The events in 2022 showed a greater degree of readiness of the West to oppose Russian hybrid action, is the conclusion from the Online discussion organized by the Atlantic Council of Montenegro.

Ivana Stradner, Advisor to the foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and journalist Biljana Jovicević participated in the panel on the topic of Russian disinformation activities in the Balkans. The panel was moderated by Milan Jovanović from the Digital Forensic Center.

Ivana Stradner said that Russia has not lost the information war, pointing to the offensive information operations that the country is conducting around the world, in regions where its strategic interests exist. She stated that Russia conducts its information operations in Africa and Asia, but also in the United States and Europe. Information warfare exists in the Balkans and can be very dangerous because it completely polarizes society and raises tensions that could further escalate, Stradner said.

She also pointed out the specificity of the Russian understanding of hybrid warfare, which implies a combination of information operations and kinetic use of force that, according to her, was clearly shown on the example of Ukraine. In that context, she especially emphasized the implementation of a hybrid strategy within Russia itself, in which, as she assessed, there is media darkness. Stradner believes that Vladimir Putin uses such an internal environment to achieve long-term goals of Russia’s foreign policy – delegitimization of NATO, overthrowing the international liberal order and establishing a multipolar world where Russia would sit at the same table with the United States and China.

Speaking about the Western Balkans, she pointed out that Russia does not aim to occupy the region militarily, but to occupy its information space. In order to prevent that, Stradner emphasizes the importance of detecting such influence, but also the existence of will, as well as partner support in its suppression.

From the point of view of the journalistic profession, Biljana Jovićević spoke about the network of Russian media proxies in Montenegro and the region, noting that Russia is much more successful in conducting propaganda in relation to the conventional war. She believes that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has shown the right editorial policy of some of the most influential media in Montenegro, which are controlled by the funding from Serbia, and which operate in such a small market for political reasons. Jovicević said that Russian influence was indirectly spreading through the Serbian media, whose editorial policy was adjusted to the Russian narrative. Among them, in her opinion, the IN4S portal is leading as a classic Russian-Serbian newspaper that experienced its rise in Montenegro with the mixing of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Serbian and Russian political actors in internal political events. Other media she cites are the Borba portal, whose editorial policy she sees as similar but less aggressive, as well as Serbian tabloids, which have significant support in Montenegro. She also identifies the media that tried to take a neutral position in the context of the war in Ukraine, but gradually adjusted to the official position of the West, and cites the National Public Service as an example.

Jovicević believes that Montenegro should be viewed as part of a comprehensive Russian strategy for the Balkans, which aims to have an alternative battlefield and, consequently, undermine the political unity of the European Union and NATO. She estimates that this strategy had some success in the case of Montenegro, but that the invasion of Ukraine resulted in regrouping of forces within the European Union and NATO and their significant attention to this area.

Milan Jovanović emphasized that, despite the fact that there is no officially registered Russian media in Montenegro, Russian propaganda is almost equally strong. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the activities of certain media in Montenegro intensified and consistently synchronized with the views of the Russian and Serbian media. Drawing a parallel between the Russian and Serbian media, Jovanović said that, unlike Russia, where there is obviously censorship, in Serbia, despite the free flow of information, tabloids have a great influence on forming the attitudes of citizens. Jovanović concluded that the current global crisis has highlighted the importance of NATO and Montenegrin membership in the Alliance, further highlighting internal weaknesses that reflect Montenegrin political, national and social fragmentation and the continued interference of malignant influence from the outside.

“Masks have fallen and everyone has shown their faces in Montenegro, but we have also seen the faces of other countries. We have seen who the real allies of Montenegro are, and now we know very well what we can count on in the period ahead. ” said the President of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro, Savo Kentera, at a conference organized by the Center for Foreign Policy and the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The topic of the conference was Western Balkans in the context of the war in Ukraine.

Kentera pointed out that the previous government had shown no sincere intentions about Montenegro’s pro-Western orientation, and that the delay in imposing sanctions on Russia over its aggression against Ukraine was an indication of that. As he says, it revealed everything we knew and what we warned about from the Atlantic Council. According to him, August 30, 2020 is still considered one of the best things that happened to Montenegro because, in addition to the change of government, we realized how much potential Montenegro has and how much it was ahead in the EU integrations compared to other countries, and “how much we suddenly began to stagnate and stay behind the others and how close we were to Russia at one point.”

