It’s been a busy week for Montenegro’s Prime Minister Milo Ðukanović: The speaker of parliament was removed and the premier put a clutch of opposition politicians in his cabinet to form an interim government that will serve until October’s general elections, when Ðukanović intends to secure an eighth term. Then, on Thursday, he signed Montenegro’s accession protocol with NATO.
Back in Podgorica this weekend, he’ll celebrate the 1oth anniversary of independence from Serbia of a country whose 623,000 inhabitants remain largely skeptical both of the drift from Belgrade and of membership in the military alliance whose warplanes bombed Montenegro only 16 years ago.
In its enthusiasm for wresting Montenegro from Moscow’s sphere of influence, NATO has glossed over that fact that the 54-year-old head of Montenegro’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) is the longest-serving leader in any Eastern or Central European country since the collapse of communism. Đukanović has capitalized on the West’s anxieties over Russia’s attempts to cement its traditional Balkan alliances in Serbia and Montenegro.
“When trouble starts in the Western Balkans, Europe needs to send money, lots of it” — Milo Ðukanović
In deciding to go West in 2014, and bet on future membership of NATO and the European Union, he risked the loss of Russian revenues in tourism, trade, and real estate investment. That year, he backed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine at the U.N. and went to Washington to ask Vice President Joe Biden to urge NATO to expand further east in response to the Ukraine crisis. Last December, after 10 years of lobbying and despite Moscow’s anger, he received an invitation to join the Western alliance.
The signing of NATO coincides with the 10th anniversary of independence. What does all this mean to you?
Milo Ðukanović: It’s an acknowledgment that Montenegro made a wise geo-strategic choice. As for our fear of Moscow’s anger, we’ve not been hiding our ambitions, not from our neighbors and not from our traditional ally Russia. Even before declaring independence, we said clearly that we want to determine our own future and that future is in NATO and the EU. We remain on this path until we reach our destination. We understand that Russia is an important player on the global stage. We also understand that Moscow is particularly sensitive to NATO’s expansion. Relations between the U.S. and Russia, and the EU and Russia, are severely strained and Montenegro’s accession comes at a very sensitive — and for some, unfortunate — time. But we are committed to working side by side with our NATO partners, in good times and bad.
What can NATO do for you, and what can you do for NATO?
NATO has now completed the line (of defense) in the northern part of the Mediterranean. It has also brought its value system deeper into our region. Perhaps they became aware of the fact that as long as countries of the Western Balkans are left wondering between the East and West there will be no security and stability in Europe. We have seen this in the 1990s. When Europe stopped paying attention to what then was Yugoslavia we were plunged into wars that turned into ethnic cleansing. Why? Our level of economic and democratic development in the region is such that it does not allow political flexibility or cultural diversity to flourish.
What’s the answer? The answer is development. And on what level is development possible? On the level that makes the prospect of joining EU and NATO a realistic goal for nations. Don’t keep us in the past. Don’t impose the old matrix on us because the consequences will be painful for Europe. When trouble starts in the Western Balkans, Europe needs to send money, lots of it. It has to put the lives of its soldiers on the line, along with American ones. I believe that integration is another word for stability in the Western Balkans. I think they understood this in NATO and opened the door.
Wasn’t it more a message to Moscow?
As I said, Moscow is a big player on the global stage. The desire to exert its interests beyond its borders is natural, especially in the areas where it has historical allies. But it’s the same for NATO. The alliance has its own interests, it has its own value system and a desire to promote it in the parts of the world where it has not prospered until now.
So by admitting Montenegro, NATO has prevented a Macedonia-like unraveling in the region?
We are very concerned with the situation in Macedonia. It’s making the whole region extremely vulnerable. Bosnia is paralyzed on the economic, political and social level. Serbia and Kosovo, well, they are talking, but it’s very much at the beginning stage and it will take a long time for them to form a relationship. It’s been 20 years since the Dayton Peace Agreements. A lot of time has been lost and some has been wasted, leaving questions unanswered and flashpoints kindled. A spark always lights a fire in the Balkans. It’s very important for the stability of the region that we help Bosnia become a functioning state; that Belgrade and Priština keep talking and that we lift the blockade of Macedonia’s entry into the EU and NATO.
