Montenegro is one of the countries that are the scene of a struggle for influence between the West and Russia in the Balkans. At the beginning of the 2000s, Russia came to the fore as advantageous in this struggle, but since the 2010s, it is seen that the process has developed in favor of the West.
However, after the dissolution of Serbia-Montenegro in 2006, Montenegro has turned its direction to the West. In this context, the European Union (EU) initiated negotiations on Montenegro’s accession to the union in 2012. Thus, Montenegro’s integration process with the EU has gained momentum. In this context, Montenegro has been one of the countries that joined the Western sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law in 2014.
On the other hand, the failure of the pro-Russian military coup in October 2016, aimed at overthrowing the pro-Western government in Montenegro, was a turning point in the relations between Moscow and Podgorica. This coup attempt was carried out to prevent Montenegro’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In particular, the accession of Podgorica to NATO in 2017 has led to a decline in Moscow’s influence in this country, which is important in Balkan and Adriatic geopolitics.
As can be understood, the NATO membership of Montenegro, which has been described as a Russian ally in the Balkan geography for many years, has been a great loss for the Kremlin. On the other hand, it can be said that the means for the West to gain influence over Montenegro are international institutions such as the EU and NATO, and that the relations between the parties develop within an institutional framework.
On the other hand, it can be argued that the concepts of history, culture and religion gained weight in Russia’s policy towards Montenegro. In particular, the fact that a significant part of Montenegro’s population belongs to the Orthodox sect of Christianity and that one-third of the population consists of ethnic Serbs is important for Russia to increase its influence in the country. Moreover, Russia continues its policy of Panslavism through the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro. Therefore, when Moscow determines its policy towards Potgoritsa, it emphasizes religious and cultural elements.
In addition to all this, Montenegro’s geopolitical position is another factor that plays a role in the importance that Moscow attaches to Podgorica. The fact that Montenegro is among the countries bordering the Adriatic increases its importance in Balkan geopolitics. However, Podgorica’s membership in NATO has led to the transformation of the Adriatic into a “NATO Lake” in a sense. For this reason, the Kremlin is trying to gain influence through economic means, at least in Montenegro.
On the other hand, relations between Montenegro and Russia have been gradually deteriorating since Podgorica joined NATO. Despite this, Russia has tried to maintain its effectiveness through economic investments after Montenegro became a member of the organization.
Currently, Russia is the largest foreign investor in Montenegro. As of 2019, most Russian investments in Montenegro have been realized through the real estate and tourism sectors. Furthermore, Moscow’s investments are equal to 26% of Podgorica’s gross domestic product (GDP). The situation is quite remarkable in that it shows the economic influence of Russia on Montenegro. In other words, in recent years, Moscow’s policy towards Podgorica has been dominated by the economy rather than religion, culture and history.
Despite all this, Moscow’s strategy has been seriously wounded after its military intervention in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Especially after Dritan Abazovic became the Prime Minister of Montenegro in April 2022, relations between Russia and Montenegro began to be further strained. After the Abazovic government took office, it both declared that it would accelerate the country’s EU membership process and announced that it would participate in all of Brussels’ sanctions against Moscow.
To summarize briefly, Montenegro wanted to adapt to the EU in terms of foreign policy by participating in the sanctions against Russia. In other words, the Abazovic government wanted to accelerate the process of Podgorica’s integration with Brussels. This reflected negatively on relations with Moscow.
On the other hand, although Montenegro has put forward a clear stance against Russia, it is experiencing some difficulties in the harmonization process with the EU due to the political tensions in the country. In this context, in June 2022, the European Parliament (EP) expressed satisfaction with Montenegro’s commitment to European integration, but pointed out that Podgorica must make strides in electoral and judicial reforms and in the fight against organised crime and corruption. Therefore, Montenegro’s integration with the EU is not progressing at the desired level due to some disagreements in domestic politics rather than foreign policy.
As it will be remembered, in July 2022, Podgorica decided to freeze the real estate of some Russian citizens in the country by complying with the sanctions imposed by Brussels against Moscow. In other words, Russia’s economic influence in a country where it has significant investments in the Balkans has begun to decrease with the war.
However, a political crisis has occurred in Montenegro after the government led by Dritan Abazovic failed to win a vote of confidence in August 2022. In this case, the agreement signed by Abazovic with the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country played a decisive role. Moreover, on November 1, 2022, the Montenegrin Parliament, which consists of 81 people, adopted a resolution restricting the powers of the President of the Republic with 41 votes, which caused a reaction from the EU. The decision limits the powers of the President regarding the formation of a government in the country. The pro-Serb and pro-Russian Democratic Front, known for its anti-NATO stance, played a critical role in this decision.
Predictably, the political instability that began in the country after Abazovic’s failure to win a vote of confidence could lead to a consequence that could increase Russia’s influence over Montenegro. This could hamper Montenegro’s EU integration process, especially as evidenced by Brussels’ reaction. It is seen that the pro-Serb forces have increased their influence in Montenegro recently.
On December 29, 2022, former Foreign Minister Moidrag Lekic was given the task of forming a government in Montenegro. Lekic was supported by the pro-Russian Democratic Front. Moreover, as a member of parliament, Lekic opposed Montenegro’s accession to NATO in 2017 and recent resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. A government formed by Lekic could therefore cause Montenegro’s EU integration to slow down. Moreover, given Lekic’s ideas, this could lead to an improvement in Montenegro’s relations with Russia.
In conclusion, there has been a period in which Russian influence has gradually decreased in Montenegro in recent years. In this case, it can be said that two points come to the forefront. The first is Montenegro’s membership in NATO in 2017. The second is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. However, the political instability that began in the country in August 2022 and the increase of the influence of the Serb supporters may open the door to a new process in Moscow’s relations with Podgorica.
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