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Posted by on Nov 8, 2015 in Europe, Featured | 19 comments

Russia’s Invisible Hand – Europe’s Next Frontier: Serbia and Montenegro

Russia’s Invisible Hand – Europe’s Next Frontier: Serbia and Montenegro

On September 30th, the Kremlin issued orders for the beginning of Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Syria. Since then, Russian planes have carried out 934 outings and destroyed 819 targets in the process. As Russia proceeds to take a stand on the old Soviet stomping grounds, it becomes apparent that the push for former glory is now more evident than ever. Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria flood Western headlines with more exuberance than Tom Brady’s deflategate.

With all attention focused on brinksmanship in the Middle East, the world has forgotten the much closer European frontier which has now spread from Ukraine into the heart of South-Eastern Europe. Many disregard the no man’s land created in the Balkans where Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia do not belong to either bloc. As Serbia and Montenegro make strides towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration, the presence of Moscow’s invisible hand grows tenfold.

Podgorica, 24.10.2015 - Odrzan prosvjed protiv Mila Djukanovica i Vlade Crne Gore

Photo from Blic.rs

Demonstrators lunge at police cordons with molotov cocktails and baseball bats as tear gas shoots through air from the direction of Parliament. These are not scenes from Kiev’s Maidan, but Podgorica’s Trg Slobode (Freedom Square). Mass protests broke out in the usually quiet Adriatic republic on the night of Saturday, October 24th. In Montenegro there are many reasons for the protests including freedom of the media, the politicization of the judiciary and public administration, and widespread corruption. Montenegro perfectly meets political requirements to fully harmonize attitudes in foreign policy with those of the EU and other Western partners. Podgorica’s harmonizing views are best embodied by their sanctions on Russia despite the fact that Russian citizens have been the largest investors in the Montenegrin economy since Montenegro achieved independence. Unfortunately, Montenegro falls short with respect to conditions concerning genuine reform and concrete results in the fight against corruption, nepotism, and organized crime.

Nevertheless, all NATO members can agree that Montenegro has reached the requirements for membership. As a result, it is likely that Montenegro will receive an invitation to join the alliance by NATO’s next summit in July 2016. Yet in the past three weeks, mass protests in the nation’s capital of Podgorica have escalated from peaceful political rallies led by the opposition party Democratic Front to violent clashes between divergent groups and the police over Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic path. Thousands hit the streets holding baseball bats and brass knuckles among the sea of Russian and Serbian flags calling for a “return home” to Orthodoxy.

From these events, it is clear the cleavage in Montenegro lies in an East-West divide which is, according to President Milo Đukanović and the Montenegrin Minister of Interior Raško Konjević, being both encouraged and funded from behind the Kremlin walls. At the same time the aftermentioned comments were made, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a press release stating “rushing into NATO accession” was “presupposing any alternative and viable democratic options” within Montenegro. It could be argued that Đukanović’s 20-year reign as president does not support the ideal of freedom of speech and opinion in Montenegro. Recent official polls had the anti-NATO option at 42% that may suggest genuine sentiments within the country for NATO accession. However, the increased presence of Russian symbols at rallies point out a new direction on the Montenegrin scene that does not fit the previous mold.

Jutarnji list.

Photo from Jutarnji list.

While Podgorica is engulfed with unfathomable violence along political lines, Belgrade seems happily unified in playing a dangerous game of non-alignment. Earlier this year, Serbia opened their first chapters for EU membership following the European Council’s decision to ratify their candidate status in December 2013. An area of contention has and will always be the recognition of Kosovo which Serbia is not willing to officially acknowledge. Unofficially, however, it seems Belgrade has given up on its long lost territory. The issue is of such tension that politicians fear even to discuss the matter; it should not be surprising that the President of Serbia’s Academy of Science and Arts, Vladimir Kostić, was replaced for stating that “Kosovo does not belong to Serbia de facto and de jure”. As Serbia continues with dreams of European integration in mind, it does not forget the centennial love for Mother Russia. The same mother who, upon Serbian President Aleksander Vučić’s visit to Moscow, recently pledged to remount 4 outdated MIG-29’s and 10 MIG-20’s in addition to selling several state-of-the-art Mi-17’s and Mi-171 helicopters at a “discounted” price. What should stand out to most as a precautionary measure is the context in which this procurement occurred. Upon his stay, President Vučić did not miss an opportunity to take a shot across NATO’s bow saying, “We are following what’s happening in the region and will not allow military imbalance.” When asked about the purpose of the aforementioned helicopters, the President simply replied, “Ask our neighbours.” Vučić can consider this a gift for his loyalty to Vladimir Putin who has also agreed to invest in expanding Serbia’s energy capacity to ensure self-sufficiency. The strengthening of ties comes after Serbia declined to participate in the implementation of EU sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and ongoing stalemate in Donbas which has claimed the lives of over 8,000 people. “We have proven our sincere and friendly attitude to Russia by being one of the European countries that refused to impose sanctions on Russia,” said Vučić after meeting with Medvedev in Moscow last weekend. In return, Russia has increased food imports from Serbia even as it has banned food imports from European countries that adhere to the sanctions. Food imports from Serbia increased by 40 percent in the first half of this year, Medvedev told reporters. Serbia proceeds to sit on a fence between the east and west, much like former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito managed during the Cold War, and will be able to continue to do so as long as there is a scramble for spheres of influence between Moscow and the West.

