NATO’s invitation to Montenegro to become its 29th member is an important step forward for the Alliance. The Brussels ministerial meeting on December 2 overcame any latent opposition to further NATO enlargement, demonstrated that the Alliance does not retreat in the face of Moscow’s threats, and indicated its commitment to bringing the entire Balkan peninsula under one effective security umbrella.
To date, NATO enlargement throughout Europe’s East has enhanced security, promoted stability, encouraged investment, fostered inter-state cooperation, and helped protect against future challenges to national integrity. However, since the accession of Croatia and Albania in April 2009, NATO leaders have been reticent in bringing in qualified candidates such as Montenegro or Macedonia and reluctant to even offer Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to aspirants such as Georgia and Ukraine, partly as a result of “out of area” missions and partly in attempts to pacify Russia.
After the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, NATO’s attention was riveted on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the broader Middle East. Throughout the 2000s, the European homeland was largely neglected as NATO capitals assumed that the continent was permanently safe from armed conflict. In the aftermath of Russia’s attack on Ukraine in early 2014, however, NATO is now returning to its core mission in Europe as the primary mechanism for mutual defense against outside aggression.
In announcing Montenegro’s invitation at the foreign ministers meeting in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg aimed his comments at Moscow. He underscored that every nation has the right to decide its own security arrangements and no one can interfere in that decision. Montenegro’s accession talks, or “technical negotiations,” will be completed early in 2016, but ratification by all NATO member state parliaments could take longer.
In Montenegro itself, the benefits of NATO accession must be explained more effectively, as there is still significant opposition to it, mostly among the sizeable Serbian population. Resistance to NATO accession is predominant among Serbs for two main reasons. First, they view NATO as an organization that bombed Serbia during the war over Kosovo in 1999. Second, they exhibit some latent nostalgia for Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia and membership in the now-defunct “Non-aligned Movement.” However, the era of neutrality is no longer credible, as NATO is developing into a security structure for the whole of democratic Europe.
Montenegro has no constitutional obligation to hold a referendum on membership in international organizations, and indeed few NATO members have organized such a vote. Parliament is likely to decide on accepting membership and the general elections scheduled for October 2016 will become a de facto plebiscite on NATO entry.
Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin has been adamantly opposed to further NATO enlargement. Following NATO’s invitation to Montenegro, Russian officials immediately asserted that they would be forced to react. But it is unclear what steps Moscow could take, as no European state seeks membership in organizations that Russia dominates, such as the Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and many former Soviet republics are seeking closer ties with the West as protection against Russia.
Quite possibly, the Kremlin may endeavor to destabilize the Western Balkans by supporting Serbian separatism in Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina or by stirring inter-ethnic conflicts in Macedonia and Kosovo. But Russia possesses no committed allies in the region and even Serbia uses Russia for diplomatic and economic purposes rather than having any ideological, political, or strategic commitments to the Kremlin.
Paradoxically, the Alliance response to Russia’s aggressive words and deeds can revitalize the core mission for which NATO was created. One essential component of this mission is to bring qualified European democracies into the organization both to enhance their security and to contribute to the security of the Alliance. In this strategic context, much of the Western Balkans still remain a missing piece in the NATO mosaic.
NATO interests throughout the Balkans have come into sharper relief since the onset of the war in Ukraine and the stark reality that forcible partition, territorial acquisition, and military aggression are realities that persist into the 21st century. To counter such temptations, the entire West Balkan zone needs to join the rest of the peninsula under the NATO umbrella.
As Central Europe has demonstrated, NATO accession enhances regional security, solidifies existing borders, promotes democratic consolidation, attracts foreign investment, and improves each country’s economic prospects. It will also help neutralize Moscow’s attempts to sow discord and conflict in the region, efforts designed to preoccupy Western capitals and shift attention away from its ambitions in the post-Soviet neighborhood.
Just as it led regional opposition to Slobodan Milosevic and helped to terminate the Yugoslav experiment, Montenegro can now take the lead in bringing the rest of the Balkans into the Alliance. Conversely, one of the most effective ways for NATO to demonstrate its own vitality and determination is to include Montenegro and underscore that all remaining West Balkan states will become members.
Montenegro’s inclusion in NATO represents a congruence of both interests and values. NATO is not only a military alliance, but also a community of democracies membership in which brings several practical domestic and regional benefits. Accession will eliminate any doubts about Montenegro’s future and encourage Western investment, rather than the corrupt and politically linked Russian investment witnessed in recent years. It will bring the entire Adriatic coastline within the NATO zone and thereby assist in joint operations and interoperability in such endeavors as emergency response, humanitarian assistance, anti-smuggling, and anti-terrorist coastal patrols. In addition, it will boost confidence in Montenegro during its already advanced accession talks into the European Union.
Montenegro’s membership will also encourage Serbia to look toward a NATO future. While this will necessitate a political decision by Belgrade, Serbia’s military appears to support NATO entry, as membership would help modernize the armed forces. Montenegro can also encourage Bosnia-Herzegovina to push toward accession and move Kosovo in the same direction as it develops its security structure. Additionally, a new initiative is needed to bring Macedonia into NATO and overcome the veto that Greece continues to wield in opposition to the country’s name.
If this ambitious agenda is accomplished, there will be no black holes or grey zones left in the Western Balkans and common security will enhance inter-state cooperation in other spheres, from culture and education to economic investment, energy linkages, and infrastructural development. The Balkan states have been misperceived as the land of ancient hatreds. Now, they have the chance finally to assume a modern identity as a zone of ethnic, religious, and inter-state coexistence.