Montenegro’s Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic is confident that, despite a procedural setback, the US Senate will ratify a protocol that will allow his nation to become the twenty-ninth member of NATO. This, he said, should happen before the Alliance’s summit in Brussels in May.
NATO foreign ministers signed the Accession Protocol with Montenegro in May 2016. Prospective members must win approval from all NATO members’ parliaments, as well as the unanimous consent of the US Senate. Once that approval is secured, Montenegro will be invited to join the Alliance. This would represent NATO’s first expansion since Albania and Croatia joined in 2009.
So far, twenty-four of twenty-eight NATO allies have backed Montenegro’s accession. In the United States, the process has hit a roadblock: Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY). Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has demanded a roll call vote, which is a lengthier process than a quick voice vote.
“I am very confident [that the Senate will ratify the protocol] and rely on US democracy,” Darmanovic said in an interview with the New Atlanticist at the Atlantic Council on March 21.
“It is normal procedure to try to get it done by unanimous consent, but in any democracy, it is not easy to get 100 out of 100 senators or parliamentarians,” he added.
Paul was the sole senator to block the ratification, a move that prompted Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to accuse him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”
Paul’s opposition “comes from his different understanding of the concepts of NATO or the role of the United States in NATO,” said Darmanovic.
In an interview with Politico, the senator said: “Montenegro doesn’t add a great deal to the national security of the United States… For people who want Montenegro [in NATO], many of them want Ukraine and Georgia in there. And I think if you do that you have to be prepared to go to war with Russia.”
Darmanovic said Montenegro’s entry into NATO is important for the United States because “we have always believed, together with the United States, that Europe has to be whole, free, and at peace.”
The Western Balkans, he said, is a “necessary ingredient of this peace and stability” and as long as it is not safe, stable, or integrated in the transatlantic community and its institutions, “Europe and the United States can always have some challenges in the Western Balkans.”
In its bid to protect what it considers to be its sphere of influence, Russia has devoted tremendous energy to its campaign to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO. This effort has included financing nationalist parties opposed to Alliance membership for this tiny nation that sits on the Adriatic Sea. It also allegedly included a more lethal threat.
Montenegro’s former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic was allegedly the target of a coup plot hatched by Russian intelligence agents. According to Montenegrin officials, the plotters had planned to seize Montenegro’s Parliament building, kill Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian government. The plot was uncovered in November 2016. Russia has dismissed the allegations as “absurd.”
Darmanovic, meanwhile, is confident that US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will find a way to send the accession protocol to the Senate floor for a vote. “I have never believed, and I don’t believe now, that we have any political problems in the US. We only have procedural problems, which are not ours but the way democracy functions in this country,” he said.
US President Donald Trump’s administration supports Montenegro’s NATO membership. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sent a letter to McConnell in which he noted that it is “strongly in the interests of the United States that Montenegro’s membership in NATO be ratified.”
Tillerson also said that it is important for ratification to happen before the NATO summit in May because Montenegro’s participation in that meeting will “send a strong signal of transatlantic unity.”
The minister said ratification before the Brussels summit “will send a message to everybody—our allies, other aspirants in the region, as well as to opponents of NATO enlargement—that [enlargement] is not about third parties, it is only between NATO and a new member and no third party should interfere in this process.”
Srdjan Darmanovic spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.
Q: Last month, you were “100 percent” sure of support from the US Senate for the ratification of a treaty that will allow Montenegro to move forward with joining NATO. Sen. Rand Paul has since blocked the ratification. Are you still confident that this will be ratified?
Darmanovic: I am very confident and rely on US democracy. It is normal procedure to try to get it done by unanimous consent, but in any democracy, it is not easy to get 100 out of 100 senators or parliamentarians.
We are facing opposition of one senator. It comes from his beliefs or different understanding of the concepts of NATO or understanding of the role of the US in NATO. If this opposition cannot be overcome, we believe [Senate Majority Leader] Sen. [Mitch] McConnell will find a way to send it for a vote to the floor and we are completely sure that ninety-eight or ninety-nine senators will support our protocol on NATO. This will be a continuation of the longtime tradition of strong bipartisan support for NATO enlargement in the United States.
