. The director of Russian Service of Radio Free Europe strenghtened the government´s position saying that the visit don´t have political weight, but it serves as propaganda to Moscow and it´s part of the Russian government attempt to create a political alliance system throughout Europe.
Despite the apparent unconcern, Montenegro adopted sanctions againt fifty Russian businessmen and politicians on February 11th 2016. One of them was precisaly Dmitri Rogozyn, who had been invited by Knezevic to visit Montenegro after the DF leaders were in Moscow. According to Foreign Ministry, the invite was done without consulting the government. Moreover, Rogozyn is known for his unfreandly attitudes as his statment, in December 2015, that Montenegro would regret entering NATO, and his visit to Serbia in next January where he met with Vojislav Seselj, founder and leader of the Serbian Radical Party (PRS), when he was still detained and on trial by International Court for the former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity. Seselj was absolved two months later and returned to politics.
Rogozyn´s visit to Serbia and Seselj figure are relevants for politics of Montenegro. One of the groups that participated in the protests and integrates DF is Serbian Oath Keepers, Montenegrin dissent from Seselj´s PRS, whose work in the country has been since 90´s under the official name Party of Serbian Radicals. (PSR). The group´s leader, Robert Zizic, said Seselj abandoned struggle for the rights of Serbs in Montenegro, turned to socioeconomic issues and began to cooperate with parties and organizations that support the country´s integration to NATO. The new group´s proposal is rescue Serbian nationalism, campaigning against country´s integration to NATO and the EU and strenghten Belgrade and Moscow ties based on common historical and cultural values. The main support of Serbian Oath Keepers in Serbia is Serbian Zavetnici, PRS´s dissent in neighboring country led by Stefan Stamenskovski.
FAVORABLE POLITICAL CRISIS TO RUSSIA AND NEW STEPS TOWARD NATO
Three days before the DF´s leader trip to Moscow on January 30th, a political crisis rocked the government of Montenegro: the alliance that ruled the country was dissolved, comprised by the government´s party, Democratic Party of Socialistas (DPS), led by Djukanovic, and Social Democrats Party (SDP), led by Ranko Krivokapic. The break came after three days of heated debate in Parliament that ended with a vote on a motion of no confidence to the Prime Minister. Djukanovic won by very narrow margin, receiving 42 of the 81 votes, and his victory occured thanks to the votes of the smallest opposition party presented in the house, Positive Montenegro (PM) led by Darko Pajovic, which in recent years has approached to the government.
The voting had been called by Djukanovic on December 19th 2015 due to the worsening political crisis in the country. Since two years SDP has been complaining about the lack of Prime Minister´s action on reform of Judiciary and greater freedom of press. During the debates, DPS and SDP members accused each other by the political crisis, breaking of the alliance and alleged electoral frauds, one of the opposition´s issue. Corruption, votes buying against Montenegro´s independece, sale of land of the coastal region to the Russians and alliance with the late Slobodan Milosevic in the 90´s, convicted of war crimes and called "butcher of the Balkans" by Western press for his actions in Yugoslavia War (1992-1995), where other topics discussion. In the votation day, hundreds of people led by Democratic Front held a demonstration in front of the Parliament calling for departure of the Prime Minister.
On March 15th it was the turn of Serbian nationalist right of Serbian Oath Keepers launch a campaign for anti-NATO protests in Montenegro.
Despite the new focus of the demonstrations is apparently only on internal policies issues they have continued the agenda of demonstrations in September and October last year, wich also demanded non-adherence of Montenegro to NATO. The first protests increased tension in the government and led to the no confidence motion to Djukanovic. If the Prime Minister had lost the vote in January, would be the choice of a new leader, and this could put at risk the ingretation process into military alliance.
Another relevant factor is the paralell between deepening crisis and intensification of contacts of the Democratic Front leaders to important people of the Russian government. The request for no confidence motion of the Prime minister Took place three weeks after Knezevic´s (DNP) trip at a forum in Moscow, followed by a new trip, this time accompained by his colleagues Bulatovic (NDP) and Mandic (NOVA). This new trip took place three days after the motion vote, and that inaugurated the break up of the rulling coalition then formed by DPS and SDP. Lastly, the street protests, led by Democratic Front, came back a little stronger when government and opposition didn´t come to an agreement about "free and fair" elections, the control of the public TV and the secret service, having been the later denounced by NATO of being infiltraded by Russian agentes, a factor that has delayed the country´s integration process into alliance. The question is: how far Kremlin is managing penetrate and influence the Montenegro´s policy through co-optation of allies? I´ve not this answer, but it´s clear that the evolution of these events favor Russian, and one of the key points is the relation of the Democratic Front with Kremlin in a context of political crisis in Montenegro.
