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Montenegro Is the Latest Domino to Fall Toward Russia

After parliamentary elections, a pro-West government is out. Europe and the United States should take note.

By , an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and
People wave national and European flags during a post-election rally in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Sept. 6
People wave national and European flags during a post-election rally in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Sept. 6
People wave national and European flags during a post-election rally in Podgorica, Montenegro, on Sept. 6 Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

A recent parliamentary election in Montenegro may have attracted little notice outside the country, but it will have outsized repercussions for the international order. Strongman President Milo Djukanovic has been in power for nearly 30 years at the helm of his pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists, which lost its bid for reelection in the Aug. 30 vote, although Djukanovic will stay president until 2023. Taking the Democratic Party of Socialists’ place is a pro-Russian and pro-Serbian-led alliance, which has given Moscow an ally not just within NATO, but potentially within the European Union. It’s high time the EU wakes up and does something to stem Russian President Vladimir Putin’s creeping influence in the Balkans.

The newly formed coalition of opposition parties set to lead the small Balkan state have notionally agreed to continue Djukanovic’s pro-Western tilt, but that is unlikely to stop the festivities in the Kremlin. After all, the new coalition’s first goal, according to one of its leaders, is to lift the country’s sanctions on Russia. And although much of the Montenegrin public may be cheering the end of Djukanovic’s autocratic rule, the happiness is likely to be short-lived. Their small nation is just the latest Balkan domino to fall toward Moscow.

A longtime Moscow ally, Montenegro split from both pro-Russian Serbia and Russia in 2006, following a new pro-Western path geared toward joining NATO. Seeing NATO’s expansion eastward as a threat, Russia lobbied hard to dissuade Montenegro from joining the alliance. In 2016, the Kremlin even went so far as to back a coup attempt. Nonetheless, Montenegro joined NATO in 2017.

A recent parliamentary election in Montenegro may have attracted little notice outside the country, but it will have outsized repercussions for the international order. Strongman President Milo Djukanovic has been in power for nearly 30 years at the helm of his pro-Western Democratic Party of Socialists, which lost its bid for reelection in the Aug. 30 vote, although Djukanovic will stay president until 2023. Taking the Democratic Party of Socialists’ place is a pro-Russian and pro-Serbian-led alliance, which has given Moscow an ally not just within NATO, but potentially within the European Union. It’s high time the EU wakes up and does something to stem Russian President Vladimir Putin’s creeping influence in the Balkans.

The newly formed coalition of opposition parties set to lead the small Balkan state have notionally agreed to continue Djukanovic’s pro-Western tilt, but that is unlikely to stop the festivities in the Kremlin. After all, the new coalition’s first goal, according to one of its leaders, is to lift the country’s sanctions on Russia. And although much of the Montenegrin public may be cheering the end of Djukanovic’s autocratic rule, the happiness is likely to be short-lived. Their small nation is just the latest Balkan domino to fall toward Moscow.

A longtime Moscow ally, Montenegro split from both pro-Russian Serbia and Russia in 2006, following a new pro-Western path geared toward joining NATO. Seeing NATO’s expansion eastward as a threat, Russia lobbied hard to dissuade Montenegro from joining the alliance. In 2016, the Kremlin even went so far as to back a coup attempt. Nonetheless, Montenegro joined NATO in 2017.

Such setbacks aside, Russia and its political fellow travelers in Serbia continue to enjoy enormous influence in the country. Moscow remains the biggest foreign direct investor in Montenegro, and it wields the Serbian Orthodox Church as a powerful weapon. Putin worked through the church to fight Montenegro’s independence from Serbia in 2006, and its NATO bid. The new ruling coalition in Podgorica is dominated by an alliance of Serbian nationalist parties known as For the Future of Montenegro, which is backed by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Moscow-leaning Serbian Orthodox Church not only is the largest religious institution in Montenegro but also hopes to position itself as one of the state’s most decisive political players. The church supported the leader of the For the Future of Montenegro party, Zdravko Krivokapic, and even before this election it united diverse communities by organizing massive religious-political gatherings.

Serbia also did its best to ensure a congenial outcome to Montenegro’s elections, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic crowed over the results. As well he should have—Vucic’s government financed Serbian organizations in Montenegro to the tune of almost $2 million, resulting in massive displays of Serbian nationalism in Podgorica during the election. Djukanovic accused Serbia of election meddling, which Serbia denies.

All this bodes ill for Montenegrins, who can look forward to more nationalism and deeper divisions within their society. Democratization and the development of civil society will inevitably suffer. Despite the international community’s best efforts, Montenegrin politics is regressing back toward the 1990s.

Thus, the international community should pay attention to what happens in this small Balkan country, too. As the Kremlin’s influence expands in the Balkans, the risks of conflict grow with it. Montenegro is important for Russia because of its location on the Adriatic Sea and its associated naval presence.

Nipping Moscow’s influence will require some fast work. Montenegro is in negotiations to join the European Union, but it has not yet done so. The process of the EU membership must be accelerated. And NATO itself must ensure the integrity of the Montenegrin security sector so that Russian allies don’t have access to sensitive NATO information. The best way to do that is to fashion a cybersecurity hub in Montenegro—an ideal headquarters to counter Moscow’s increasingly aggressive cyberintrusions and troll farms in the region.

Similarly, Brussels must warn Serbia—in the midst of its own negotiations to join the EU—that it can neither remain Russia’s main foothold in the Balkans nor continue its interference in Montenegrin politics. After a U.S.-brokered deal that normalized economic ties between Kosovo and Serbia earlier this month—and as a consequence angered the Kremlin—the U.S. National Security Council congratulated Vucic on his courage to confront Russia. Serbia’s relations with Montenegro will be the litmus test for whether or not Serbia is shifting its foreign-policy goals toward the West.

In 2018, a year after the occasion of Montenegro’s NATO accession, U.S. President Donald Trump infamously warned that defending a small NATO ally in Montenegro could lead to World War III. Europe’s leaders are well known for their reluctance in managing conflicts in their ever-growing neighborhood. But they would do well to recall that the 1990s crisis in the Balkans resulted in the bloodiest conflict Europe had seen since World War II. Without action, the continent may well be forced to watch as another conflict ignites with little warning.

Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Milan Jovanović is a research fellow at the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

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