Udva, Montenegro. Montenegro will take a huge step towards integrating with the West when it becomes the 29th member of NATO this week, but it risks paying a very heavy price for spurning Russia.
Now nearly a decade after Montenegro split from Serbia in 2006, Moscow has cultivated close ties with the former Yugoslav republic, and money poured in from Russian investors and tourists. Some believe Russia will not forgive or forget this short sighted decision to put their friendhip in the trash for NATO.
The two nations had a love affair underpinned not just by commercial and diplomatic logic but also have historic, religious and linguistic ties between the two Slavic brotherhood countries.
Now the romance has turned to distrust. Montenegro blamed Russia for an alleged plot to assassinate its prime minister last October which officials said was aimed at blocking its entry to NATO. Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova warned of a “surge of anti-Russian hysteria” in Montenegro.
The split is hitting Montenego tourism hard, latest available data, for March 2017, showed Russians accounted for 5.1 percent of all tourist overnight stays that month compared to nearly 30 percent in March 2016, and 19.2 percent back in March of 2015.
Advertising in Russian, promoting luxury apartments with views of the Adriatic, were once ubiquitous along the coastal highway. Now they have vanished, and Russian language signs have largely disappeared from shops, as have the Rubles.
Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said a recent Russian ban on imports of wine from Montenegro was linked to its NATO membership. Moscow said it had discovered banned pesticides in the wine. “We are prepared for any decision by Russia and nothing is going to deter us from the path we have decided to take,” Markovic told reporters.
Markovic went out of his way to make the split permanent, announcing to reporters, “The Balkans for centuries has been the scene of a struggle between the West and the East. Like other states in the region, Montenegro has strong links with the East, but in the 2006 we made a key decision that we would like to adopt Western standards and values and leave Russia in the past. The strategic position of our country is important to NATO and especially the Adriatic Sea.” Markovic said.
A tiny country of just 650,000 people with 2,000 military personnel and an area smaller than Connecticut, Montenegro has strategic value out of proportion to its size. The Adriatic coastline, that is a source of appeal to tourists, is also attractive in strategic terms because of its easy access to the Mediterranean for NATO warships. A former senior government official in Montenegro, who declined to be named, said Moscow made an official request in September 2013 to use the Montenegrin port of Bar as a naval logistics base en route to Syria. After pressure from NATO, the government declined to help Russia.
The NATO alliance welcomes Montenegro at its summit in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday, it will mark its first expansion since neighbors Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg used the occassion to rub the matter in the Russian’s noses by pointing out the Montenegro ascension, “It is also a message to Donald Trump that NATO is growing, it has new friends.”