The Atlantic Council of Montenegro has prepared the Western Balkans Security Report, a comprehensive overview of major security policy challenges and analyses across carefully selected themes that concern national and security in the Western Balkan region. The project is supported by the NATO PDD. The Atlantic Council of Montenegro will organize the Round table discussion in order to sum up the findings and conclusions of the Report enabling the platform for further evaluation of the current state of play, immediate security challenges and areas that require strengthened cooperation. The Round table discussion will focus on identifying and pointing at burning challenges, that Montenegro and the Western Balkan region are facing as well as the global shifts and rivalry that inevitably influence the stability and security of the region.
This Round table discussion will also set the scene and provide an introductory framework for the main flagship event of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro – 2BS Forum.

Program – 10:00am-11:00am – Presentation of Western Balkan Security Report followed by open discussion

11:00am-11:30am – Coffee Break

Introduction – Azra Karastanović, Atlantic Council of Montenegro

Speaker – Milica Pejanović, Atlantic Council of Montenegro

Participants – Representative of diplomatic corps

Language – English

Media – National media coverage as well as social media coverage

Event will be live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube.

The Western Balkan should commit itself to the West and democracy, the participants concluded in the Online Discussion which was organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

The participants in the panel discussion on the topic 2021 NATO Summit- Outcomes and implications for the Western Balkans were Vice President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Ranko Krivokapic, former President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Director of the Europe Center within the US Atlantic Council Benjamin Haddad, former Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO and the Brussels Director of Project Associates Stefano Stefanini. The panel discussion was moderated by President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Savo Kentera.

Vice President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Ranko Krivokapic notes that the US President’s statement that America is back is particularly important for the Western Balkan. Krivokapic highlights that in the last four years Russia’s and China’s presence has been strong not only in the Western Balkan but in the rest of Europe as well. He adds that Biden’s activities undertaken so far, especially his executive order from June 8, have shown that he and his administration are completely aware of what is going on in the Balkans. Commenting on the current situation in Montenegro, the former President of the Montenegrin Parliament says that Montenegro was thought to be the example of stability in the Western Balkan, whereas today it has turned into something completely different.

The former President of Croatia Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic highlights that the geopolitical situation in the world, including the Western Balkan, has significantly changed. The era dominated by the US was followed by the new rivalry among the four players- the US, the EU, Russia, and China, she says. In her opinion, in a situation like that, it is necessary to create a new strategy adapted to the emerging circumstances and challenges. When it comes to the Western Balkans, the majority of the population of the Western Balkan countries perceive NATO and the EU as the right choice, the former President of Croatia said.

Director of the Europe Center within the US Atlantic Council Benjamin Haddad highlights that  Biden’s administration has shown a new level of commitment to transatlantic relationships. According to him, it cannot be expected for the trust between the US and the EU that had been destroyed during the previous period to be restored overnight. However, he is encouraged by the fact that Biden’s administration, even when focused on the internal issues of the US, always takes into account the international factors. He also comments on the US-Russia relationship. He believes that since the US administration expects no major shifts regarding the relationships with Russia, its goal is to stabilize their mutual relationships and make them predictable.

Former Permanent Representative of Italy to NATO and the Brussels Director of Project Associates Stefano Stefanini says that after the Summit, NATO knows exactly in which direction to go. Regarding the Western Balkan, he believes that this region is no longer at the center of NATO’s attention. However, the reasons behind that, in his opinion, are the success of NATO in that region and the fact that only two Western Balkan countries are not NATO members.

This is the first out of five online discussions organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro within the project 2BS Forum 365. This project is supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy (of the German Marshall Fund) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

The complete online discussion is available on our website, the official Facebook Page, and our YouTube channel as well.

Azra Karastanović, Program Manager at the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, contributed to a broad study China’s Engagement in Central and Eastern European Countries with an article entitled China Paves the Road for the Post-COVID-19 Era. This is a publication of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. We are conveying the article integrally. The whole study can be found on the following link.

Abstract

China emerged as an actor in the Western Balkans arena with the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008. In the past decade, it has exerted strong economic influence in the region, mainly by using its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 17+1 mechanism to expand its infrastructure and technology footprint. In Montenegro this influence is mainly perceived through one high-profile infrastructure project; the Bar-Boljare highway. This paper will examine how the highway project shaped perceptions of China both for policy-makers and the wider public. In addition, it will examine three stages of China’s diplomacy outreach during 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to establish if and how political and public perceptions of China among Montenegro’s policy-makers and the public changed as a result.

Keywords China, Montenegro, COVID-19, influence, perception

Introduction

The Western Balkans have a bearing on the geopolitical and geostrategic interests of many external actors, and constitute an area of competition among them. Over the years, Montenegro has progressed on its path towards EU and NATO membership, accomplishing the latter in 2017. However, much-needed reforms, in the areas of the rule of law, improving economic standards and fighting corruption, still burden Montenegro and make it susceptible to diverse external influences.

In the context of diminished US involvement in the past decade, the EU’s internal problems and enlargement fatigue, and Russia’s direct influence and constant rivalry on these two fronts, China has presented itself as a strong alternative partner. China’s influence and presence in Montenegro is symbolised by the high-profile Bar-Boljare highway project, being built by a Chinese company, and paid for by a loan from Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank) taken out by the Montenegro government in 2014. This paper will examine how this particular project shaped both

political and public perception of China, as well as whether and how these perceptions changed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

When There is a Motive, There are Means

The Western Balkans became an opportunity and a medium for China’s geopolitical agenda. Montenegro, as a coastal country and a frontrunner in the EU accession process, provides the authoritarian Chinese regime with a strategically advantageous entry point into Europe from the Adriatic Sea, and a means both to extend its influence in NATO and also potentially to shape European policies.

Conley et al (2020, 4) note that

“Beijing has recognized the economic and geographic potential of the region and, perhaps most importantly, understands the region’s hunger for immediate infrastructure financing. In contrast, Western lenders have been hesitant to engage as strongly without corresponding reform commitments from the region’s leaders.”

China has been increasing its investment in the region from the onset of the global economic crisis and the power vacuum that the EU itself created. China’s infrastructure and technology footprint grew mainly within the framework of the BRI and the 17+1 format. Even though China’s activities are not yet perceived as directly hampering the EU accession process for the Western Balkans, BRI infrastructure projects are causing concerns about violation of environmental standards, susceptibility to “debt-trap diplomacy” and the exacerbated risk of corruption. This inevitably has a bearing on the accession process.

Regarding Montenegro, though Chinese companies have been involved in several infrastructure and energy sector projects in the country, the primary economic leverage that China has exercised so far derives from the Bar-Boljare highway construction project. China, however, is not the dominant source of FDI in Montenegro. In 2017 it barely registered on the list of investors with only €676,000 worth of investment. In 2018 and 2019, China was still not mentioned among the top 50 countries investing in Montenegro. However, in 2020, in the midst of economic disarray caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, China became the largest investor in Montenegro providing

FDI worth €70 million in the first half of 2020 according to a Central Bank of Montenegro report (Central Bank of Montenegro, 2021 and Kajosevic, 2020).

