realclearworld Newsletters: Europe Memo

The New NATO Outpost in the Adriatic
AP Photo/Risto Bozovic
The New NATO Outpost in the Adriatic
AP Photo/Risto Bozovic
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PODGORICA — At less than 200,000 inhabitants, Montenegro’s biggest city does not have the feel of a capital. It’s not only that it’s small -- bombed to bits by Allied powers in World War II, the city known for decades thereafter as Titograd seems to sleep. Lonesome markers of a lost past -- ivy-covered residential ruins, the call to prayer from a mosque in the Old Town -- sit amid platoons of Cold War Yugoslav hardscrabble. The train to Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia, takes about half of an ordinary day. Sitting down to a meal at a restaurant tabbed for its mastery of the Montenegrin national cuisine, I notice that the people around me -- diplomats, EU functionaries? Wayward tourists? -- are speaking a smattering of Continental European languages. Only then am I reminded that this outpost is the nerve center of a 21st-century nation-state on the European peninsula. It’s easy to forget.

Indeed, Montenegro itself is an oddity. NATO’s latest incipient member, Montenegro is a country of 620,000 that juts peak by rugged peak from its stunning Adriatic coast toward Serbia and the heart of the South Slavic lands. Its modern independence was decided not in the Balkan violence of two decades ago, but finally in peacetime through a referendum in 2006 that saw the country split from a federation with Serbia. That vote was greeted as a footnote in recent European history, but it made this parcel of mountain and coast more accessible to enlargement-minded NATO and the EU -- and it left Serbia, the most important state in the Western Balkans, landlocked.

With Europe’s capitals in disarray, and Moscow competing with Washington and Brussels for footholds in the Continental liminal, capitals like Podgorica now face uncertain futures.

The smallest fish, the biggest pond

Montenegrins are a stubborn lot, with a history of fierce resistance to aggressive outsiders. But geopolitical realities are equally stubborn, and the country’s historical royal capital, the picturesque mountain town of Cetinje, is a model study of a small people seeking its place in a broader world -- its church and palace complexes are in-situ explorations of what its royals in the 18th and 19th centuries saw elsewhere in Europe, and the buildings that housed foreign embassies are still marked on the tourist trails, denoting the importance Cetinje gave to recognition by foreign powers.

Montenegro’s recent split from Serbia, in a referendum in 2006, was about more than a half-pint of sovereignty. There was no great surge of nationalism, no Brexit-style movement to repatriate decision-making powers shared with Belgrade. In fact a strong proportion of Montenegrins are ethnic Serbians. The act of leaving the federation was controversial and left open the risk of a backlash.

What Montenegro intended was to exploit a new geopolitical reality: After the devastation of Balkan war, Western tutelage had become the organizing principle for the region -- especially with Russia, a traditional power broker and patron, diminished and defanged.

Thus the vote wasn’t about ditching Serbia -- it was about ditching Serbia’s problems. Podgorica outside the federation would not be saddled with the Serbian imperative, etched in that country’s historical DNA, to oppose independence for Kosovo. Nor would it be associated with the figures sought for prosecution by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Sovereignty in the region smoothed a hopefully prosperous bow to the outside world. It was clever stewardship by a prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, viewed at the time as being one of the Balkans’ shrewder political operatives.

Days of hope

Montenegro as much as any state in the region has managed to keep problems with its neighbors to the realistic minimum, and that is in part thanks to such pragmatism. With Belgrade’s baggage now stopping at the border, accession to the European Union and NATO membership seemed a prize within reach. In 2002 Montenegro adopted the Euro, and in 2008 formally applied to join the EU. Accession will take a long time, however, and Montenegro has maintained close relations with Russia as an insurance policy.

In the process of formulating foreign policy, the new alignment helped create clarity of intent out of the muddle of the East-West balance. As described here by Edward P. Joseph and Janusz Bugajski: 

“If your country is Serbia, the largest state in the former Yugoslavia, you claim neutrality, refusing to join the sanctions regime crafted by Brussels and Washington, despite the fact that you have a pending application for membership in the European Union. On the other hand, if you are the leader of tiny Montenegro, you stand with the West and agree to impose the sanctions in the face of withering criticism from Moscow.”

In 2015, the country was invited to join NATO. In 2016 it attended the military alliance’s summit in Warsaw to push forward its accession protocol. Montenegro, it would seem, has gained its foothold.  

Of course that July summit followed the June 23 Brexit vote. Montenegro’s chosen patron is not well, and the Balkans are again subject to low-level geopolitical competition.

Geography rediscovered

As has been pointed out by now exhaustively, including in these pages, Europe is awakening from what it had mistakenly thought an end to history. Europe is also rediscovering its political geography. From the border at Calais to the River Tweed, to the East of Ukraine and the Russian exclave in Kaliningrad, Europeans are social topographers again, changing political realities with their views and their votes.

The old geography in the Western Balkans never did quite go away. It remains the map of former Yugoslavia, overlaid with a series of “Greater” idealized nations that stretch across state boundaries and have not lost their ability even in peacetime to hold back anything resembling a national interest.

Attitudes have changed enough to make overt conflict for now seem unlikely. The problem is that not much else has changed. Meanwhile, Europe’s stewardship is failing through neglect and mistaken assumptions. In Croatia -- now an EU country -- an election campaign touches on themes redolent of its nasty World War II past. In Serbia, a country also working through the chapters of EU accession, a prime minister formerly associated with the wartime nationalist party and rebranded as a progressive holds a vice-grip on power. Djukanovic does the same in Montenegro, which has elections coming up on Oct. 16. One thing that could derail his leadership is a simmering border dispute with neighboring Kosovo.

Djukanovic remains firmly The West’s Man, and Montenegro under his leadership remain stable, but deeply and chronically corrupt. This newest of NATO members-to-be has a long history of Russian ties and a reliance on Russian investment, and protests in Podgorica against NATO membership saw Serbian and Russian flags waving in the streets. Russia is not silent in the region as it was in the 90s, and it’s likely that Moscow views this rump of seafront in a way similar to how NATO sees slivers of land such as Transdniestria in Moldova or South Abkhazia in Georgia.

The geography that matters to each side is visible to any casual visitor of Montenegro’s idyllic stretch of Adriatic coast. Take a skiff from the bay to the sea and you can swim through coves of Maldivian blue, but also sail past Austro-Hungarian fortresses and a Tito-era submarine tunnel. The boat ride embodies the feeling a traveler gets throughout the Western Balkans: It could not possibly be more peaceful.