How will you manage Russian anger and balance your strategic interests with the economic ones?
I don’t think that Russian investments could be a serious motivation for Moscow to engage in a negative way with us. Russia does not want to target us directly. It just wants to be heard saying how unhappy it is over NATO’s continued expansion. Russia once had more investments than it has now. The especially valuable one was in the aluminum industry but the agreement folded and today the Russian investor and the state of Montenegro are trying to resolve the break up with international mediation. We hope it will be settled soon. I’d say Russia (as a state) does not have significant economic investments in Montenegro. There are many Russian citizens who own property on the coast where they spend their vacation, and that’s about it.
It took 10 years to convince NATO to take you in. How long do you need to convince Montenegrins that it’s the right thing to do?
Opposition to NATO has existed throughout history in all countries of former Yugoslavia. Our history is filled with wars and most of them had a noble reason behind them — a struggle for freedom, for independence. But like the rest of the Western Balkan nations, history is a burden for Montenegro. These wars have set us back, not forward. They have diverted us from the path to progress. Montenegro today has a thriving economy in Western Balkans. In the past 10 years our economy grew on average 3,2 percent a year, mostly because of the rise in direct foreign investments that amount to 19 percent of our GDP.
“It’s important to know that people who are for NATO are not for war and they are not against Russia” — Milo Ðukanović
But what does it say about us when I say we are doing well with €6,000 GDP per capita compared to an average of €28,000 in Europe? That all Western Balkan states have fallen decades behind and there’s a desperate need to turn around. What we are doing with accession to NATO is that turnaround. We want to elevate the standard of living and catch up with Europe, where we belong geographically and culturally. It’s not easy.
There is a battle going on in Montenegro and across the Balkans, between the past and the future; between those who want to keep Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries in the old matrix even though that brought us to the bottom of Europe. It’s important to know that people who are for NATO are not for war and they are not against Russia. They are for a new system of values, for market economy, democracy and the rule of law. Some countries in the region are stuck at a crossroads, debating whether to turn East or West. This ambivalence is motivating Russia and the U.S. to be active in this region, which is good. We’ve made our decision and we are sticking with it.
Don’t Russia and Serbia have a powerful tool in the Orthodox church that opposes NATO and the EU?
That’s very true, they do. There are anti-NATO forces in political parties of the opposition, in part of the NGO community, and part of the media. But the backbone of the opposition to NATO in Montenegro is the Serbian Orthodox Church. It has been a fierce opponent of our independence. It’s shameless in its claims that Montenegro cannot make it on its own because it’s too small and should have therefore remained married to Serbia and have worked for Russia’s interests. It’s remarkable that the church is confronting the state so openly and relentlessly.
Unfortunately, it is our reality. It’s a price that Montenegro has been paying since the tragic end of World War I when the territory was annexed to Serbia and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church was dissolved. Since then the Serbian Orthodox Church has waged war against an independent Montenegrin state and it continues to do so long after the citizens of the country made their choice. It’s remarkable that the Church persists even after the Serbian government has given up this stance. Earlier, the Serbian state institutions actively supported anti-Montenegrin parties. I can say today that the support has subsided under the leadership ofAleksandar Vučić. Serbia is focused on its own future within the EU, working on improving relations with its neighbors, including with Montenegro. That’s encouraging for us. What concerns us is the Serbian Orthodox Church acting like it knows better and trying to shift strategic interests in a different direction.
You mentioned the 1990s and how the circumstances have changed. But you remain in power. As a leader of the past can you lead into the future?
It’s true, for the past 25 years I have held the most important leadership posts in Montenegro. Mostly I was the prime minister and I also served one five-year mandate as president. I left politics twice, voluntarily, in 2006 and in 2010, but the need arose for me to return. Twice. For me, too, this is a long time to be engaged in politics. I had different plans in life and they would no doubt make my life easier and more comfortable. But I took on this duty at a time when Yugoslavia was falling apart. I had to manage that problem. Then later I needed to stir the country to independence. Now I am finalizing the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. What are my plans for the future? At the moment, I am thinking about the elections in October fully determined to win.