The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution on Wednesday supporting Montenegro’s accession to NATO, in a second attempt to push the Balkan’s country membership bid.
The committee passed a resolution in December 2016, but the full Senate did not reach consensus on Montenegro before the end of the year.
The US Constitution requires a two-thirds vote in the 100-member house for approval of new NATO members.
Voice of America, VOA, reported that the committee chairman Bob Corker said he hoped for “swift action” in the Senate this year.
Reuters news agency reported that the committee voted shortly after concluding a nine-hour confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. During the hearing, Tillerson expressed support for NATO despite Trump’s past criticism of the alliance.
The Foreign Relations Committee vote took place amid doubts raised in the US and in local media that the Senate would approve the protocol, partly due to expectations of warmer relations between Moscow and Washington after Donald Trump becomes President.
Russia, once Montenegro’s close ally, strongly opposes NATO expansion, which some US-based experts see as an obstacle to the protocol securing a majority in the Senate in the light of the impending Trump presidency.
Russia’s allies and followers in Montenegro hope that friendlier US attitudes towards Moscow could mean ratification being blocked in the Senate.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the US and an expert on the Balkans, doubted this.
He voiced concern about the priorities of the incoming US administration but said he believed no one in the Senate “wants to slow down the ratification [of Montenegro] under Russian influence.
“If Trump fails to support Montenegro’s accession to NATO, there is a possibility of Montenegro falling into Russian hands,” Serwer told Montenegrin newspaper Pobjeda on Monday.
NATO endorsed the accession bid at its summit in Warsaw in 2016. So far, 22 of the 28 NATO member states have approved the accession protocol and endorsement by the US would likely send a powerful signal to the others to give the green light.
Montenegrins remain divided about joining NATO, however. A recent poll suggested only about 45 per cent of the population support membership.
NATO remains especially controversial in Montenegro’s large ethnic Serbian community because of the role it played in enabling the former Serbian province of Kosovo to break away from Belgrade and in bombing Serbia. Many Serbs resent the way their country’s pro-Western government has loosened ties with Russia.