As the Ukraine war rages, Montenegro’s juggling act gets harder

Close historic ties with Russia and deep internal divisions are undermining a unified national stance on the conflict.

A woman walks in front of graffiti depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in Podgorica, Montenegro
The war in Ukraine has shrunk the room for geopolitical neutrality in Europe, leaving Montenegro in a difficult spot [File: Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters]

Podgorica, Montenegro – A host of complicated factors are pressuring the Adriatic nation of Montenegro to strike a delicate foreign policy balance.

Since gaining independence from Serbia in 2006, Montenegro has mostly conducted a pro-Western foreign policy.

Having joined NATO in 2017, the Balkan country values its relationships with Washington, London, Brussels, and Berlin.

Yet at the same time, Montenegro has been historically close to Russia, which shares a Slavic and Orthodox heritage.

Montenegro joining NATO was important to Western powers and today they want Podgorica to toe the line against Moscow.

“Considering Russia’s base in Syria, increasing its influence in Montenegro could facilitate [Moscow’s] connection from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean,” Dilek Kütük, a Skopje-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Together with Serbia, it could pose a threat in the middle of Europe. This was unacceptable to NATO.”

INTERACTIVE- NATO members military expenditure 2020
(Al Jazeera)

Russian tourists and investors have been extremely important to Montenegro’s economy.

But Podgorica supported Washington and Brussels’ sanctions on Russia in 2014, in response to events in Crimea and Donbas, which spurred a degree of friction in bilateral relations. So did the alleged Russian-backed coup attempt of 2016 and Montenegro’s entry into NATO the following year.

Despite all that, Montenegrin-Russian economic relations remained strong. Russia, as the top foreign investor in Montenegro, puts much money in the Balkan country’s real estate and tourism sectors.

In 2019, Russia accounted for 26 percent of foreign investment in the Montenegrin economy. Lax foreign investment laws have made Montenegro an appealing country to some – and such policies have attracted no shortage of questionable businesses and oligarchs from Russia.

The motor yacht "Solaris", linked to Russian oligarch and politician Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, is seen in the waters of Porto Montenegro in Tivat, Montenegro
Lax foreign investment laws have attracted no shortage of shady businesses and oligarchs from Russia to Montenegro [File: Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters]

Since February 24, Montenegrins have been concerned about the Russian-Ukrainian war’s effect on their country’s economy.

Highly dependent on tourists from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, this conflict and the sanctions imposed on Moscow are expected to hit tourism income this summer while preventing, or at least greatly limiting, further Russian investments there.

With a hospitality industry battered by two consecutive summers of COVID-19, Montenegrins had high hopes for travel-starved Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian visitors.

Put simply, 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 stance on Ukraine.

On one hand, pro-Western politicians believe Podgorica should back Kyiv in alignment with NATO. Yet pro-Serbian groups in the country, such as the Democratic Front, advocate neutrality, not wanting Montenegro to degrade its historic relationship with Moscow.

“The question of a pro-Russian or pro-Western alignment feeds into a longstanding fissure in Montenegrin politics and identity. Montenegrins have demonstrated in support of Ukraine while Serb nationalists in Montenegro have demonstrated in support of Russia,” said Marko Attila Hoare, a historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology.

“With Montenegro’s population split between supporters of independence who identify as Montenegrin or who belong to ethnic minorities, and those who opposed independence and identify with Serbia, it’s primarily the former that have emerged as the pro-Ukrainian and the latter as the pro-Russian camp.”

However, not all in the pro-Belgrade camp support Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Some favour neutrality, citing NATO’s bombing Podgorica in 1999 and their fears of becoming America’s “puppet state”. They are also determined to preserve Montenegro’s longstanding ties to Russia and Slavic countries.

Others who back a neutral position consider NATO’s eastward expansion as a factor which spurred the conflict, even as they criticise Russian President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the perceived Ukrainian threat to Russia.

Yet some hardline factions in Montenegro openly back Russia’s war.

For example, at a protest 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 one banner read “Serbs in Montenegro – Russians in Ukraine”. While driving in Montenegro recently, this author noticed the pro-war Z symbol spray-painted in certain areas.

‘Fertile terrain for external influence’

Meanwhile, the country’s leadership has not been able to balance Montenegrin and Serbian identities and experts say the governments in both Belgrade and Podgorica bear responsibility.

“The Serbian government still grapples with the idea that the two are no longer part of the same union, and Montenegro’s foreign policy will not follow Serbia’s. The Montenegrin government also has not done enough to accommodate the Serbian community, and instead, the regime uses it as a scapegoat,” Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told Al Jazeera.

“In the divided society, where one brother declares himself a Serb and the other a Montenegrin, the political ruptures are fertile terrain for external influence.”

The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro is the “elephant in the room” as Dusica Tomovic, the managing editor at Balkan Insight, put it.

Closely tied to Russia, this religious institution is politically influential in Montenegro.

“Whoever is supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church … will get huge benefits from that support,” said Tomovic. “So now even the current government cannot risk worsening relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church.”

Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic
Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic is pro-European Union and his government has taken action against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine [File: Risto Bozovic/AP]

But Podgorica has taken concrete steps against Russia since February 24.

These include cracking down on Russian media, ordering Russian diplomats to leave Montenegro, suspending flights, prohibiting transactions with Russia’s Central Bank, banning Russian overflight of Montenegrin airspace and pledging this month to join all EU sanctions.

Nonetheless, even the new government of pro-European Union Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic can go only so far in terms of moves that could upset the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro.

The war in Ukraine has shrunk the room for geopolitical neutrality in Europe, leaving Montenegro in a difficult spot.

The former Yugoslav republic’s challenges vis-à-vis this conflict underscore how increasing bifurcation of the global political economy between East and West is worsening the Western Balkans’ longstanding fractures.

The longer the war continues, the more difficult it will be for Montenegro to navigate Europe’s gravest post-1945 security crisis.

Source: Al Jazeera