The authorities in Podgorica say they are optimistic that the US Senate will soon give a green light to Montenegro’s membership of NATO – an issue which some US media claim could represent the first test of the new Washington administration’s relations with Russia.
Montenegro is keen to become the alliance’s 29th member but concerns have been raised that President Donald Trump’s Republican administration might want to slow the process or even stop it.
Amid concerns about the growing presence in the Balkans of Russia, which opposes NATO expansion, the accession protocol was not on the agenda of the three Senate sessions last week, although it was expected to be ratified at the first sitting after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President on January 20.
Another reason for concern is that no new date for a possible vote on Montenegro was set.
Russia’s allies in the opposition in Montenegro hope that Trump’s friendly attitude towards Moscow could mean that the ratification process remains blocked in the Senate.
Savo Kentera, chair of the Atlantic Council, a Montenegrin branch of the Washington-based think tank, believes US approval is just a matter of time, however, and said Montenegro’s membership in NATO is not in question.
“It is irrelevant whether Montenegro has to wait days or weeks before the US advances its membership but that process is indisputable and there is no return,” Kentera told BIRN.
Although Trump has been critical of NATO, even calling it “obsolete”, while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kentera said there was no question of the US changing course now on NATO enlargement.
He believes the US Senate did not vote on Montenegro so far because the new administration has other priorities, not because there has been some new turn in relations with Russia.
Some media commentators in Washington have suggested, however, that warmer US relations with Moscow are behind the delay in the vote on Montenegro’s NATO bid.
A comment published by the Hill magazine, which covers the US Congress, said that only a few years ago such a vote would have been a matter of form, noting that the US backed Slovenia, Croatia and Albania joining the alliance years ago.
“Trump’s election has ignited a debate over the future of the North Atlantic Alliance. Without the new administration’s support, Montenegro’s bid could be doomed,” the magazine suggested.
Given Moscow’s strong and sustained objection to Montenegro’s NATO accession, a “No” vote on the Senate floor, or no vote at all, “would be a win for Russia”, the Hill’s comment said.
Both NATO and Montenegrin officials insist the country will become a full member of the alliance by this spring.
Meeting Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic in Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed concerns that the US Senate might not ratify the accession agreement on Montenegro.
“It has already passed the Foreign Relation Committee and has strong bi-partisan support so I have no reason to not believe that that will also be the case in the Senate,” he said.
Responding to concerns that Trump might weigh in negatively on ratification, Markovic told reporters that he was not worried, either.
“We have full support for this ratification and we are sure, absolutely certain, that it will take place very soon,” Markovic said.
NATO endorsed the accession bid at its summit in Warsaw in 2016. So far, 22 of 28 NATO allies have approved the accession protocol and the endorsement of the US would encourage the others to give a green light.
Montenegro’s bid to become the 29th member of the alliance was strongly backed by the US administration under former president Barack Obama who initiated the ratification process in June 2016.