Montenegro is in NATO. What's next for the western Balkans?
On June 5th, Montenegro has become the 29th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This is the only success story coming from the Western Balkans in a long time. As such, it gains a particular importance beyond the reach of the small country of 620,000 inhabitants in the Southern part of Europe and has multiple implications.
The military contribution of Montenegro to NATO with its 2,000 military personnel might be limited, but all twenty-eight members of the Alliance have already ratified the accession, seeing Montenegro as a strategic ally, which sits on / is located at an important geopolitical position in the Adriatic Sea. Montenegro has been a trusted partner of the Alliance, being also very active with its support in Afghanistan.
The newest member of NATO will pay a low annual fee to the Alliance of around USD 450,000 or only 0.027 % of the total budget of NATO, while its annual defense spending is around USD 55 million.
However, it is important to remember that NATO is not only a military Alliance, but also a political one. Montenegro's membership is NATO's first expansion in the last eight years, following the 2009´s enlargement with Albania and Croatia. As such, it sends some very important signals.
Acceptance in the alliance is a formal recognition of the strides that Montenegro has made in the transition process. The small country has gone through a wrenching process of reforms internally, focusing on strengthening the rule of law and reforming the defense sector. In a short time, Montenegro was able to successfully meet a range of demanding criteria, reaching the required standards for NATO. However, membership in the Alliance should not signal completed reforms in the security and defense sector. Serious reforms need to continue to tackle issues such as corruption, economic underperformance, and governance. As with other former communist countries, NATO accession can help spur a virtuous cycle and speed up the process of transformation.
Membership in the Alliance is very important for stability and security in Montenegro and more broadly in the region. Of course, this is a natural move for a country that has chosen to be fully integrated into Europe. According to the Foreign Minister, Srdjan Darmanovic, membership in NATO is a historical decision that has changed the status and the international position of Montenegro.
It is rewarding that Montenegro achieved one of the main objectives of its foreign policy, designed by the political leadership of the independent Montenegro since 2006, which gave the country the opportunity to redefine its relations with the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Membership in NATO is a guarantee of stability and security in the country, particularly important for a small nation with limited capacities that can take advantage of cooperation in defense and security efforts with NATO partners, involving sharing of resources, expertise and information.
At the same time, this is considered an important step towards the EU accession process, for which negotiations have started in 2012.
Even though NATO is not an economic Alliance, history has shown that it is related to economics, being a catalyst of economic development by providing a sense of security and predictability both to foreign and domestic investors.
Montenegro's accession has also some peculiarities. Unlike the accession of previous new members of NATO, the process triggered open opposition in the country. Public support has increased significantly over the last years, also thanks to the real commitment of the civil society, reaching up to 48 percent of the citizens that have a positive attitude towards NATO. Nevertheless, the public remains split on the issue.
The Serb-dominated and pro-Russian politicians in the opposition parties, accused of attempting a failed coup to stop Montenegro joining the Alliance, have boycotted the parliament since the last elections and are asking for a popular referendum on the issue, hoping to spoil Montenegro´s membership.
Russia is back waging a geo-political game in the region, and Kremlin has openly opposed Montenegro's accession, calling it a "provocation".
In reality, Montenegro's accession should not be seen as a provocation to Russia, or as a step towards worsening the relations with a country that is its very important economic partner. Russia and Montenegro share close and important historic, religious, cultural and economic ties. The country's large Serbian population is wary that membership to the Alliance would affect business with Russia. They make up 25 percent of the tourists in Montenegro and provide 30 percent of the foreign investment in the country. Although this historic decision comes at a time of high tensions for the NATO-Russia relations, the membership results from the culmination of a process that was initiated a long time ago.
The "Open Door Policy" of NATO, built into Article 10 of the Washington Treaty and a main pillar since its creation in 1949, was again successfully implemented. This sends a clear message to the other countries in the region that are queuing up to become part of the Alliance. It is an important signal to keep the Western Balkans in the Euro-Atlantic path. Countries can advance their integration agenda with both NATO and the EU, if they take the tough decisions for the future. Unfortunately, in recent years there have been doubts, setbacks, and challenges.
Accession of Macedonia was held up for a long time because of a disputed naming issue with Greece. Today, the situation is even more complicated. Macedonia is ensnared by a stalling political turmoil in the country with potential ethnic conflicts, which resulted in serious backsliding of the democratic reforms. On the other side, Bosnia and Hercegovina, with all its internal unresolved issues, is another aspirant country. Currently, it is expecting to receive the Membership Action Plan, pending the resolution of the issue concerning the immovable defense property, a process that is being blocked by Republica Srpska.
NATO enlargement has been a pillar of transformation in eastern and southeastern Europe, while the objective of the transatlantic community is "Europe, whole and free". The region settled into relative stability after the Balkans' conflict in the 1990s holding the belief that countries would be included in the Euro-Atlantic community, if they desired and met the standards. Today, stability and democracy in the western Balkans cannot be taken for granted anymore. Peace is still fragile, mainly because of internal issues of weak governance and authoritarian leaders.
Russia is stepping back into the western Balkans, smelling the vulnerabilities of people and institutions, high levels of public corruption, the dividing national politics, and scepticism about a better future. Kremlin is using a mix of hybrid tools to exploit regional stereotypes, ethnic tensions, and unresolved legacies of the conflicts of the 1990s. The main levers used are those of religious and cultural ties, financing of political parties, economic influence, and media.
The main objective is to weaken the relations of the western Balkans with the West, hinder the Euro-Atlantic enlargement process aiming to create a "non alignment zone" in the region. This is part of its bigger geo-political game.
The United States Senate's overwhelming support of Montenegro's membership is also a very important signal which confirms that the new U.S. Administration is committed to the region of the western Balkans, supporting its democratic transformation. Furthermore, Montenegro's accession reiterated the transatlantic unity on NATO and the strong commitment of the U.S. to European security.
NATO is the bedrock of the transatlantic unity. The Alliance is perceived as the essential organization for defence and security on both sides of the Atlantic, for 61 percent of Europeans and 58 percent of Americans. Other countries are aspiring to become members of this family. The truth is that the realities of the "Article 5 world" after the 2014 conflicts in Ukraine are bringing major changes to the process of enlargement. Perhaps, we will see another lengthy pause in the enlargement process following Montenegro.
Professor Valbona Zeneli is Program Director, Black Sea and Eurasia at the College of International and Security Studies, George C. Marshall Center - Garmisch, Germany. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.