Montenegro’s Dukanovic: Western Indifference Could Push Balkans Away

Montenegrin President Milo Dukanovic, in the midst of a tough reelection campaign that ends with Sunday’s voting, issued a stern warning to the West in a Wednesday interview sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace. Support for his country remaining as an active NATO member and for joining the European Union is threatened by Western Europe’s apparent lack of interest in the western Balkans.

Dukanovic further warned that Serbia, from which his country split off in 2006, continues to work to destabilize not only Montenegro but also Kosovo, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and North Macedonia. Just as Russia has escalated its campaign to regain control of former USSR satellite nations Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus (with major success despite the ongoing war in Ukraine), Serbia wants to rule over its smaller neighbors and take away their fledgling independence.

In opening remarks, USIP CEO and president Lise Grande and Dr. A. Wess Mitchell, senior advisor or USIP’s Center for Russia and Europe, gave Dukanovic free rein to describe the western Balkans’ opportunities for full integration with western Europe and the obstacles that threaten that very positive step toward bringing an end to ongoing, often violent, conflicts east of the Adriatic Sea.

Both Russia and Serbia, united by a very politicized Orthodox Church hierarchy, seek to restore their geopolitical importance by infringing on the sovereignty of their neighbor nations, Dukanovic reiterated. He added that these anti-democratic policies are not getting the proper answer from Western partners, especially as it pertains to Serbian soft aggression.

Russia showed its destructive capacity in the Balkans back in the 1990s when 150,000 died, and since 2013 Russia has been waging war all across Europe by encouraging retrograde policies and through active aggression. Russia has also worked to block every serious breakthrough as Balkan nations seek to build functional Western-style governments and to prevent their integration into the European Union.

Serbia, which lost Kosovo long ago, lost its war against NATO, and lost Montenegro, still hopes to restore its hegemony over the western Balkans. Yet, Dukanovic laments, Western nations have been all too willing to grant concessions to Serbia that reinforce its efforts to weaken the ability of its neighbors to join with the West. Thus these concessions undermine all the good work Balkan nations have done to accomplish that goal.

Even today, as Montenegro and its Balkan neighbors have rallied in support of Ukraine against Russian aggression, the lukewarm efforts by Western European nations have led many Montenegrin and other Balkan leaders to question their prior decisions to choose the rule of law over the rule of power. The entire region is now in grave danger of falling back into dependency on Russian-Serbian influences.

Dukanovic, who has for three decades led his people toward the West, explained that Montenegrins are for the fifth time back at the same crossroad they faced in 1995, in 1999-2000 (leading to the overthrow of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic), in 2006 (when they declared independence), and in 2016-17 (when after a failed coup attempt they joined NATO).

His reelection – or rejection – will be an indicator of how the nation will vote in parliamentary elections schedule in May that will shape the nation’s immediate (and possibly long-term) future. His opponent, Jakov Milatovic, while of the Europe Now! Party, will be reliant on votes from supporters of pro-Serbian Andrija Mandic, and thus more subject to Serbian soft power and influence that contrasts with his 30-year consistency in making Montenegro a truly European nation.

But Dukanovic’s vision ranges far beyond his nation’s borders. He laments that the chief goal of the 1995 Dayton Agreement, formally known as the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to enable both to become free, independent nations, has yet to be fully achieved. Serbia, he notes, still wants to rule over Kosovo (and Montenegro), and North Macedonia still has issues with Greece (though there has been a tectonic shift from Athens that has brought North Macedonia into NATO, its entry into the European Union is also stalled).

In response to questions from an online audience, Dukanovic asserted that both Balkan and Western European nations make serious mistakes by selfishly emphasizing national interests while ignoring the common interest of weakening Russian and Serbian counterproductive efforts to continue to destabilize a Europe over which they seek hegemony.

Secondly, Dukanovic urges all parties to respect the momentum behind Balkan nations’ efforts to integrate – and thus to not be sidelined by relatively minor demands (such as forcing North Macedonia to amend its constitution to satisfy a Bulgarian complaint).

It is his fervent hope that the security-threatening crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will enable all affected parties to eliminate the obstacles that continue to slow the integration of Montenegro and its western Balkan neighbor states into a free and prosperous Euro-Atlantic alliance. Should that happen, Serbia, too, might opt to fully join the West.

This weekend’s elections – and those in May – may be a catalyst for breaking this logjam. If Montenegro chooses sincere Europe-centered leaders (in a nation in which 75 percent profess support for EU membership), that might spur the entire region to close the deal. If these elections, however, go the other way, things could quickly (again) go downhill.

[Photo (cropped) by U.S. Department of State, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

The author is a senior policy analyst for the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and a frequent writer on world affairs.

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