Protests in Montenegro will endure, Serbia’s military prowess will progress, and Putin will happily dump petro-roubles into the economies of every non-aligned state in the region. The convoluted truth of foreign affairs in the Balkans is much more complex than what meets the eye. There are several socio-historical factors that must be taken into consideration when understanding relations between Belgrade, Podgorica, and Moscow. That said, Russia is persistent in expanding their sphere of influence deeper into new echelons of the international community. Europe’s sick man is adamant on making one last push for every parcel left on the market. Last year it was Ukraine, this month it is Syria. Next week, the world might, yet again, find itself in contention over the Balkans.

19 Comments

  1. Montenegrins are finally waking up to overthrow their oligarch, multimillionaire dictator, who has betrayed all Montenegrins.
    NATO campaign of 1999 was illegal, disgusting and inhumane. 3000 Serbs/Montenegrins killed for protecting their territorial integrity, sacred land and monasteries.
    As for “Moscow causing the protests”, that is a completely absurd statement… What did Putin hire 10,000 actors to act as protestors? Did the Kremlin organize the riots? No, it was the people of Montenegro.
    I hope Djukanovic gets thrown in prison, for all the mafia related crime he has engaged in

    • Very good point on Djukanovic, he has abused his position time and time again and refuses to let go of power. There should be dialogue and free as well as fair elections just as there should be a referendum on Montenegro’s NATO membership. It would be more than beneficial to see some real change in Montenegro, preferably no more UDBA war profiters.
      NATO’s defence of a sovereign and violated people is no more illegal than the annexation of Crimea, unilateral intervention and carving up of Georgia, takeover in Transdnistria, or the criminal SAO Krajina. There are signs that Moscow has had an influence on the leaders of these riots, but it would be naive to say the Kremlin paid 10,000 or however many protestors there were in Podgorica.

    • No, being supported by Russia doesn’t mean they send them. There’s this lovely thing called money. Where’d they get all those tents if Montenegro is so poor and decrepit as they portray? All you have to do is take a walk and you can see it’s not.

      • Yea Putin paid for tents… LOL. He gave tents to thousands of Montenegrins and in return those Montenegrins pretended to hate their government, and get tear gassed and abused… This makes a lot of sense.

  2. This article doesn’t mention that the U.S. Conveniently gave Croatia 10 attack helicopters and ballistic missles weeks prior to Serbia even pondering the thought of getting combat equipment. Also, Montenegro shares Serbian heritage with Serbia and was attacked by NATO in the 90s. They are protesting against a leader who has been in power for far too long and obviously has been bought by NATO. Nobody in the Balkans wants war. However Western Europe and America love to use it as their pawns. Merkel didn’t just casually mention that war could break out in the Balkans again last week. This time using the refugee crisis as an excuse. Something is already being planned. Just look at how Britain and Germany are pushing for Kosovo to join Unesco this week. Outright wrong and illegal, but also the framework for tension in the region.

    • The United States has continued to provide all NATO allies with their outdated equipment and will do so as long as there is an alliance. The donation of ballistic missiles was never confirmed by the Croatian Minister of Defence or the US DoD. I must agree that no one in the Balkans wants war, but it is unfortunate that select politicians turn to war mongering in order to accumulate more political points. As for Kosovo, it is not just Germany and Britain pushing for Kosovo, there are 108 UN members out of which 23 are EU member states, pledging for Kosovo to join UNESCO and we should all together hope they do become full time members of the international community because the people of Kosovo are there and do not plan on leaving nor should they be forced to live under a state that does not recognize them.

      • First of all, Kosovo was created by separatists and influence from others who have geopolitical interest there. In the late 1400’s, A Turkish census showed that over 95% of the population in Kosovo was Serbian. Over time those numbers drastically changed in favour of the Albanians. Are you saying that you agree with self-determination based on population? if that’s the case, then every country in Europe will have many of it’s own Kosovo’s according to the recent migration numbers.

        “I must agree that no one in the Balkans wants war, but it is unfortunate that select politicians turn to war mongering in order to accumulate more political points” —- Yes, I agree. I’m guessing that you’re referring to the Croatian minister who was flaunting new weaponry saying that it would be a ‘game changer’ for the region just weeks before an election.

