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Three months from Montenegrin accession to NATO: The same old song?

Vilip Vujanović and Jens Stoltenberg; Photo: NATO

Eleven years after independence and two years after concluding negotiations, Montenegro joined NATO on 5 June 2017. The path to membership has been long and hard, with dialogue beginning almost immediately after Montenegrin independence despite tensions, an alleged attempted coup d’etat last year organised by Russian intelligence services in order to prevent pro-NATO parties from winning the elections, and public support almost evenly split over the issue. A CEDEM poll from December 2016 indicated that 39.5% of citizens supported membership, with 39.7% opposed.

While the run up to membership was very polarised and heated, there appear to have been no major developments since June. In the several weeks after joining the alliance Colonel General Ljubiša Jokić, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Montenegro, visited the United States and met with General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During the same week the Minister of Defence, Predrag Bošković, participated in a North Atlantic Council (NATO’s primary political body) meeting. In the next several months, several other high level meetings were European army chiefs were held. Despite Montenegro reiterating its commitment to NATO and EU membership, most meetings did not have any specific conclusions or results, with the exception of Bošković promising to increase Montenegrin presence in Afghanistan by approximately ten percent.

In order to assess potential implications of membership on Montenegro’s military activities, it is necessary to put previous commitments into context. After gaining independence Montenegro participated in several missions under UN and EU auspices, with progressively growing commitment. However, the primary focus of the Montenegrin government was on having a role in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, largely due to the emphasis Podgorica put on joining the alliance. Between 2010 and 2014 Montenegro contributed 307 soldiers (approximately 15% of its 2000-strong army) to the mission over ten contingents it sent to Afghanistan. It has also sent several contingents to ISAF’s successor mission, Resolute Support, with the last contingent sent in August numbering eighteen soldiers.

Considering the small number of Montenegrin soldiers in NATO missions, the stated ten percent increase would not only be fairly insignificant in terms of NATO’s overall force in Afghanistan, but also in terms of Montenegrin military expenditure. There exist several reasons for this limited increase in commitment.

Firstly, despite better training, conditions and salary that participation in international missions offers, a very limited number of soldiers was interested in them. According to an internal army poll conducted when Montenegro decided to contribute to ISAF in 2010, as few as 30% of soldiers were interested in participating. While the government has decided to make participation in NATO missions compulsory, these results may be indicative of army opposition to significant increases of commitment.

Secondly, the relative obsolescence of parts of military equipment of the Montenegrin army limits the sorts of roles the army can participate in, which is partly why all participants so far were primarily from the infantry and support roles. While the possibility of obtaining new equipment from other NATO nations was touted as one of the main benefits of membership, modernising the Montenegrin army is likely to be a prolonged and expensive process nonetheless, taking up funds that would otherwise be used to increase troops size.

Finally, fiscal issues put severe constraints on potential increases in Montenegrin contributions to NATO missions. The budget deficit in 2017 is predicted to be 6.1% with large deficits predicted until at least 2019, combined with anemic growth rates. Military expenditure is already below the NATO threshold of two percent of GDP, with Montenegro only spending 1.6% on its army in 2016.

NATO membership in countries with significant Serbian populations is and will likely remain a sensitive topic for the foreseeable future due to memories of NATO involvement in the Yugoslav wars, and Montenegro’s fate will not be any different in that regard. It is, however, important to also look at concrete effects of membership in the alliance – Montenegro’s relations with NATO have not changed significantly since joining and they are unlikely to in the future, regardless of lip service offered by politicians about Euro-Atlantic integration.

Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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