On the day of signing of the Protocol, a recent survey commented on Balkan Insight showed that Montenegrins were divided over the country´s entry to NATO, 45% in favor of it. On the other hand, a survey made by Knezevic´s DNP showed that 61% of the population were in favor of a referendum on the issue. The party leader said again that majority of population was against integration.
Since the split between DPS and SPD Djukanovic has to govern with greater difficulties. The opposition refused to joint the new gabinet of government composed after the break and even boycotted the parliamentary session anniversary of ten years of Montenegro´s independence headed by Pajovic and celebrated on June 3rd.
In the period of celebrations were disclosed in the press datas about the populations´ position on the independence. A survey highlighted by Knezevic said 50% of the country was in favor of independence and 30,9% againt; Djukanovic commented on general number, saying that around 60% of population would support the country´s independent status and 40% opposed. In neighboring Serbia a survey conducted in May showed that only 20% of the population was interested in reestablishing the unio with Montenegro. Although society isn´t as active as in political issues and most are in favor of mantaining independence status it is still socially divided, especially if taken into account the position of the large Serb minority that is around 30% of the population.
The National Security Strategy is more direct about NATO and the EU:
“The Strategy confirms Montenegro’s commitment to undertake all necessary actions so as to meet the conditions for its integration into the Euro-Atlantic and other international security structures. In that context, the strategic goal of Montenegro is to become a full NATO and EU member as soon as it is possible.”
This move of Montenegro clashes with the new actions of Russian foreign policy. Since mid-2006-07 Russia has taken more assertive atitudes to challenge of "unipolar world" lead by the US and tried to strenght it´s leadership in it´s sphere of influence. For this it created and strenghtened institutions, media and network of contacts around the world, mainly in Europe, a kind of alternative globalization (see also here). Since 2014, with the crisis in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the country went to what two experts called "open confrontation with international order". For them the "Putin doctrine" advocates a Russian exceptionalism, an affirmative position of Russia in the world order. The main confrontation would be between the "Russian world" and the West emphasizing it´s values and civilizational principles. In this context the Balkans are highlitghted by historical ties of Russians with Serbs and Montenegrins, and theirs Greeks, Romenian and Bulgarian neighbors, all with predominantly Orthodox population.
Montenegro, because of it´s small size and popuation, is at mercy of the strong Russian influence in the region through issues such as energy resources (with the expansion of the pipelines network competing to Western projects), economic ties, political alliances, diplomatic efforts, military presence (the instalation of a Russian military base on Montenegrin coastline was denied) and religious-cultural activism. Russian investiments in the country, receiving a lot of Russian tourists, the great Serb minority and criticism of some experts about recent change direction in foreing policy show that until recently Podgorica had an closer relationship with Moscow. Therefore it´s clear that Djukanovic changed the country´s foreing policiy and is now trying to get out of the Russia´s sphere of influence.
Alliances with Serbs, Bulgarians, Bosnians and Greeks; investiments, diplomatic ties and energy networks that run through Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia; increased military presence in the Black Sea (especially after annexation of Crimea); and the national Orthodox churches (especially from Serbia) are factors that can influence Montenegrin politics. Althoug of 32% of the investiments in Montenegro are of Russian origin, this doesn´t seem to be in charge, and the Orthodox Church of the country has a low level of confidence compared to Serbian Orthodox Church (29,0% and 48,4%, respectively). Therefore, the greatest challenge of Montenegro is in it´s domestic politics with an opposition allied to Kremlin. That´s the only asset that Moscow can use without directly affecting neighbouring countries. The haste with which Montenegro enters NATO and the European Unin and the ability of the Democratic Front to turn the game, either with street protests or parliamentary pressure, will determine the near future of the country.
* published in Portuguese on june 13th 2016.