European Western Balkans

Good-bye Montenegro!

Aivo Orav; Photo: EU Delegation to Montenegro
Aivo Orav; Photo: EU Delegation to Montenegro

It was at the beginning of 2006 that we started preparations for Montenegrin independence in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. Our goal was to be the first country to recognise Montenegro’s regained independence. However, we knew that Iceland could be the first, as they did not need a prior joint decision by the European Union. Our fall-back option was to be at least the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Montenegro. And this is what happened in the end: Iceland was first to recognise, while Estonia was first to establish diplomatic relations.

Surprisingly, 10 years later I was appointed EU Ambassador to Montenegro. I came straight from my previous posting in North Macedonia. The job there was very demanding – mediating the talks between Gruevski and Zaev. Under Commissioner Hahn’s leadership, the Pržino agreement was signed in July 2015 but it needed to be implemented as well. With my good colleague Jess Baily, US Ambassador in Skopje, we needed to push every single millimetre of its implementation. It all sounds simple but in practice it meant that throughout 2015-2016 the days and nights were one and the same, and the word “weekend” disappeared from my vocabulary.

Once a frontrunner candidate country, North Macedonia saw its EU integration process stuck due to problems with its neighbours and at home. This provided an opportunity for Montenegro to gain the position of a leader in the EU integration process.

Montenegro remains the undisputed leader to this day. It opened its last negotiation chapter with the EU a month ago. Montenegro, together with Albania, is the only Western Balkan countries which have consistently aligned with 100% of EU’s foreign policy positions, including in terms of sanctions. Montenegro recognised Kosovo. Montenegro became a member of NATO.

It was in early 2018 when I was invited to a government session to discuss the EU integration process. While sitting there I started to receive phone messages that the Presidents of Montenegro and Kosovo made a joint declaration on how to solve the problem with the ratification of the border treaty. My colleagues from Brussels were reaching out with questions about when, who, why… The EU Delegation is expected to know things even before they happen. However, this time we did not know anything as it was done directly with great wisdom and without any international facilitation. It was yet another demonstration of the maturity of Montenegrin foreign policy.

Another example of how Montenegro can surprise happened just last month when the Parliament adopted the Law on civil partnership.

There has been a lot of speculation about EU’s appetite to accept new members in its family. I am happy to leave Montenegro at a moment when the Union has proved once more that it delivers what it promises. Just to mention the huge regular financial assistance to Montenegro and specifically the assistance during COVID-19 crisis and for economic recovery in its aftermath. The EU Member States also decided to open the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. It means that the competition in the region is finally here, as North Macedonia and Albania will start their race towards the EU soon. It should be seen only in a positive way as an additional tool to motivate all the governments in the Western Balkans. Hopefully, there will be fewer excuses for why things cannot be done and more tangible deeds.

It should not be too complicated as everything that should be done is indicated in the European Commission country reports, or progress reports, as we used to call them. Challenging the substance of the reports will not bring anybody closer to the EU.

In all Western Balkan countries, including Montenegro, the rule of law is key. There is still a lot that should be done. In that context, I would just like to mention media freedom. This is an area where we have consistently indicated a lack of progress over the last years. I have made this point in most of my meetings; that Montenegro can improve the situation quickly as soon as a fully-functioning and inclusive media self-regulatory system is formed. Everybody agrees, but somehow it seems to be mission impossible. And then this RTCG Council…

Sometimes we are told that Montenegro can’t do something because it is too small or too young of a democracy. I come from Estonia. In my country, we believe that being small and young is not a disadvantage. On the contrary, it should be an advantage to conduct effective and progressive reforms. Naturally, political will is the key here. The political will of those in power. But also political will by the opposition and all other stakeholders.

Which opposition parties are in the Parliament and doing their work this week? This was unfortunately one of the most frequently asked questions in my team over the past four years. The word “boycott” is too easily used in Montenegro. When a boycott starts it becomes very difficult to put an end to it. And then the easiest solution seems to be to demand that the EU does something. The EU is not a political party. However, support for the EU among Montenegrin citizens is almost 70%. This number is much bigger than for any imaginable ruling coalition in Montenegro. Therefore, perhaps it would be good if the politicians would listen to their voters more carefully to move towards the EU as quickly and efficiently as possible. It is possible to make this dream a reality. However, I have heard so many times in the course of the last four years that there can be no compromises, no negotiations… Well, the charm of the EU is that despite all our differences, challenges and problems we always find a way forward. But to find the way forward, the word “boycott” should be replaced by the words “negotiations, compromises, consensus” like it is in the EU. The most recent example of this in the EU is last month’s deal on the recovery package.

I am leaving now. My new job will be in Brussels and I am going to negotiate on a daily basis. I will read the news from Montenegro from time to time and will support its EU integration process as much as I can and as much as Montenegro deserves.

I will miss Montenegro’s sunshine in Brussels. I will miss its wonderful nature, great people and everything that makes this country so unique.

All the best Montenegro!

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