Podgorica, Montenegro – A host of complex factors push the Adriatic nation of Montenegro to strike a delicate balance when it comes to foreign policy.
Since its independence from Serbia in 2006, Montenegro has mainly pursued a pro-Western foreign policy.
Having joined NATO in 2017, the Balkan country values its relations with Washington, London, Brussels and Berlin.
Yet, at the same time, Montenegro has historically been close to Russia, which shares Slavic and Orthodox heritage.
Montenegro’s NATO membership was important for Western powers and today they want Podgorica to toe the line against Moscow.
“Given Russia’s base in Syria, increasing its influence in Montenegro could facilitate [Moscow’s] connecting the Adriatic to the Mediterranean,” Dilek Kütük, an analyst based in Skopje, told Al Jazeera.
“With Serbia, it could pose a threat to the center of Europe. This was unacceptable for NATO.
Russian tourists and investors have been extremely important for Montenegro’s economy.
But Podgorica backed Washington and Brussels sanctions against Russia in 2014, in response to events in Crimea and the Donbass, which caused some friction in bilateral relations. So did the alleged Russian-backed coup attempt in 2016 and Montenegro’s entry into NATO the following year.
Despite all this, Montenegrin-Russian economic relations remained strong. Russia, as the first foreign investor in Montenegro, invests a lot of money in the real estate and tourism sectors of the Balkan country.
In 2019, Russia accounted for 26% of foreign investment in the Montenegrin economy. Lax laws on foreign investment have made Montenegro attractive to some – and such policies have not failed to attract dodgy companies and oligarchs from Russia.
Since February 24, Montenegrins have been worried about the effects of the Russian-Ukrainian war on their country’s economy.
Very dependent on Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian tourists, this conflict and the sanctions imposed on Moscow should hit tourism revenues this summer while preventing, or at least severely limiting, new Russian investment in this country.
With a hotel industry battered by two consecutive summers of COVID-19, Montenegrins had high hopes for travel-hungry visitors from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.
Simply put, this war could not have come at a worse time for Montenegro’s tourism sector.
Complex domestic dynamics
Montenegrin identity politics and deep internal divisions complicate Podgorica’s position on Ukraine.
On the one hand, pro-Western politicians believe that Podgorica should support Kyiv’s alignment with NATO. Still, pro-Serb groups in the country, such as the Democratic Front, advocate neutrality, not wanting Montenegro to downgrade its historic ties with Moscow.
“The question of a pro-Russian or pro-Western alignment fuels a long-standing fissure in Montenegrin politics and identity. Montenegrins demonstrated in favor of Ukraine while Serbian nationalists in Montenegro demonstrated in favor of Russia,” said Marco Attila Hoare, historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology.
“With the population of Montenegro divided between supporters of independence who identify as Montenegrin or who belong to ethnic minorities, and those who oppose independence and identify with Serbia, it is mainly the the former who came across as pro-Ukrainian and the latter as pro-Russian camp.”
However, not everyone in the pro-Belgrade camp supports Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Some are in favor of neutrality, citing the NATO bombing of Podgorica in 1999 and their fears of becoming a “puppet state” of the United States. They are also determined to preserve Montenegro’s long-standing ties with Russia and Slavic countries.
Others who support a neutral stance see NATO’s eastward expansion as a factor that spurred the conflict, though they criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the perceived Ukrainian threat to Russia. .
Yet some hardline factions in Montenegro openly support Russia’s war.
For example, during a demonstration in Niksic, some Montenegrins expressed support for “Russia’s attempts to protect their people in Ukraine” while waving Russian and Serbian flags.
A slogan seen on a banner read “Serbs in Montenegro – Russians in Ukraine”. While driving in Montenegro recently, this author noticed the pro-war Z symbol spray-painted in some areas.
‘Fertile ground for outside influence’
Meanwhile, the country’s leadership has been unable to balance Montenegrin and Serbian identities and experts say the governments in Belgrade and Podgorica bear the blame.
“The Serbian government is still grappling with the idea that the two are no longer part of the same union and that Montenegro’s foreign policy will not follow that of Serbia. The Montenegrin government has also not done enough to accommodate the Serbian community, and instead the regime is using it as a scapegoat,” Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told AlJazeera.
“In the divided society, where one of the brothers declares himself Serbian and the other Montenegrin, political ruptures are fertile ground for outside influences.”
The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro is “the elephant in the room,” as Dusica Tomovic, editor-in-chief of Balkan Insight, put it.
Closely linked to Russia, this religious institution is politically influential in Montenegro.
“Anyone who is supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church… will benefit enormously from this support,” Tomovic said. “So now even the current government cannot risk worsening relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church.”
But Podgorica has taken concrete action against Russia since February 24.
These include cracking down on Russian media, ordering Russian diplomats to leave Montenegro, suspending flights, banning transactions with the Central Bank of Russia, banning Russian overflight of airspace Montenegrin and to pledge this month to join all EU sanctions.
Nevertheless, even the new government of pro-EU Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic can only go so far in terms of measures that could upset the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.
The war in Ukraine has reduced the margin of geopolitical neutrality in Europe, leaving Montenegro in a difficult situation.
The former Yugoslav republic’s challenges to this conflict underscore how the growing bifurcation of the global political economy between East and West is deepening long-standing fractures in the Western Balkans.
The longer the war continues, the harder it will be for Montenegro to weather the most serious post-1945 security crisis in Europe.