To evaluate perceptions of China’s influence in Montenegro, it is helpful to look in detail at the highway project that has such a significant impact on Montenegro’s financial stability and prospects.

Impressive Construction, Leading Nowhere?

Back in 2014, in the face of many warnings about its financial and economic viability, the Government of Montenegro went ahead with this project, that is supposed to shorten journey times, stimulate business and connect the country with major European travel corridors. The new highway is designed to connect the Montenegrin port city of Bar with Boljare on the Serbian border and ultimately with Belgrade, the Serbian capital and the largest city in the Western Balkans. In 2014, Montenegro borrowed €809 million from Exim Bank to build the first section of the highway, to be constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), a large state- owned Chinese company (Barkin and Vasovic 2018).

The project has been shrouded in secrecy from the very beginning. Many documents related to the project are classified as confidential, and are still unavailable to the public. Furthermore, the intergovernmental agreement, credit arrangements and contract circumvented the open tender process, exempting CRBC and all subcontractors from paying VAT or customs duties. On top of that, the contract also stated that if Montenegro could not repay its loan within the specified timeframe, Exim Bank would have the right to some of its territory (Hopkins and Kynge, 2019). Any arbitration would be conducted according to China’s laws (Hopkins and Kynge, 2019), which patently leaves little if any chance for Montenegro to win any potential disputes.

Put in figures, the first  of the four construction phases will  eventually cost  Montenegro  around

€1.3 billion, equivalent to a quarter of its 2018 GDP (Investitor 2019; Al Jazeera Balkans 2020). This has caused a surge in Montenegro’s public debt; according to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate, it would cause the GDP-to-debt ratio to balloon over 82% in 2020, compared with a predicted ratio of 59% assuming no highway spending (IMF Country Report, 2019:5 and 2020).

The construction of the first phase has been delayed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. After four extensions of the deadline it is now expected to be finished in the autumn of 2021. The first annual payment of the loan, $67.5 million, is due in 2021 as well. In the meantime, Montenegro has twice tried and failed to secure funding from the European Investment Bank for the second section of the highway (Kajosevic, 2020).

Taking into consideration possible harm to Montenegro’s prospects arising from Chinese debt- trap influence, in 2018 the Government of Montenegro applied for co-financing for the construction of the second section of the highway under the Western Balkans Investment Framework. As indicated in the European Commission’s Montenegro Report 2020, the application has been put on hold pending the finalisation of the cost-benefit analysis for the entire Bar-Boljare highway. This study, already somewhat delayed, is expected to set recommended standards and suggest means of financing for the remaining sections. In June 2020, the Government also requested funding from the IMF under the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI), indicating that it would “not undertake the construction of further phases of the Bar-Boljare highway or other large capital expenditures that could jeopardize debt sustainability.” (IMF, 2020).

Currently uncertainty hangs over the continuation of the second phase of the highway’s construction. Construction on the Serbian end has been halted. It seems that physically, this impressive infrastructure project leads nowhere; and financially, it could lead to bankruptcy.

Unfortunately, due to the serious impact of the coronavirus on the Montenegrin economy, in place of anticipated growth of 3-4%, GDP has experienced a decrease of 14.2%, which has pushed the GDP-to-debt ratio to 90% in 2020. That, along with the new administration’s recent debt figure of

€750 million, means that in 2021 this will surge over 100% (Bankar, 2020). Uncertainty due to the ongoing pandemic, high public debt, and political and social tensions could discourage potential investors. A lack of healthy investment puts Montenegro in an even more difficult position by creating a climate that fosters further unfavourable loans.

After the change in government, following elections in August 2020, the new administration that took power in December 2020 set up a new National Council for the Fight against High-Level Corruption to investigate and combat endemic corruption in Montenegro. On 27 February, the Council announced that they would instruct all state bodies and institutions to provide any

information and data they may have related to the highway construction (Vijesti, 2021). In addition, some media sources and civil society organisations (CSOs), in particular the Network for Affirmation of the NGO Sector (MANS), have been raising concerns about the lack of transparency in planning and contracting, as well as the environmental impact of the whole highway project.2 It is vitally important for the new government to curb already high dependence on China and to avoid a debt spiral that could potentially influence Montenegro’s foreign policy orientation and democratic progress.

Despite these efforts, exposing China’s harmful influence and footprint in Montenegro is very difficult, given that the country’s media mostly “paints a pretty picture” of China based on its economic and political successes. According to Milica Kovacevic from the Centre for Democratic Transition (CDT), her research has showed that Montenegrin media reports on China are mostly positive, highlighting successes in science, art, infrastructure, and technology, while articles on the Chinese political system, the quality of life of its citizens, and social inequalities are rare (Kovacevic, 2021).

Two factors influence this state of affairs. First, the dependence of most newspapers and media outlets in Montenegro on advertising, which tends to lead to sponsored articles; and second, the republication of articles and information coming from Serbia (due to the shared language), where coverage of China is predominantly positive.3 In such a media landscape, public perception of China’s presence and influence is bound to be unbalanced.

According to the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Western Balkans Regional Poll in 2020, 50% of respondents in Montenegro consider China as the most important economic partner, ahead of the US, Germany, Russia, and Turkey. On the other hand, 34% of respondents consider China the most important political partner. However, probably more indicative data is that only 12% of

respondents consider China as the most significant political threat which is lower than all the other options: the US, Germany, Russia, and Turkey.

Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Changed or Reinforced Perceptions of China?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has put China at the centre of global discussions including those of the Western Balkans. As Anastas Vangeli (2021) argues, discourse on China in the Western Balkans during the COVID-19 pandemic progressed through three stages: in the early stage (January – March 2020) the central topic was the onset of the outbreak in China; in the second stage, as the outbreak in China reduced and outbreaks elsewhere in the world peaked (April – September 2020), the discussion focused on “mask diplomacy” and China’s efforts to position itself as a global humanitarian player; and the final stage (October 2020 to the present), with what has become known as “vaccine diplomacy” where geopolitical competition extends to include COVID-19 vaccines and impacts on the Western Balkans as well.

Similarly to the rest of the world, when COVID-19 first started spreading outside China, discourse in Montenegro showed an increase in negative perceptions of China. As the virus spread, information, disinformation, and conspiracy theories proliferated. According to the Digital Forensic Centre’s (DFC) monitoring for March 2020, identifiable narratives included claims that the virus was a biological weapon created in China and used to re-distribute economic and geopolitical power; and that China and Russia were hiding the real numbers of infected people (DFC, 2020). Thus, negative perceptions of China, sweeping through many Western countries, did not circumvent the Western Balkans. This was the moment where public diplomacy hit the stage. Many Chinese ambassadors around the world, including the Ambassador to Montenegro, tried to present official views (Kosovic, 2020) including the Chinese government’s success in countering the virus. Measuring the impact and influence of such public outreach is very difficult. However, it is relevant to mention the DFC analysis (2020) of an interview with the ambassador, which identifies some disputable content, from falsified timelines to imperfect transparency and doubts regarding the number of actual cases in China.

