PODGORICA (Reuters) - Hosting NATO’s top brass, Montenegro said on Wednesday it was optimistic of being invited to join the Western military alliance in December, over the objections of Russia.
Ambassadors of NATO’s North Atlantic Council were meeting in Podgorica on Wednesday and Thursday in the latest signal of the alliance’s resolve to usher Montenegro into its ranks.
Bringing in the tiny Adriatic republic of 650,000 people would mark the first expansion of NATO ranks in ex-Communist eastern Europe since Montenegro’s neighbors Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and the first since Russia-Western tensions flared over Ukraine’s 2014 revolution and the war that ensued.
“I am certain the conditions are there for the alliance member states in December to take the decision to invite Montenegro to join,” Montenegrin Foreign Minister Igor Luksic said in a statement to Reuters.
The United States has signaled its support for the accession of the former Yugoslav republic.
Washington's NATO envoy, Douglas Lute, said on Wednesday there was an "emerging consensus" among NATO's 28 members though an invitation would depend on Montenegro making further progress on reforms to tackle corruption and improve the rule of law, and ensuring public support in the country, where polls are mixed.
"So if those two conditions are met," Lute said, "then the U.S. vote in December will be positive."
Russia has described NATO’s extension into the Balkans, where Moscow enjoys historically close relations with fellow Orthodox Christians, as a “provocation”.
Western diplomats say Montenegro's accession would send a message to Moscow that it cannot halt NATO's expansion, though it is much less contentious than the its earlier overtures to the likes of formerly Soviet Georgia, whose own membership ambitions were quashed by its war with Russia in 2008.
Montenegro’s breathtaking Adriatic coastline has seen an influx of Russian private money, homebuyers and tourists since the country split from a state union with Serbia in 2006.
But Podgorica's relations with Moscow have long been uneasy given the Montenegrin government’s pursuit of closer integration within the West largely since the end in 1995 of the wars over the break-up of old federal Yugoslavia.
Ties deteriorated further when Montenegro joined EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Montenegro’s government points to opinion polls that suggest a narrow majority support entering NATO - 16 years after the alliance struck targets in the country during an 11-week air war to drive security forces under Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia’s then-southern province of Kosovo.
Montenegro was at that time part of a rump Yugoslav state with Serbia, left over after Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia broke away from their joint communist federation.
But unlike Milosevic's Serbia, Montenegro began leaning towards cultivating ties with western Europe. It won independence in 2006 and has undertaken reforms in pursuit of EU and NATO membership.
Critics, however, point to the 25 years of political domination by Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists, long dogged by allegations of organized crime that the government says are unfounded.
Many ethnic Serbs in Montenegro, like their kin in Serbia, fiercely oppose joining NATO, a divide reflected in Montenegro's 2006 referendum on independence, which passed by the narrowest of margins.
"What we are looking for there is a clear indication that the people of Montenegro want this membership, that it is not simply the leadership of Montenegro," said Lute.
Additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Mark Heinrich