Barring any unexpected turn of events, Montenegro looks set to become NATO’s 29th member state. On Jan. 11, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance Montenegro’s membership bid to the Senate floor, where it is expected to pass.
Montenegro’s bid looks all but guaranteed, but the Senate should not just rubber-stamp the Adriatic country’s application. It should take advantage of this last chance to block it.
There is good reason for blocking Montenegro’s membership. The benchmarks laid out in NATO’s founding documents don’t hand out membership based on a country’s desire alone. Accession is conditioned on a plethora of very stringent criteria linked to protecting democratic norms and upholding the rule of law. Those conditions are the only reason NATO has managed to survive the fall of the Soviet Union and endure as the most successful military alliance in history.
The criteria were enshrined in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), which NATO launched in 1999 to help guide countries that wished to join the alliance. The program set out the guidelines for the 2004 round of enlargement, when Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania were invited to join the alliance. The action plan specifies high standards for prospective members, including “demonstrating a commitment to the rule of law and human rights; establishing democratic control of armed forces; and promoting stability and well-being through economic liberty, social justice and environmental responsibility.”
These criteria align closely with the Washington Treaty’s Article 10, which holds that any European state seeking membership must be in a position to “further the principles of this Treaty” and “to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”
Revisiting these membership standards begs the question: Why is NATO ready to let them slide to allow the entry of an ill-prepared state such as Montenegro?
A closer look at the state of governance in Montenegro shows that, at this point in the accession process, the country is starting from a much lower baseline than the ex-Soviet states did in 2004. It will require much more than the badge of NATO membership for the Balkan state to become a functioning democracy worthy of the honor.
This year, for example, Freedom House ranked Montenegro only “partly free,” with a ranking of 3/7 for political rights and civil liberties. The year before, Montenegro’s status had declined from free to partly free, due to constraints on freedom of peaceful assembly, including clashes between police officers and opposition protesters and the repeated postponement of an LGBT pride parade. Freedom House also slammed the country for its poor record on fighting corruption, upholding judicial independence, and permitting freedom of expression.
Those who hoped last October’s parliamentary elections represented an opportunity for internal reform came away bitterly disappointed. Opposition parties had appeared set on forming a coalition to expel Milo Djukanovic, who had been in power as either president or prime minister for more than 25 years and has been accused of using the country as “a personal fiefdom where corruption and organized crime flourish.”
However, the elections ended indecisively amid claims of violence at polling stations, intimidation of opposition members, and an attempted coup by allegedly Russian-backed Serbian agents. In the end, the ruling party declared victory; Djukanovic stepped aside and allowed ally Dusko Markovic to become prime minister. Despite the appearance of a transition, Djukanovic will probably remain the true power behind the throne -- which means the country will remain encumbered by corruption, instability, and a democratic deficit. Naturally, the opposition is refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the government.
NATO, and the West more broadly, also need to acknowledge their own ironic culpability in promoting the relatively stable, yet corrupt, regime of Djukanovic instead of pushing for democratic reform. Djukanovic has long based his legitimacy on his purported support for European integration and NATO membership, while demonizing the opposition as Russian proxies. In reality, the vast gap between Djukanovic’s pro-Western rhetoric and his own corrupt record has only increased Montenegrins’ cynicism toward Western institutions. It’s not surprising that recent polls found the country deeply apathetic toward NATO: 39.5 percent of Montenegrins favor membership, 39.7 percent oppose it, and 20.8 percent remain undecided.
Given the lack of real progress, NATO cannot content itself with admitting the country for political reasons and hoping the positive effects of membership take hold at some unknown point in the future. At a time when the unity of NATO is threatened more than ever, particularly by a hostile U.S. administration, the alliance does not have the luxury of distracting itself with efforts to reform corrupt states.
Admittedly, NATO did have geopolitical motivations in expanding membership in 2004. Lithuania, for instance, was a strategically significant addition because of its access to the Baltic Sea and to its proximity to Russia. While the Baltic states were by no means perfect democracies in 2004, they joined the alliance at a stage when their democracies were much more advanced than Montenegro’s. From there, NATO accession helped spur a virtuous cycle that sped up the process.
It’s key to remember, however, that NATO helped the Baltics progress along paths they had already started walking. The alliance did not create viable, democratic systems of governance where none existed -- nor could it have. Yet that seems to be exactly what NATO is attempting to do with Montenegro.
NATO stands to gain nothing by admitting a country whose citizens are largely indifferent to membership and whose government remains deeply dysfunctional. It would be better for the internal stability of both NATO and Podgorica to wait this one out, push Montenegro to institute much-needed internal reforms, and then revisit expansion when the country is truly ready for it.