The “mask diplomacy” stage is marked by Chinese efforts to position itself as the most successful country in combating the coronavirus, and as a humanitarian benefactor reasserting its geopolitical

importance worldwide. Confronting the devastating effects and casualties of the pandemic around the world, many international institutions struggled with their initial response. This presented the opportunity for China to embark on a more proactive form of diplomacy and provide medical equipment, human resources, and pharmaceuticals. It is hard to imagine that any country, especially those of the Western Balkans that had been struggling with medical equipment shortages, would refuse such assistance. At this point, one should consider the pros and cons of urgent necessity versus not so urgent ideology.

During this period, China provided Montenegro with medical masks, tests for coronavirus and medical protocols on treating and containing the virus as well as offering relevant expertise.4 In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić praised China’s generosity and help during the pandemic on one side and criticised the EU’s lack of solidarity on the other (Zoric, 2020). The famous “Thank you, Brother Xi” billboard, together with the huge pro-government network of “bot” accounts that praised the Chinese aid and friendship between the two countries5, set the stage for the success of this “mask diplomacy”.

In contrast to Serbia, policy responses and expressions of gratitude toward China in other Western Balkan countries (Montenegro included) were more formal and cautious. This can be illustrated in the words of the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Srdjan Darmanovic. In an interview, Darmanovic expresses gratitude towards China for all the help it provided and its valuable experience of fighting the pandemic in Hubei Province. However, he also points out that even before the pandemic, there had been a serious crisis in trade relations between the United States and China.

“With all this in mind, the coronavirus pandemic could contribute to a certain redefinition of international relations, and in the Euro-Atlantic community, perhaps the role of China could be viewed differently than a few months ago. If this were the predominant direction it would, for sure, be reflected in our region as well” (MVP, 2020).

This more nuanced discourse prevailed throughout the whole of the “mask diplomacy” stage.

The shift from “mask diplomacy” to “vaccine diplomacy” began around October 2020 with the development and distribution of vaccines against COVID-19, and will likely continue well into 2021. A new field of competition and influence emerged as pharmaceutical companies raced to develop the vaccine. Unfortunately, amid the political changes after the elections in August 2020, the appointment of the new government in December 2020, and slow health service responses, the Montenegrin vaccine rollout started only at the end of February 2021. The first vaccines were procured through Serbia’s donation of 2,000 doses (Vlada Crne Gore, 2021). The Government of Montenegro had previously refused to accept the donation of 100,000 vaccines from a Russian charity, the Oleg Deripaska Foundation “Volnoye delo” (Pobjeda, 2021). Apart from regular channels of bilateral negotiations to procure the vaccines6, it is important to mention that China has approved the donation of 30,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine to Montenegro (Radio Slobodna Evropa, 2021). This is another example of how China perceives the importance of this region in their geopolitical efforts and the impetus that it gives to their healthcare diplomacy in general.

Another mechanism employed for this purpose was the 17+1 Summit that took place in February 2021. Like a number of other regional leaders, the President of Montenegro, Milo Đukanović took part in the summit. While reasserting Montenegro’s pro-Western orientation and ongoing EU integration process, as well as thanking China for its assistance, he also expressed Montenegro’s willingness to make cooperation with China more practical through opportunities provided by the 17+1 Mechanism, and to achieve more concrete results in areas of common interest (Predsjednik Crne Gore, 2021). It is important to note that China-convened summits are places where invitees customarily express gratitude for aid provided and willingness to increase cooperation through

joint ventures. However, President Đukanović is one of few regional leaders who, for the past two years, has increasingly been expressing concerns about China’s influence in the region.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The emergence of Chinese influence in the Western Balkans area came with the onset of the previous global economic crisis (2008). Certainly Beijing has tried to reassert its role and influence during the COVID-19 crisis, and will continue to do so in 2021. China is the only major world economy to report economic growth during the pandemic-ravaged year of 2020 (WSJ, 2021). This gives China an advantage while the rest of the world is trying to recover. For countries in transition and with weak democratic institutions, such as Montenegro, this means constantly reacting to major geopolitical and international shifts, which inevitably constrains the process of domestic democratization. Given that, in addition, China is building such a high profile infrastructure project in Montenegro, bringing with it very large debt issues, it is a matter of concern that one day China could use this leverage to exert influence on Montenegro, both domestically and in terms of foreign policy orientation.

Unlike Serbia, which has persistently reached out to secure China’s assistance while praising their cooperation, the rest of the Western Balkan countries were more cautious in their public discourse towards China even before the pandemic. As this paper argues, this element of caution in political elite discourse has more or less persisted throughout the pandemic. However, the massive economic impact of this crisis, and the ongoing battle with COVID-19 continue to impose strong political and financial pressure on Western Balkan countries, and may shape their future policies.

Both the EU and the US should reassess the evolving geopolitical situation and adopt a clearer and more comprehensive strategy for the Western Balkans. With the new Biden administration, many in the Western Balkans are looking towards the US with an expectation of commitment and a revival of processes that have been “on hold” for some time. However, the key question is not

“why China, or any other major power, has interests in the region?” It should rather be “when will Europe realize that the Western Balkans should be its primary interest?”

Unfortunately, in the contemporary world it appears that perception is reality. Whoever is better at shaping this perception will prevail. If the EU does not undertake a more proactive approach, another power will take its place, pointing out facts and figures regarding its economic support and investments in the region, and further enhancing its visible engagement. Europe needs a clear strategy, a proactive approach, and enhanced visibility towards the region. This, however, will not happen on its own. Setting up a dedicated group of EU countries that are willing to lead and enhance this process might be a good start.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

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Montenegro should turn towards West and the Western values, said President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Savo Kentera at the seminar entitled „The EU, China and the Western Balkans: Challenges and perspectives for the future integration“, which has been organized at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Montenegro.
Kentera emphasized that China benefited from the EU’s slow response and employed clever diplomacy to present itself as a savior, not only in the Western Balkans but beyond.
At the seminar, he warned that we need to be extra careful and that we should not overlook the role of the United States and the European Union during both the COVID-19 pandemic and in all other situations.
„China is not using the COVID-19 crisis and launching infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans for the sake of the regional countries; it is doing that to enter Europe and to position itself within the European Union“, Kentera emphasized.
The President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro added that the Unites States and the European Union must develop prompt-reaction mechanisms. „If they were not present in the Western Balkans, no one will have a right to be angry when China, Russia or some third party take over this part of the Western Balkans“, Kentera highlighted.
When it comes to the future cooperation between Montenegro and China, Montenegro should go after things that are in its best interest, without jeopardizing its European path, the President of the Atlantic Council concluded.

