NATO formally invited Montenegro into the alliance on Wednesday in a move likely to further roil relations between Russia and the West — even as some critics on both sides of the Atlantic assert the tiny Balkan nation has failed to meet political and rule of law standards that were once mandatory for membership in the world’s most powerful military club.
NATO foreign ministers issued the invitation at the end of a two-day meeting in Brussels, marking the first expansion of the 28-nation alliance since Albania and Croatia joined six years ago.
Despite its small size — it is Europe’s ninth-smallest country, with a population of just over 620,000 — Montenegro’s NATO bid has already sparked an outsize reaction.
While Montenegrin officials say the Balkan country’s military and defense ministry have carried out significant pro-Western reforms in recent years, some analysts argue that NATO members are so eager to poke a finger in Moscow’s eye that they have effectively ignored a long trail of corruption allegations surrounding the government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
He was named second only to Russian President Vladimir Putin as the world’s most corrupt leader in 2014 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a ranking that received little play in the Western media. And Russia has a tangled history with the Djukanovic government that reaches back to the early 2000s — when Russian oligarchs began pumping hundreds of millions of rubles into Montenegro for prime real estate along the unspoiled Adriatic coast.
Russian direct investment in the Montenegrin economy grew from almost nothing in 2003 to about $200 million in 2007, according to a 2014 report by the Experimental Economic and Finance Institute at Moscow State University.
By 2012 some 32 percent of registered foreign companies in Montenegro were owned by Russian citizens, compared to 16 percent owned by Serbians, 6 percent by Ukrainians and 4 percent by Chinese, according to the report, an English-language summary of the survey obtained by The Washington Times.
But the “course to join NATO and the European Union, taken by the current authorities of the republic headed by Milo Dukanovic, has led to a certain cooling of the relations between Montenegro and Russia,” the report noted, accusing the Montenegrins of breaking their own laws to crack down on Russian investors to curry favor with the West.
It also lambasted Mr. Djukanovic for refusing to participate in “large-scale energy cooperation” with the Russian government-owned energy monopoly, Gazprom.
The souring Moscow-Montenegro relationship boiled over more recently, when a series of protests calling for the prime minister’s ouster broke out in Podgorica. For several weekends in October, protesters carrying Montenegrin and Serbian flags chanted “Milo thief!” in the Montenegrin capital — at one point even roasting a large pig in front of the main parliament building.
Initially, the Djukanovic government tolerated the protests. But then it cracked down hard and, according to the independent regional publication Balkan Insight, it began publicly insinuating that the protests were engineered by Russian agents via neighboring Serbia.
The claim drew comparisons to Ukraine among officials speaking privately in Washington.
However, Moscow aggressively denied any involvement in Montenegro, and a coalition of Montenegrin opposition leaders denied the protests were anti-NATO in nature, charging that the Djukanovic government was making such claims purely to smear them.
A ‘provocation’ to Moscow?
Russian officials have long denounced any NATO expansion into the Balkans as a blatant “provocation,” a return to a Cold War mentality to divide the continent and “contain” Russia.
Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said a NATO invite to Montenegro would be “confrontational” and “could lead to further complication of the already difficult relations between Russia and NATO,” according to The Associated Press.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a prominent member of Russia’s parliament, added that Russia would have to reassess its relations with Montenegro if it joined NATO without holding a referendum.
“We would have to change our policy in regard to this friendly country,” he said. “If NATO military infrastructure were placed there, we would have to respond by limiting our contacts in economic and other spheres.”
But Montenegro’s parliament has voted to join NATO, and diplomats from several of the alliance’s 28 members said the nation’s invitation would most likely be a done deal by Wednesday evening at the end of a two-day NATO summit taking place this week in Brussels.
The Obama administration has quietly put its weight behind Montenegro’s NATO bid for the past two years. Following a September phone call between Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Mr. Djukanovic, the White House said in a statement that the U.S. “supports Montenegro’s membership in NATO provided that Montenegro continues pursuing reforms and boosts popular support [of] NATO ascension.”
The statement said “membership in NATO would firmly anchor Montenegro in Euro-Atlantic institutions, promote greater regional stability in the Balkans, and demonstrate the credibility of NATO’s ‘Open Door’ policy.”
It also said that Mr. Biden had personally “commended” Mr. Djukanovic on “Montenegro’s defense, intelligence, and rule of law reforms and urged him to continue to look for ways to strengthen efforts to fight corruption and organized crime.”
But critics argue the Obama administration has ignored not only the lack of popular support for NATO among Montenegrins, but also allegations about corrupt and heavy-handed activities by the Djukanovic government.
The allegations stem back to the early-2000s, when Mr. Djukanovic was accused by Italy’s main anti-Mafia unit of involvement in a $1 billion-plus cigarette smuggling operation based in Montenegro. The prime minister vehemently denied the charges, which were ultimately dropped in 2009.
But three years later, a joint investigation by the BBC and the OCCRP reported on an audit conducted by the U.K.-based accounting firm Price Waterhouse, which raised questions about Montenegro’s Prva Banka, or “First Bank” — run at the time by the Djukanovic family.
According to the BBC, the audit suggested that most of the money deposited at the bank came from public funds, while two-thirds of the loans made by the bank went to the Djukanovic family and its close friends.
A 2014 Montenegro progress report by the European Commission highlighted how corruption and legal abuses remained major issues in Montenegro, asserting that they could derail negotiations on the nation’s potential accession into the EU — something that traditionally coincides with NATO membership.
“I think this rush to include countries into NATO is being done without considering the risks involved,” said Maurice McTigue, vice president of outreach at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. “People in Brussels want to keep the empire of Western Europe growing, regardless of whether or not new members have achieved the standards that we want met, particularly rule of law and anti-corruption standards.”
“The only motivation I can see for pushing Montenegro’s ascension at this time is the desire among Western leaders to make sure Montenegro doesn’t become part of Russia’s orbit,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
Sanford M. Saunders, a specialist in white-collar crime at the U.S.-based international law firm Greenberg Traurig, said Montenegro’s application is a test for NATO.
“The message should be clear to potential new members that if a nation wants the protections and benefits of being a NATO state, then it will be expected to participate in international law enforcement efforts and steer clear of — or address — corruption allegations,” Mr. Saunders said in an interview.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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