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The Living Alliance: Montenegro’s Accession to NATO

By: Trevor Herden

Montenegro, nestled between Serbia and the Adriatic Sea in the Balkans, is home to about 600,000 people, split largely among ethnic Montenegrins and Serbians. With historic ties to Russia, but trending towards greater connection with the west, Montenegro is well-positioned to be an important regional actor. Montenegro’s accession to NATO in 2017 is the culmination of a decade-long undertaking and juxtaposes a much-changed world when the process began in 2006.  The reforms necessary, the opposition from Russia, and the international political ramifications make Montenegro’s accession an interesting case study for the contemporary world.

The process for membership began in 2006, nearly immediately after Montenegro became independent from Serbia. Beginning with a “Partnership for Peace” agreement, Montenegro allowed NATO troops passage through the country, along with general understandings designed to “increase stability, diminish threats to peace and build strengthened security relationships between NATO and non-member countries in the Euro-Atlantic area.”

Cooperation deepened between Montenegro and NATO in 2009, when Montenegro signed a Membership Action Plan (MAP) with NATO detailing military, security, and civil reforms to be adopted to obtain full NATO membership. While a Partnership for Peace agreement has laxer standards for inclusion and exists to begin confidence building, a Membership Action Plan is a concrete agreement that, in theory, leads to accession to the alliance.

Despite the Partnership for Peace and MAP agreements, the only legal requirement for membership in NATO is unanimity among the current members. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates, “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” The steps taken by Montenegro in its accession, such as the Partnership for Peace and MAP agreements, are methods by which to build willingness among the current members to accept new member states. Once unanimity is achieved, the only other legal step to be taken by the acceding state is to deposit its “instrument of accession” with the United States.

While many of the reforms required in the MAP were purely administrative and focused on allowing Montenegrin forces to successfully interoperate with other NATO forces, other reforms required deeper change. They included reforms such as the acquisition of specific weapon systems, changes in civil-military relations, and disaster preparedness. In addition, during the MAP period, Montenegro deployed troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, where nearly twenty percent of Montenegro’s land forces were rotated through the country.

While NATO membership was a priority for the government of then-Prime Minister Đukanović, it was not without critics. The accession was opposed both internally and externally by the pro-Russia Democratic Front, and eventually by Russia itself. The Democratic Front was a staunch NATO-opponent. Undoubtedly, Russia has had a long historic interest in the Balkans and that influence does not recede overnight. The Democratic Front became the conduit through which an alleged coup was plotted in 2015 to overthrow the government and install a pro-Russia party in power.

The coup attempt came on the heels of massive anti-corruption protests against the Đukanović government. In October 2016, just prior to parliamentary elections, Russian agents working with local Montenegrins planned to assassinate Prime Minister Đukanović and overthrow his government. Guards in stolen Montenegrin police uniforms were to occupy the Parliament, then the Democratic Front would declare victory and its supporters would rush the building only to be shot by the supposed police. The killings were to be used as justification for the Democratic Front to then seize power. If not for a last-minute confession by one of the conspirators, it may have succeeded. The stakes for membership were extremely high.

While Russia’s involvement, which is officially denied, is a breach of international law, it is unlikely to produce any changes in behavior. A basic standard of international law is the international law of state responsibility, which stipulates the international obligations of states to one another. The principle of good-neighborliness focuses on avoiding hostile relations among countries. Certainly, supporting a coup is a hostile action; however, sanctioning such behavior extremely difficult. The failure of the coup and the accession of Montenegro to NATO is likely the strongest repudiation possible.

Finally, full agreement for Montenegro’s accession was granted in March 2017. The U.S. Congress voted in favor of admitting Montenegro as a full member of the alliance. The agreement was signed by President Trump just a few days later, albeit with his own unique reservations, elucidated later in the year. Nonetheless, with the accession of Montenegro, NATO gained its twenty-ninth member and nearly complete membership along the Adriatic coast, a vital strategic area in any potential European conflict.

While Montenegro is the latest state to join that treaty organization, it is likely not going to be the last. NATO has Partnership for Peace agreements with a number of other Balkan states, such as the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Bosnia Herzegovina. So long as Russian aggression continues, and NATO remains cohesive, there will be incentive for countries to seek inclusion in the alliance.

The continued interest in NATO membership is a signal of how even in the current international climate there is still value in multilateral cooperation. The list of future potential NATO members is long, and in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia, even Sweden and Finland have more closely aligned themselves with the organization, participating in the latest, largest set of war games by NATO since the Cold War. In the Balkans, the successful accession of Montenegro is a model that can hopefully be replicated by FYROM, Bosnia, and others to build a bulwark that will keep Europe safe in this century just like it did in the last.

The desire to participate in the rules-based international order is alive and well. By following through on its drive for membership, Montenegro has placed a significant bet on where the world is heading. That such a small country has spoken so strongly is impressive. NATO is alive and well.

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