The Western Balkans countries are striving to become a part of the West, to become a part of the Western civilization, and to become a part of Europe, said the President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Savo Kentera.

On the other hand, Europe’s reaction is not adequate and as if the European Union felt tired of enlargement, he highlighted while appearing on the Klub A TV show on the A1 TV.

Kentera believes that the consequences of such an attitude of the European Union and the United States should be analyzed, and it should be understood that China and Russia would take over this region if the EU and the United States do not make some concrete moves regarding the Western Balkans.

However, the President of the Atlantic Council emphasized that a strategic course of Montenegro should not be and cannot be questioned.

“I still believe that there is a pro-Western majority in Montenegro and that if we look from the historical point of view, Montenegro has always been turned towards the West.

Commenting on the challenges and the missteps that happened in the security sector, Kentera believes that the security sector is ready to resist the challenges to the extent to which the institutions of the system are strong.

That means that the institutions of the system, particularly the security sector, should be managed by professionals who will perform their job in a way that is in the interest of the state, and not by individuals or political parties, he highlighted.

The President of the Atlantic Council particularly emphasized that the credibility of Montenegro among Western partners has not been gained overnight but that it has been built for years.

He also highlighted that in the previous period, Montenegro had very quality-based and constructive cooperation and that there was a relationship based on trust between Montenegro and its NATO partners. Likewise, Kentera believes that missteps in the security sector are perceived by NATO allies and wider Western circles as a short-term episode.

When it comes to Russian influence in Montenegro, Kentera said that Russia changed its modus operandi since it is using more sophisticated methods nowadays than in 2016 – it launches fake news and disinformation.

The goal is to destabilize the state, polarize society, cause a split, and present Montenegro, which is a NATO member state, as an unstable country where the conflicts can escalate anytime, Kentera thinks.

When it comes to China, he emphasizes that this country used the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic very well.

In a moment when the EU has not been coping so well and has not been able to help its member states or aspiring countries due to an excessive administration and bureaucracy, China used the situation to make an excellent PR, in order to change the perception that the citizens from the EU and the region have of that country, Kentera said.

The President of the Atlantic Council said that a trap that Montenegro got into, i.e. debt diplomacy, China used with other European countries.

Commenting on the Montenegro-Serbia relations, Kentera said that he saw Serbia as the key partner in the region, both to Montenegro and NATO. He thinks that Serbia will become a part of the West in the future and that everything that is occurring with Montenegro nowadays would be just one episode.

“Serbia is a too important factor in the Balkans to remain excluded”, concluded the President of the Atlantic Council.

After August 30 the foreign policy of Montenegro truly comes into question, said the President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro Savo Kentera at the international conference organized by the Foreign Policy Center with the support of the U.S. Embassy in Serbia.

Even though it seems that all the efforts have been taken so that the international community and partners would see that Montenegro stays strongly committed to the EU, NATO, and Western values, we have a completely different situation in practice, he added.

Kentera emphasized that the Montenegrin society today is divided more than ever and that the image of Montenegro as a divided and unstable society suits only Russia.

Last year, Russia used the situation and people in the field to implement one sophisticated operation successfully, which resulted not only in the government change but also in these divisions in Montenegrin society and also had as a result the institutions of the system being susceptible to the foreign influence from the inside.

He put a particular emphasis on the security sector of Montenegro, as a sector that was very compromised at one point.

Referring to all these events in Montenegro, Kentera highlighted that danger is not latent and added:  „The kid gloves are completely taken off, and here we are witnessing a very rough game, the game that has not been played this way before, accompanied by crossing the borders that used to be respected and which should be respected. “

The President of the Atlantic Council believes that the case of Montenegro should serve as a good case study that will explain a successful Russian hybrid war manifestation. Montenegro should serve as an example for other countries so such things do not occur tomorrow in North Macedonia, Croatia, or any other NATO member state, Kentera emphasized.

A key thing now, he considers, is how to overcome this situation and how to ensure that the institutions of the system function properly and that someday tomorrow Montenegro remains strongly committed to the Alliance’s interests and that its EU membership is not questioned.

Kentera congratulated Russians on the successfully won battle, but he said that they will not win the war. Montenegro remains a part of the West, Montenegro will completely fulfill its commitments as a member of the Alliance, and it will eagerly seek to become an EU member state, Kentera said.

The President of the Atlantic Council particularly emphasized the role of Serbia in the stability and security of the region. „Serbia is a state that is now far too important in the Western Balkans to be left outside of all these integration flows, and outside of the Alliance after all“, Kentera said.

„I truly believe that this is the best possible future, not only for Serbia but also for all other regional countries that are not part of the Alliance; and only then can we talk about the stability and security of the whole region“, Kentera concluded.

The Assembly of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro held on February 25, 2021, in Podgorica elected the new Governance Board composed of Milica Pejanović-Đurišić, John Allen and Sharyl Cross. The Board members are prominent figures with many years of political and expert experience both at home and in the international scene.

The former President of the Parliament of Montenegro Ranko Krivokapić was elected Vice President, while the current President Savo Kentera remains at the head of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

The Atlantic Council of Montenegro will continue to be the leading platform gathered around democratic and development principles of euroatlantism. Bearing in mind its commitment to regional and global peace, as well as good neighborly relations, the Assembly underlined the strategic importance of the North Atlantic Alliance for the stability in Europe and the Euro-Atlantic area, including the Western Balkan region. Considering this, the Atlantic Council will enhance its efforts to raise awareness through all possible dialogue forms and to fight propaganda against the Alliance, which has brought peace to the region and defense, security, and stability to Montenegro.

There is a tendency in the Western Balkans for flaws of its nascent democracies to allow room for autocracies reviving retrogressive ideas directly opposed to euroatlantism and once promoting the political platform of wars and conflicts in this region. Unfortunately, these conditions have again brought to the surface the stigma of the Western Balkans as soft underbelly of Europe and euroatlantism, where situations and relations aimed at destabilizing and dismantling the unity of both NATO and the EU occur.

Considering this, as well as the fact that there has been a change in the course of security challenges, which prompts a stronger focus of the Alliance on the political dimension, the Atlantic Council will intensify its participation in global consultations on further adjusting and defining of the new NATO2030 strategy. Therefore, it will take part in seeking a global response to attempts of undermining of the member states’ political institutions, and in tackling radicalization and all forms of extremism, discrimination, and intolerance.

Technological development and digital transformation have fundamentally reshaped the global geopolitical landscape by changing governance structures, posing professional challenges, and requiring innovative political responses. In this context, the Assembly concluded that the Atlantic Council of Montenegro has potential to continue, in cooperation with its partners, developing towards carrying out of comprehensive analyses of political, socio-economic, environmental, and security implications of new technologies, by mapping possibilities for the development of innovation ecosystems and by recruiting young talents from Montenegro, the region and beyond.

