Friday, October 16, 2015

Montenegro Hosts NATO Amid Protests

NATO visit to Podgorica sparks Serb protest, while opposition leaders call for military alliance chief to visit ongoing anti-government demonstrations.
Dusica Tomovic
NATO visit to Podgorica sparks Serb protest | Photo:IN4S.
NATO officials were greeted with protests and an invitation to visit anti-government demonstrators during a high-level visit to the Montenegrin capital on Wednesday.

Members of the alliance’s top political body, the North Atlantic Council, NAC, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg were visiting Podgorica to assess how much progress the Balkan state has made in implementing reforms ahead of potentially joining NATO.

Several dozen anti-NATO activists rallied outside the government’s official residence in Podgorica on Wednesday to protest against joining the military alliance. Many were carrying banners bearing the slogan ‘No to war, No to NATO’.

They are calling on the government to abandon plans to join NATO, which Podgorica defined as a foreign policy priority back in 2006.

Opinions about NATO membership remain hotly divided in Montenegro. Many of the country’s sizeable Serbian community remain angry over NATO’s bombing campaign in Serbia during the 1990s that was aimed at forcing Belgrade to withdraw from Kosovo.

Several opposition politicians, mostly from pro-Serbian parties, joined the anti-NATO rally. Protesters sang famous Russian songs and carried banners declaring that ‘Kosovo is the heart of Serbia’. Pro-Serb party leaders called on people to never forget the victims of the NATO bombings.

During the visit, NAC representatives urged Montenegro to continue implementing a series of reforms ahead of a final decision due by the end of the year on whether to invite the country to join NATO.

"Montenegro needs to continue reforms in key areas, so member states can make the decision by the end of the year on the basis of the achieved results," Stoltenberg said during Wednesday’s talks with the Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic.

‘Visit anti-government protesters’

Meanwhile, opposition leaders who have been coordinating anti-government protests across Montenegro during the past three weeks have called on NATO chief Stoltenberg to visit demonstrators “to get a real insight” into security and legal issues in the country.

The Democratic Front, an alliance of opposition parties, has called for Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's administration to step down and hold an early election, amid allegations of electoral fraud and corruption at government level.

"We have no information whether Stoltenberg will accept our invitation, but it would be an opportunity for him to hear relevant facts about the rule of law, the fight against organised crime and corruption, and the ongoing political crisis in Montenegro," Nebojsa Medojevic, a Democratic Front leader, told BIRN on Wednesday.

NATO urged Montenegro to continue implementing reforms | Photo:NATO.
NAC members and Stoltenberg were in the capital to assess whether the country has done enough in reforming the security sector to warrant receiving a membership invite. As the alliance’s top political body, the visit by NAC is considered the most important since 2006, when Montenegro joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.

Vujanovic's cabinet put out a statement on Wednesday quoting Stoltenberg as saying the current reforms implemented in Montenegro will ensure the country reaches NATO standards and that progress is "encouraging".

The United States has already signalled its support for the accession of the tiny Adriatic country, that has a total population of around 620,000 people.

Washington's NATO envoy, Douglas Lute, said on Wednesday there was an "emerging consensus" among NATO's 28 members, while stressing an invitation would depend on Montenegro making further progress on reforms to tackle corruption, improve the rule of law, and ensure public support for membership.

The government said it was optimistic that it will be invited to join the Western military alliance in December but admitted public opinion still did not support membership and that the anti-NATO campaign was likely to intensify in the weeks to come.

NAC officials and Stoltenberg are expected to meet Montenegrin lawmakers on Thursday, but the Democratic Front has refused to attend because it is boycotting parliamentary work until the government responds to protesters’ demands.

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