The war in Ukraine exposed the intentions of certain parties, individuals, and countries in relation to Montenegro and the Balkans, “so now we can, it seems to me, much easier and more decisively enter into a formation of a government that must be, above all, a completely pro-Western, pro-European, and a pro-NATO government, which will not leave anyone in any dilemma when it comes to Montenegro. “

Montenegro wants the best relations with everyone, and as Kentera states, “if someone does not want to build such relations with Montenegro, and if someone wants to pursue their interests that conflict with the interests of Montenegro and the interests of NATO, and to carry it into effect here, then they must get an adequate answer for it. “
Commenting on the formation of the new government, the president of the Atlantic Council said that Montenegro paid the price by implementing the wrong policy for over a year and a half and that it was time for Montenegro to unequivocally make everyone aware of its pro-Western orientation. All those who think well for this country, who live in this country and who want to build their future here together with all the others who live here, and to really stand for a better future, then they are more than welcome to participate tomorrow in that government and to really contribute to a better quality of life in Montenegro. ” Kentera concluded.

For the fifth issue of our ACM Briefs, published in March 2022, we would like to introduce a study on War in Ukraine and implications for Montenegro’s EU membership. These policy briefs are a part of the bigger project funded by the Balkan Trust for Democracy (GMF) and USAID, aimed at providing laser-sharp insights into the political and social trends in the region, strengthen dialogue, present concrete policy recommendations regarding pressing international and security issues in the Western Balkans.

This Policy Brief gives an overview on the uncertainty over the future course of the EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans region. After more than two decades of stabilization and accession process, and years of the stagnation of the EU integration dynamic, there are a few different opinions regarding the impact of war in Ukraine on that EU policy. The key question is the following: does the EU plan to extend its absorption capacities for the enlargement towards eastern neighbors or, on the contrary, to postpone them, through differentiated or staged accession for an undefined period? This question directly affects Montenegro’s accession in the EU, which is the focus of the brief. There is an optimistic conclusion that the EU’s 2025 enlargement agenda is still achievable for Montenegro, even though the country faces strong Russian influence and a very delicate political and social moment.

“I think we always have, in Montenegro, some difficult times when we are about to create some governance. Not because of the local elections, not because of some internal issues, but because this country needs a government as soon as possible.” Said Savo Kentera for Albanian Radio and Television, when asked about the negations for the new government.
Kentera reminded that, until recently, Montenegro was a NATO member country everybody could rely on, which is not the case at this moment and that Montenegro is in a state of blockade.

“Until recently Montenegro was one of the best examples that everybody can rely on us in the alliance. Today that’s not the case. Today we have a number of decisions in respect to NATO, and in respect to EU, which are still about to be made, and nothing is happening because we don’t have a government. That’s why we have to create a government as soon as possible.” Kentera said

Kentera pointed out that one of the best things that happened in Montenegro’s recent history is the NATO membership, especially considering the ongoing war in Ukraine. Still, as he emphasized, the Russian influence is, nonetheless, present in Montenegro.

“I could just imagine what the Russians would do here through their proxies if we were not a member of NATO. Thanks to that, they cannot intervene here by an army or by some big things as they did in Ukraine, but what they want to do, and I have no doubts about that it is to show that they are able to undermine a democratic system in Montenegro, to show that a NATO member country such as Montenegro can be destabilized. “The president of the Atlantic Council of Montenegro said that there are different Russian proxies in Montenegro, but the one that’s most important is the Serbian Orthodox Church.

When it comes to creating a new government, led by Dritan Abazović as a Prime Minister, Kentera was asked if he hopes that the new government would introduce sanctions against Russia.
“That shouldn’t be the question at all, because the new government must be a pro-European, a pro-Western, a pro-NATO government and nobody should have doubts about that. We are obliged here right now to create such a government. In that government, there is no place, for any pro-Russian elements.” Kentera said

He added that Montenegro lost its credibility over the last 15 months and that the country needs to be back on the settle.
“It’s crucial to have such a pro-NATO, pro-Western, and pro-European government. And of course, decisions regarding sanctions, decisions on Russia, decisions regarding everything what’s in align to our membership in the EU and to our obligations as a NATO member country, that’s something that nobody should question at all. So, whoever thinks to lead this country in the opposite direction or to gamble with that, or to try to avoid that, he cannot be a Prime Minister, and we don’t want that kind of government here.” Kentera concluded