Whoever thinks that Russian influence has weakened when Montenegro or Northern Macedonia accessed NATO, definitely does not know much about Russia or its functioning. Russian influence has just strengthened here during the last two years, assessed Savo Kenetera, the President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

In an interview for Oslobođenje, Kentera stated that Russia had a very well-conceived strategy and a very good game that they play wisely, using disinformation.

Last year before the election, we identified right here in Montenegro the best example of probably one of the biggest disinformation campaigns and hybrid war coming from Russia, which produced very good results. What happened to us, tomorrow may happen to any NATO member state and that is why everyone should learn from our mistakes, said Kentera.

President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro reflected on the benefits of Montenegrin NATO membership, repeating that the first results of the membership will be visible after five years.

However, Kentera says that some of the results occurred and were visible long before those five years. Above all, they reflected in a democratic government change. It’s something that no one in Montenegro could have imagined, Kentera added.

While commenting on the situation in the region, Kentera said that it is only when Bosnia and Herzegovina become a NATO member state as well as Serbia, i.e. when this story complete, that we can talk about the true stability of the whole region. Here, everything is very interlaced, just like in the case of communicating vessels. Therefore, it is important in that context that Bosnia and Herzegovina finally put an end to this issue. Until then, everything will be fragile. Kentera thinks that all parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be obliged, sooner or later, to consider what is the national interest and not just their personal one.

When it comes to Serbia, he said that this country had already realized that it could not play on two fronts, or in their case, on three. It is in the best interest of the Serbian citizens, and also of the whole region, that Serbia, as perhaps the most prominent factor in the Western Balkans in terms of stability and everything else, decides to build its future towards West, the ACM President thinks.

Kentera expressed his pleasure that the Balkans will be one of the new US administration’s priorities, since it has not been the case so far. That is why I expect from new administration, together with the EU, not to be passive but much more active, he concluded.

Azra Karastanović, Program Manager at the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, contributed to a broad study on the strategic role of the external actors in the Western Balkans. This is a joint publication of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, the Political Academy of the Austrian People ́s Party and the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. “Montenegro between the East and West: Who will prevail in the ‘land of seas and mountains’?” is the topic of Azra’s article. We are conveying the article integrally. The whole study can be found on the following link.

Abstract

Montenegro ignites the strategic interests of the regional and global powers. Particularly, for the past decade, it has been under influence of both Western and non-Western actors. This paper seeks to identify, analyse, and present the means of influence of five major players in Montenegro—Russia, China, Turkey, the EU, and the US. Each of  the  external  actors’ footprint  within  Montenegro  has  been  assessed  against  the respective factors of influence: economic, political, security, religious, and media. In this context, external actors’ influence is understood as the capacity or power of these actors to  produce  effects  on  the  political,  economic,  and  social  affairs within  the  country  that favour their national interests. The paper shows the growing presence and influence of non-Western  actors  within  Montenegro,  as the  prevalence of  the  EU  and  US  influence has been decreasing for the past decade and lacks visibility despite strong economic and political presence.

Keywords:Montenegro–US–EU–Turkey–China–Russia–footprint–influence

Introduction

Montenegro is one of the seven countries born out of the violent dissolution of the Socialist Federal  Republic  of  Yugoslavia  (SFRY).  Even  though  it  was  mostly spared  from the violence  and  bloodshed  of  the  war,  as  one  of  the  smallest  countries  in  the  Western Balkans,  its  political,  economic,  and  social  progress  was  very  much  conditioned  by  a series  of  internal  and  external  factors—in  the  first  place  by  efforts  to  regain  its independence. This endeavour, which was ten years in the making, was crowned in 2006 with  the  historic  independence  referendum.  However,  this  was  only  the  beginning. Regaining   independence   meant   strengthening   institutions,   stepping   out   on   the international scene, building up the economy, closing the gap, and unifying society. An endeavour which is still in the making. Since regaining its independence in 2006, Montenegro set out two principal foreign-policy goals—becoming part of the EU and of NATO. The latter one was accomplished in 2017,despite a strong backlash and efforts by external actors (primarily Russia) to prevent it. The  first  still waits to  be  achieved,  even  though  Montenegro  is  considered  one  of  the frontrunners   for   future   EU   enlargement.   Growing non-Western   influence is   a consequence of a  vacuum  created  by  diminished  US  involvement  in  the  region for  the past ten years, which the EU has failed to fill, due to its internal problems and enlargement fatigue. With the created void that the EU and the US have left in the Western Balkans, several external actors played every card up their sleeve to increase their influence. The most notable are Russia, China, and Turkey. The ultimate goal is to push out the Western presence, slow down or halt further integration of the Western Balkans into Euro–Atlantic structures, and create an environment enabling the growth of their geostrategic interests. In  doing  so, all  tools  are  used such  as political,  economic,  religious  or—lately  more present—media influence.

Russia plays on all fronts

Russia and Montenegro historically have strong cultural, religious, and political ties dating back to the eighteenth century. The invitation for NATO membership in 2015 was a turning point  and  a  sign  for  Russia  that  it  must  intensify  its  actions. In  October  2016,  a  coup attempt and a plot to assassinate the then  Prime Minister Milo Đukanovic, planned for the day of the parliamentary elections, were thwarted by the arrest of several individuals. The primary objective of this act was to stop the further weakening of Russia’s influence in the Western  Balkans,  but  also  to  prevent  the  last  strategic  part  of  the  Adriatic  coast  from squeezing  under  the  NATO  umbrella.  Despite  Russia’s  efforts,  Montenegro  became  a NATO member in 2017.

Soft  power levers  that  Russia  very  successfully  employs  in  Montenegro  are  not weakening;  to  the  contrary,  they  will  intensify  in  the  coming  period.  These  levers  of influence  in  Montenegro  are  the Serbian  Orthodox  Church,  the  pan-Slavic  identity, the economic presence, and lately more visible, Russian media and disinformation efforts.

Russia’s  exploitation  of  religion  and  culture  is  most  noticeable  with  the  church.  The Metropolitanate  of  Montenegro  and  the  Littoral,  still  ecumenically  connected  to  the Serbian  Orthodox  Church,  represents  one  of  Russia’s  key  channels  of  influence. Montenegro’s adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion in December 2019 was the breaking  point  in  this  regard.  Led  by  the  Serbian  Orthodox  Church,  months-long campaigns and processions followed, which the Montenegrin government characterised as  a  political  protest  directed  not  only  against  the  Government,  but  also  against Montenegro  itself  (Jankovic2020).  Even  the  Ukrainian  Orthodox  Metropolitan  of  Kyiv, Onufriy,  came  to  Montenegro  to  lead  one  of  the  processions.  This  strong  campaign eventually bore fruit, and with the help and support of the church, the coalition For the Future of Montenegro gained critical support in the parliamentary elections on August 30, 2020. Together with two other coalition partners (Black on White and Peace is Our Nation) it will form the new government in Montenegro. The long-term support for pro-Russian, mainly Serbian nationalist parties in the Montenegrin opposition (and now part of the new government), which are connected to the Serbian Orthodox Church, has finally paid off for Russia.