I have never believed, and I don’t believe now, that we have any political problems in the US. We only have procedural problems, which are not ours but the way democracy functions in this country. We simply believe that the ratification will be done before the NATO Summit in Brussels [in May].
Q: Why is it important for ratification to happen before the summit?
Darmanovic: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has many times expressed that NATO wants to embrace Montenegro as the twenty-ninth member of the Alliance in the summit in Brussels. Since we are facing pretty serious Russian opposition to the enlargement of NATO in the Western Balkans, I think finalizing the ratification process before the summit will send a message to everybody—our allies, other aspirants in the region, as well as to opponents of NATO enlargement—that [enlargement] is not about third parties, it only between NATO and a new member and no third party should interfere in this process.
We made our choice to be a member of NATO and the EU when we are ready. It was a choice Montenegro made not yesterday but in the referendum on independence in 2006. It was very well known to our friends and to our opponents. We are just following our national interests.
Q: Why is it in the US interest for Montenegro to join NATO?
Darmanovic: We have always believed, together with the United States, that Europe has to be whole, free, and at peace. The Western Balkans is a necessary ingredient of this peace and stability. As long as the Western Balkans is not safe, stable, and integrated in the community of democracies and values that the EU and NATO embody, Europe and the United States can always have some challenges in the Western Balkans.
Montenegro, for example, is the only country in the Adriatic that is not under the NATO shield. Once Montenegro becomes a member of NATO we can speak about NATO from Portugal to Turkey without any gap. Montenegro contributed to the fight against terrorism from the very onset. We were part of the coalition in Afghanistan, we are part of the anti-ISIS coalition. And we have very good relationships with all our neighbors thanks to the multiethnic character of our society and the functioning democracy, and we are ready to act as a country which is going to support and help other NATO and EU aspirants in our region in their own efforts. We, as a small country, believe that the best environment for doing business and improving our economies and democracies is to have peace and stability. It is why we are ready to help our neighbors to go the same way.
Q: President Trump had described NATO as “obsolete.” As a country that wants to join the Alliance, why do you believe that this is not the case?
Darmanovic: President Trump, as far as I can remember, has never repeated the statement. He only placed an emphasis on financial contributions of NATO members to common defense—up to 2 percent of the budget. That was not his invention, but something that NATO allies obliged and took responsibility for in one of the previous summits confirming that there is a problem in increasing budgetary support to common defense.
I think the emphasis of President Trump on this issue is fair enough. We should be part of the common defense on the basis of common contributions. Montenegro is quite ready to follow this path. We actually obliged ourselves to reach the two percent budget contribution by 2022. Now our contribution is between 1.7 percent and 1.8 percent, which is much better than many of the NATO members.
President Trump, I think, had in mind the fact that NATO should become more efficient in financial contributions in order to more efficiently stand against terrorism.
Q: Are you concerned about the perception that the Trump administration will perhaps be too lenient toward Russia? How is this perception playing out in your neighborhood?
Darmanovic: We have not yet seen what is the approach of the new administration toward Russia. This strategy is yet to be clearly defined and exercised. It is very difficult for me to imagine that the US can sacrifice its traditional foreign policy and traditional national interests. I can imagine that the new administration might try to make relations with Russia based on cooperation on some issues like combating terrorism, but to think that any US administration can substantially change what are traditional US national interests is very hard to imagine.
Q: What should be the red lines for a reset of the US-Russia relationship?
Darmanovic: I believe that as a leader of the free world, the US would never accept the so-called politics of the sphere of influences where a few big powers will try to bargain at the expense of other countries. I think that the new US administration is going to combine a bilateral approach with standard multilateralism. It is what I believe should be the combination for the future. But we really need to see more concrete steps to conclude what is underway.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.