        • The issue is that there was legal framework for self determination as the result of the 74 Constitution which gave both Vojvodina and Kosovo enough autonomy to be able to move towards statehood. There have been some movements of such sort in Vojvodina, but the percentage of Serbs stops their succession and does so rightfully. Going back to the 90’s now does not change the fact that there is an independent Kosovo.
          “Flaunting” occurs everywhere from Poland to Iran, it’s only a question of why. I can assure you it did not do Kotromanovic any favours.

        • Turkish census from the 1400 – puhleeze.

          Much more recently than 1400, Vojvodina was majority Hungarian. Following your logic, it should be surrendered to Hungary.

      • “because the people of Kosovo are there and do not plan on leaving nor should they be forced to live under a state that does not recognize them.” When you make a similar claim about the rights of Serb minorities in the former Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav civil wars you will truly become an unbiased writer.

  3. Alex, please refrain from the obvious bias you have writing this article. As a journalist, you should be ashamed.

    Now, to the ‘meat’ of the matter: you note that “The issue is that there was legal framework for self determination as the result of the 74 Constitution which gave both Vojvodina and Kosovo enough autonomy to be able to move towards statehood.” This is factually incorrect – they were autonomous provinces of an ‘undivisable’ Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Serbia. I won’t go into the reasoning behind this (weakening Serbia to satisfy Croatian socialists at the time) – but if it had been reversed and Croatia had semi-autonomous Serbian republics (what happened to those Serbs? Right, ethnic cleansing) – would your tone change?

    Then this, I had a bit of a giggle reading this: “There have been some movements of such sort in Vojvodina, but the percentage of Serbs stops their succession and does so rightfully. Going back to the 90’s now does not change the fact that there is an independent Kosovo.” – Or, in retrospect, Serbia should have adopted Croatia’s unilateral (and efficient) ethnic cleansing regime so that the state can be 95%+ ethnically pure. When looking at Ex Yu’s demographics, Serbia is the most ‘multiethnic’. Leads me to believe the trust monsters are currently in NATO and the EU.

    I suggest cracking open a textbook (and brushing up on Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution) before spouting stupidities on a Canadian research portal.

    • I applaud your chirps! If I’ve managed to spark debate then as a journalist I’ve done my job. The article simply points out Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans which is more than apparent and continues to spread within Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as Macedonia, but those are worth articles on their own.
      We could go back on forth on which interpretation of the 74 Constitution is more accurate, many to this day disagree on the interpretation of their own contemporary constitutions, let alone one written up in wake of the Croatian Spring and regional chaos.

      Unfortunately no one’s hands are clean in this whole mess, but perhaps had Martic accepted Plan Z4 things would have played out differently. It is a tragedy that the majority of people living in the SAO Krajina left their homes in fear of ethnic cleansing, we should strive together to return them and all other victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia to their homes.

      • ‘Left’ is much different than ‘forced out’.

        Pardon me for not accepting anything you write at face value. The Croatian flags on your avatar speak volumes.

        • Loving one’s heritage does not mean hating someone else’s

          • It does when you write biased, factually incorrect articles. In Canada, you’d get thrown out of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

          • Bravo Phil! The ‘journalists’ who create the most debate are those have a hidden agenda.

  4. One thing that is not mentioned is that he was voted in office. There are more than half of real Montenegrins who support him. Going to protests with Serbia’s flag and raising three fingers is telling. Do I want a opposition who promotes nationalism? No, absolutely not. At least Djukanovic and his administration are not blood thirsty nationalists against whomever. Please list one Balkan leader who doesn’t have corruption behind him, including DF and other opposition in MNE? Montenegrins were never Serbians, if they are Orthodox that’s something else. Are Greeks Serbians now too? Ask some Montenegrins what they think about being called Serbian. Get over it.

    • Any Montenegrin that claims they aren’t Serb… is completely delusional about there identity. Who was Njegos? Who was Djurisic? These were founders and leaders of Montenegro, AND SELF proclaimed and PROUD Serbs. But I know why there are Montenegrins who will claim they aren’t Serbs, this is the real reason: they are ashamed and embarrassed. They pretend they are some “warrior” nation with a distinct history from Serbia, just because they can’t stand EU and the West being against them… in other words, they don’t have the courage to build their Nation, the Honour to stick to their Roots and to try building a future for all Serbs, so that the West changes their view of Serbs, instead “Montenegrins” have since the 90s just tried to distance themselves, instead of uniting with Serbs from all other regions, they have turned their backs and SPAT in the face of all other Serbs, recognized Kosovo, just so they can be friends with people who Bombed them, and have there “Montenegrin” Pride… Njegos is turning in his grave. Oh Montenegrins don’t want a Nationalistic Leader? Thats funny considering that the Politicians that turned the West against Serbia, Milosevic and Karadzic, both originate from Montenegro.

    • There isn’t a single intelligent Serb who wants a Nationalistic leader either… Did you realize how little seats the Radical Party won in Serbian Elections? Every Serb in Serbia and Republika Srpska is pro-EU.. but NATO, that is unacceptable. Its a shame Crnogorci have betrayed Serbs.

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