Russia is also making powerful appeals to a common Slavic identity in Montenegro, with a  desire  to  prove  their  incompatibility  with  Western  democracies,  thus  exercising  a stronger influence.  Two  important  aspects  of  the  pan-Slavic  movement  should  not  be overlooked.  One  is the  strengthening  of  nationalist  right-wing  extremism,  visible  in  the participation  of  Montenegrin  foreign  fighters  alongside  pro-Russian  separatists  in  the Donbass (Azinović and Bećirević 2017). The other is the presence of two pro-Kremlin groups:  Russia’s  Night Wolves  motorcycle  gang,  and  the  paramilitary  Balkan  Cossack Army. In addition, a research article published by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in  June 2020found  that  within  Montenegro,  Russia  is  viewed  as  one of  the most favourable among foreign countries and international institutions (IRI2020).

Apart from  the  religious,  cultural, and  identity  ties,  Russia’s  influence  in  Montenegro  is channelled through its economic presence. Foreign direct investments (FDI) from Russia to Montenegro equalled €1.4 billion from 2006 to 2019, out of which the purchase of real estate represents the largest part of the investments with as much as €1.07 billion. Direct investments in Montenegrin companies amount to €131 million, and only €176 million were  invested  through  intercompany  debt.7However,  trade  between  Montenegro  and Russia  is  not  significant  as  Montenegro  is  not  dependent  on  Russian  energy  sources, and therefore  is  less  susceptible  to  Russian  energy  manipulations.  In  addition  to  FDI, tourists from Russia make up a significant part of the arrivals and overnight stays of the Montenegrin tourist structure. When Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea, the percentage of overnight stays of Russian guests slowly started to decline from 30% in 2014 to 24.9% in 2019 (MONSTAT 2019). Tourism is  one  of  the  most  important  parts  of  the  Montenegrin  economy  and  has  the  greatest impact on GDP (Investitor 2019a). Thus, a lack of diversification and a high dependence on  tourists  coming  from  only  one  country  is  a  significant  lever  of  power  and  influence, which Russia exploits.

Ever  since  2015,  Russia’s  media  influence  in  Montenegro  is  on  the  rise  withan abundance  of  pro-Russian  media  outlets  whose  main  objective  is  to  disseminate  the Kremlin’s  agenda  (Šajkaš  and  Tadić  2016).  However,  those  are  largely  run  by  local journalists  and  media  outlets  who  share  pro-Russian  and  anti-EU  and  anti-NATO sentiment. In addition to the well-established and popular media outlets IN4S and Borba, a  range  of  websites  such  as Sloboda, Ujedinjenje, Principor Nova  Rijec appear  and disappear as the need for their existence emerges. Their role is to portray a positive image of  Russia,  push  Moscow’s  political  agenda,  and  endorse  favourable  political  parties  in Montenegro. Furthermore, Sputnik(in the Serbian language) as well as the online portals News Front and Russia  Beyond, although  located  in  Belgrade,  significantly  bolster Russia’s presence as the content is constantly exchanged and republished by local media outlets  in  Montenegro.  It  is  also  important  to  emphasise  that most of  these  outlets  are present  on  social  media  and  use  it  to  increase  their  outreach  in  the  dissemination  of Russia’s propaganda (Tomovic 2017).

China’s silent foray

Unlike Russia or Turkey, China’s relations with Montenegro or any other Western Balkan country do not rely on any historical, cultural, or identity ties. Its presence in the region is comparatively new. Nevertheless, it has been progressively growing for the past decade, beginning in2008 with the onset of the global economic crisis and the power vacuum that the EU itself created. Today, China expanded its infrastructure and technology footprint in the region, mainly implemented in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 17+1 format(CEEC 2018).8The Chinese presence in Montenegro does not seem to have political aspirations, at least not  in  the  sense  of  direct  interference  in  internal  affairs  or  foreign  policy  reorientation goals.  Their  policy, for  the most  part,  is  placed  on  economic  interests,  most notable  in financing the construction of the first section of the Bar–Boljare highway. This highway is designed to connect the Montenegrin port city of Bar with Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and the largest city in the Western Balkans. Montenegro took a loan of €809 million in 2014  from  the  Export–Import  Bank  of  China  to build  the  first  section  of  the  highway, constructed  by  the  China  Road  and  Bridge  Corporation  (CRBC),  a  large,  state-owned Chinese  company  (Barkin  and Vasovic  2018).  The  first  of  three  phases  will  eventually cost Montenegro around €1.3 billion, which is equivalent to a quarter of its 2018 GDP and has already caused its GDP-to-debt ratio to increase to just over 80% (Investitor 2019b; AlJazeera  Balkans2020).  Chinese  loans  come  as  a  tempting  alternative  to  the  strict financing  conditions  of  the  European  Investment  Bank  (EIB),  accompanied  with  less bureaucracy but with much higher interest rates (Mediterranean Affairs 2018). Critics are concerned that China could use this ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ to extract strategic concessions (Kuo and  Kommenda 2018).Contrary  to  Russia,  China  is  not trying  to hamper  the EU accession of the Western Balkans, as it can enable greater access to the European single market. Montenegro, as a coastal country and a frontrunner in the EU accession process, provides China with a strategic advantage and entry point into Europe from the Adriatic Sea.

Interestingly enough, China has become the largest investor in Montenegro with €70 million in FDI in the first half of 2020, according to the Central Bank of Montenegro report (Kajosevic 2020). The report stated that ‘Chinese investments involved investments in companies in Montenegro or their purchase, the purchase of real estate and so-called inter-company debt’. However, investment details are confidential. In 2018 and 2019, China was not mentioned among the top 50 countries investing in Montenegro, while in 2017 it barely made it on the list with only €676,000 in investment. In June 2020,Montenegro also signed a €54millioncontract with the Chinese–Montenegrin consortium DEC International–Bemax-BB Solar–Permonte for the reconstruction of the Pljevlja thermal power plant (Kajosevic 2020). It should be noted that the Mozura Wind Park, whose construction began in 2017 and ended in 2019, is the result of Sino-Maltese-Montenegrin cooperation within the BRI framework, which is also in the midst of a corruption scandal that awaits resolution.

In addition to the economic footprint, another means of Chinese influence, devised in order to reaffirm and enhance its presence, is the cultural aspect. For that purpose, China provides scholarships and opportunities for the academic aspirations of Montenegrin students in different fields of study. It also established a Confucius Institute in Podgorica in February 2015. Its main objective is to promote Chinese culture and language, to improve the understanding of China among the locals, to connect all individuals and institutions in Montenegro that are engaged in Chinese language and culture, as well as other activities of cultural, educational, and economic cooperation between the two countries (Đukanović 2017).

Turkey plays the history card

After  the  Ottoman  Empire’s five  hundred years  rule  over  the  Balkans  that  only  ended some hundred years ago, Turkey continued its close historical and cultural ties with the region. Carried on the wings of the new AKP rule in the early 2000s and introduced by the ideological father of the Strategic Depth, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey started exercising new,  multi-dimensional,  and  proactive  foreign  policy,  implemented  through  cultural diplomacy and a soft power approach. This approach is very much visible in Montenegro, where Turkey, apart from the customs, cuisine, and vocabulary, also introduced Islam, resulting in roughly one-fifth of the Montenegrin population identifying as Muslim today (MONSTAT 2011).

In terms of the political influence, relations between the two countries are very friendly, as the business climate coming from Turkey is perceived more than  favourable. Turkey’s presence in Montenegro concerns part of the population that is historically, culturally, and religiously  susceptible  to  its  influence—the  Islamic  Community  of  Montenegro  and  the Bosniak party, which maintain close and friendly relations with their Turkish counterparts. The agreement that the Government of Montenegro signed with the Islamic Community of Montenegro in January 2012 is worth mentioning. A move welcomed by Turkey, it gives legal and constitutional recognition to Muslims in Montenegro. This agreement has far-reaching implications for both Montenegro and the wider region and gives the Religious Affairs  Directorate  in  Ankara, Diyanet,  the  right  to  mediate  in  cases  of  disagreement between  members  of  the  Muslim  community  in  Montenegro(Bozkurt  2012).  Similar  to how  Russia  perceives  itself  as  a  protector  of  Orthodox  communities  abroad,  Turkey  is reaffirming  its  role  as  a  patron  and  protector  of  Muslim  communities in  the  Western Balkans.

The most notable presence of Turkey in Montenegro is represented through its economic interests.  However,  this  presence  is  not  mirrored  in  FDIs,  as  Turkey  is  only  the  tenth largest investor with €39 million of  investments  in  Montenegro  during  the  period from January 2019to April 2020, according to the Central Bank of Montenegro (RTCG2020). However, the peculiarity of the Turkish economic footprint in Montenegro is the growing number  of  companies  that  are  owned  by  individuals  and  legal  entities  from  Turkey.  In 2019, Turkey had the largest share of foreign-owned businesses in Montenegro—3,652 or  29.4%  compared  to  24.4%  in  2018  and  only  8.7%  in  2017(MONSTAT  2020).  The favourable  investment  climate  in  Montenegro,  with  an  initial  capital  requirement  of  one euro,  simple  procedures, 9%income  tax,  and  personal  income  tax  attracts  Turkish companies.

Turkey conducted several large investment projects in Montenegro: Tosçelik’s purchase of the former Ironworks Nikšić in 2012 for €15.1 million; the purchase of Port of Adria in Bar in 2013 for €8.08 million; brand Merit that operates within the Turkish NET Holdingand has contracts for casino management in Hilton, Splendid and Avala hotels; as well as Turkish company Gintaş purchasing the shopping centre Mall of Montenegro worth €50 million(Milosevic 2018). In addition, the Turkish Ziraat Bank has entered the market as well as Turkish brands Doğtaş, Enza Home, LC Waikiki, etc.

Cooperation between the two countries is visible in the defence industry sector as well. During the visit of the former Minister of Defence of Montenegro, Predrag Boskovic,to his Turkish counterpart in October 2019, the two officials signed an Agreement on military–financial cooperation as the basis for the modernisation of Montenegro’s Armed Forces (Dragojlovic 2019). Playing the historical, cultural, and religious card, Turkey is primarily using its soft power to reassert its role and influence in the region (e.g.,through education, health, cultural restoration, Turkish soap operas, tourism, etc.). To that end, in 2007, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) started operating in Montenegro, undertaking cultural, infrastructure, and social projects by restoring mosques and other sacral objects, schools, and kindergartens and providing donations and equipment. Since 2007, TIKA has implemented almost three hundred projects in Montenegro worth around €20 million (FOS media 2017). Only in the field of health, Turkey has allocated more than €2  million  in  the  Montenegrin  health  system  through  TIKA  in  the  past  decade (crnagoraturska.com2019).

Turkish influence is also present through the Turkish cultural institute Yunus Emre, which promotes a favourable image of Turkey’s language, history, culture, and art, as well as provides information and other services. Education is another means of Turkish influence, implemented through partnerships between universities and student exchange programs on both sides. There has been an increased number of scholarships for Montenegrin students in Turkey. More than 444 Montenegrin citizens have received Turkish scholarships so far and 28 students for the 2019–2020 school year(Ozan 2019). In addition, the office of Montenegro Association of Turkish Alumni (MASAT) was opened in 2018, which brought together more than 130 Montenegrin citizens who have gone through higher education in Turkey(crnagoraturska.com2018). When it comes to media influence, the Turkish footprint in this area is still marginal. There are no Turkish-language TV channels, newspapers, or radio stations in the country. However, a group of people from Montenegro and Turkey established the Montenegro–Turkey portal in 2012, in order to enhance interactions and to deepen the bond between the two countries (crnagoraturska.com)

The EU needs to step up its game

For quite some time, Montenegro has been regarded as one of the frontrunners in the EU integration process. Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008 and started negotiations with the EU in 2012. After eight years of accession negotiations, all the chapters have been opened; of which three are provisionally closed(European Commission2020a). The majority of political parties in Montenegro, including the new government, are at least formally committed to the EU accession process. However, the public support for EU membership is at its lowest, with merely 54% in favour (CEDEM 2020)

Montenegro, like the rest of the Western Balkan countries, encounters difficulties in reform efforts. According to the European Commission’s latest report on Montenegro’s progress towards EU membership published on 6 October 2020, tensions and mistrust between political actors and a low level of trust in the electoral framework marked the observed period in terms of political criteria. In terms of governance issues, the Commission noted that recommendations had only partially been addressed and that there is a need to strengthen transparency, stakeholders’ participation, and the government’s capacity to implement reforms, including those of the public administration. Progress was limited to areas related to the judiciary, respect of fundamental rights, and the fight against corruption and organised crime. No progress was made in the area of freedom of expression, while the volume of disinformation has been on the rise (European Committee of the Regions 2020).

When it comes to the EU’s economic presence, FDIs in Montenegro reached €55.3 million in 2018 while the volume of trade with the EU was at €1.38 billion  in  2019. Within  the framework of the accession process, the EU is the largest provider of financial assistance to Montenegro. €504.9 million  were  granted  in  EU  pre-accession  funds  from  2007  to 2020, €804 million were provided in European Investment Bank loans since 1999, and €172.9 million since 2009 in Western Balkans Investment Framework grants, amounting to a total of an estimated €1.7billion.  In  addition,  in  the  framework  of  the  COVID-19 response, €53 million in bilateral assistance was granted to Montenegro to cover urgent health needs and economic and social recovery, as well as a €455-million-package for regional  economic  reactivation. Also, €60 million were approved by the EU for Macro-Financial Assistance and the European Investment Bank is providing €1.7 billion to the region.  Moreover,  visa-free  travel  to  the  EU  was  introduced  in  December  2009,  which greatly empowered the mobility of people as well as student exchange. Between 2015 and  2020,  over  4,188  participants  took  part  in  academic  and  youth  exchanges  under ERASMUS+ (European Commission2020b)

Montenegro’s cooperation with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been very successful, as the EBRD has invested €710 million in nearly 74 projects over the last 14 years (EBRD 2020). Nevertheless, the cooperation and investments coming from the EU are insufficiently promoted and lack visibility. It seems like the EU’s influence in Montenegro, despite the accession process, is fading away with increased Chinese and Russian political and economic clout. The EU will need to seriously step up its game in Montenegro if it wants to maintain its role and influence, as Montenegro is undergoing internal ruffles and a deepening of religious and ethnic rifts, which combined with strong external pressures  make it susceptible to malign foreign influence.

US still indispensable

The recent history of diplomatic relations between the US and Montenegro began right after Montenegro regained independence in 2006, with the formal establishment of a US Embassy soon after. However, the history of political contacts, friendship and relations go well beyond that. Back in the day, after World War I, the USA was a great supporter of Montenegro’s independence, despite the fact that it was unsuccessful at that time. It is also important to mention that during the 1990s and in the aftermath of the wars in former Yugoslavia,  Milo Đukanovic was one of the very few politicians in the region that the Clinton  administration  was  in  communication  with,  which  very  much  shaped  and strengthened these relations.

Today, these relations and US influence are notable within the framework of support for Montenegro’s Euro–Atlantic integration path, with NATO-membership having been achieved in 2017. This support includes programs and assistance in fighting organised crime and corruption, strengthening civil society, encouraging free and independent journalism, and promoting stability in the Balkans. The visits to Montenegro from both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence are strong indicators of the importance of Montenegro for the stability in the region and the US–Montenegro partnership in this part of Europe. In addition, the appointment of a Special Envoy from the State Department for the Western Balkans represents an impetus to the EU enlargement policy and further integration of this region. This is an important indicator of the United States indispensable role in Montenegro and the wider region.

As indicated before, the US had an important and strong influence in Montenegro when it comes to security policy, primarily concerning NATO membership. ‘The United States has been a staunch, reliable, and precious partner of Montenegro in achieving the vision of a Euro-Atlantic and European country’(Markovic 2017). Within this area, the US has provided financial support to the Montenegrin Armed Forces from the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) Program with over $8.2 million for an equipment upgrade. Within the United States European Command’s (EUCOM) Humanitarian Assistance Program that began in Montenegro in 2008, over $3 million have been or will be used to fund over 20 different projects. The US has donated fire trucks, firefighting equipment, and other emergency vehicles to municipalities throughout Montenegro. Under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, Montenegro has received over $4 million in funding. With this financing, they have sent approximately 100 students to military courses in the United States. Equally, US presence in Montenegro is visible in different programs such as the Export Control and Border Security Program (EXBS) that has thus far committed over $4 million to training and equipment with 634 persons attending EXBS organised trainings since 2010. Additionally, the US presence is reflected in assistance to the justice system and police administration through providing high-level skills and knowledge training to over 2000justice sector officials in the past 10 years and over $5millionfor training, equipment grants, and educational initiatives. The US assisted in the development of a new Office of the Special Prosecutor, which focuses on organised crime, corruption, and other forms of serious crime. Furthermore, it provided training to over 4,500 justice sector officials in the past 8 years and allocated $12 million in assistance (U.S. Embassy in Montenegro 2020). Between 2001 and 2013, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) delivered $243.3 million in assistance to Montenegro. Throughout its tenure, USAID has focused on economic growth, good governance, and improving the quality of Montenegrins’ lives (USAID 2013).

When it comes to the public perception in Montenegro, according to the CEDEM public opinion poll from August 2020, 17.2% of respondents think that Montenegro should rely on the US in its foreign policy, as opposed to the 19.5% who think that it should be Russia or the 26.1% who want to rely on the EU.In terms of FDI, US investments are still very low. For example, for the first half of 2020,the total amount of investments coming from the US was €21.5 million (Kajosevic 2020). According to the US Embassy’s fact sheet, 50 American companies operate in Montenegro and the top 6 US investors have invested over €300 million in Montenegro since its independence (US Embassy in Montenegro 2020).

Regarding public diplomacy outreach, the Education USA Center offers support for those that would like to study in the US. More than 120 Montenegrin students are currently studying at US Universities. Since 2006, almost 130 projects worth nearly $1.9 million were supported to strengthen democracy, respect for human rights, and civil society. In addition, American Corners are operating in Podgorica, Pljevlja, and Cetinje that offer literature, lectures, English language discussion clubs and events, cultural exchange, and networking. When it comes to media, there are no US media outlets present in Montenegro. However, the media environment is dominated by the ping-pong game between pro-Western and pro-Russian media outlets, presenting the other as an adversary. In addition, US TV shows and movies that portray US culture and way of life are very popular and omnipresent.

Conclusion

Montenegro   aspired   to   join   Euro–Atlantic   institutions   even   before   regaining   its independence  in  2006.  Subsequently,  it  has  become  a  member  of  NATO,  while  EU membership still awaits to be accomplished. Despite strong aspirations towards the West, the shifts in the global geopolitical balance of power and several pressing challenges in other  regions  caused a  shrinkage  of  the  US  and  EU  influence  and  created  a  void  that non-Western actors readily embraced. Russia’s extensive presence directly or indirectly uses all means of influence, from religion, culture, history, identity, to the economy and media  presence.  Their  goal  is  to  influence  the  country  politically  and  with  the  recently elected political structures that include pro-Russian, mainly Serbian nationalist parties, it remains  to  be  seen  how  this  new  government  will  position  itself regarding the  EU  and NATO, and  more importantly ,towards Russia. Their media influence and dissemination of propaganda and disinformation further promotes Russia’s agenda. On the other hand, Turkey and China have increased their presence, but mainly in terms of their economic interests, with the addition of soft power means of cultural and educational connections. China’s agenda regarding the development of huge infrastructure projects and provision of loans to Montenegro poses a very serious question on the long-term consequences of Chinese money—economic breakthrough or debt-trap? The economic presence of Turkey is on the rise since it has the largest share of foreign-owned businesses in Montenegro, as well as cultural connections and appeal, at least for some parts of the society. Although Montenegro and other Western Balkan countries aspire to EU membership, the diminished presence of the EU and reduced influence of the US over the past decade that supports these aspirations created space for a stronger presence of other regional and global powers. Together with rising social tensions and nationalist right-wing extremism, both the EU and the US need to consider and adopt a more clear and comprehensive strategy for the entire region in order not to be pushed out.

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