Political dynamics in Montenegro. The EU is not the only game in town

In February 2018, as part of their Global Strategy, the European Union (EU) announced ambitious expansion plans for seven countries within the Western Balkans; this expansion, which may begin as early as 2025, envisions Montenegro as a front runner for accession.

While such integration plans provide an ability to solidify and realize European security in its Southeastern corner, Montenegro’s accession presents several issues for the European Union. Most notably, it positions a rebounding EU against a resurgent Russia and an ambitious China for political and economic influence.

Unlike the internal workings of Podgorica, these external pressures are out of the reach of Brussels accession protocols and have the potential to become a destabilizing factor; at the same time, while previous eastern expansions may offer some insight, the global geopolitical situation has changed dramatically since these events, promising to make Montenegro’s path to the EU uniquely challenging. The way Beijing, Brussels, Moscow, and Podgorica manage the upcoming accession years will have economic and political impacts far beyond the Balkan region and well past this current round of accessions.

Montenegro’s accession process

It would be easy to dismiss Montenegro’s accession process to the EU as familiar, or even run-of-the-mill. After all, Montenegro is not the first Balkan country to join the EU, nor is it the first to have dealt with external influences. What makes Montenegro’s accession process distinct, and potentially troubling, is the geopolitical state of affairs in Europe: when Jean-Claude Juncker announced the ambitious timeline, he noted that there were no guarantees attached.

Indeed, the accession protocol has only become more stringent as the EU incorporates lessons learned. However, the confluence of a rising China, a revanchist Russia, and a post-Brexit EU make Montenegro’s accession to seem a practical and necessary component of Europe’s geopolitical security. These events have the EU acting more like a strategist than a bureaucracy with integration plans taking a realist tact. Recent events indicate that Russia and China will try to exploit this context and in doing so, may destabilize Montenegro and the region.

China: Checkbook diplomacy

China’s growing interest in the Balkans concerns the EU. Considering the unprecedented ambition of the One Belt One Road Initiative [1] and the opacity of Beijing’s geopolitics, these concerns seem sensible, if not predictable. In Montenegro, China’s political and economic vehicles fall under the 16+1 initiative — a series of bilateral agreements between China and Central and Eastern European countries. So far, these initiatives have focused on financing transportation, infrastructure, and energy projects, with limited Foreign Direct Investment (FDI); however, such a characterization does not explain the true impact of such initiatives[2]. These financing offers represent an appealing alternative to European Investment Bank’s stringent financing conditions and often come with much less bureaucracy. Though these loans — designed to expand China’s access to the emerging markets of Southeastern Europe — lack the influence of FDI, such distinctions may not carry the same weight in the EU’s developing and oft-neglected Southwestern corner.

The potential impacts of China’s financial influence is clear in the construction of the Chinese-funded Bar-Boljare motorway, which will transit from the Adriatic coast to the Serbian border: with an estimated cost of €809 million, EU banks viewed the highway as untenable, yet once Podgorica accepted Chinese financing monetary rating downgrades, a warning from the International Momentary Fund, and a heated row within the Montenegrin parliament followed.

These outcomes illustrate the potentially destabilizing effect that Chinese money can have in the Balkans, while simultaneously undermining the EU’s attempts in institutional reform — a key element of the EU accession process. The timing of the highway funding also exposes the limitations of the EU’s appeal in Montenegro, as Podgorica did not shy away from courting Chinese funds during the accession process: when it comes to financing, the EU is not the only game in town.

When assessing China’s relationship with Southeastern Europe, economics reigns supreme; however, it would be a mistake to view China’s interest and influence in Montenegro purely through an economic lens. Recent history illustrates China views economics as more than just access to markets, it represents a way to influence or engender support for its political objectives — a form of checkbook diplomacy. When coupled with Beijing’s strong preference for bilateral relations over multilateral, this presence transcends the economics, presenting a political problem for the EU. While the EU accepts individual members will in maintaining bilateral relations, they also require adherence to a singular EU voice — a dynamic that holds the potential for inconsistency. China’s influence could drive a wedge between these inconsistencies in an attempt to decrease unity and exploit the uneven development and institutional reform that exists between Western and Southeastern Europe. In September 2017 the German Foreign Minister articulated this concern when he stated, “If we do not succeed…in developing a single strategy towards China, then China will succeed in dividing Europe.”[3] Such sentiment is not Germany’s alone. Countering the allure of Chinese financing may cause significant stress on the EU’s financial institutions.

Russia: Coercive Diplomacy

In contrast to China’s novel interest in Montenegro, Russian influence has depth, breadth, and history. It is this enduring influence that concerns the EU. Unlike Beijing, Moscow is exploiting existing links, rather than creating new ones and the intent is clear: Montenegro belongs in Russia’s sphere of influence. This tone was evident when Vladimir Putin in April 2018 described the relationship between Moscow and Podgorica, stating, “the current state of affairs in Russia-Montenegro relations clearly does not correspond to the centuries-old traditions of brotherly friendship and spiritual affinity between our peoples.”[4] Such a speech appeals directly to the Russian and pro-Russian populations in Montenegro, allowing Moscow direct access to influence internal politics.

Russian influence was on display throughout Montenegro’s NATO accession, ranging from diplomatic protestations to a Pro-Russian boycott of ratification within the Montenegrin parliament. The most aggressive display of Russia’s influence in Montenegro was the “attempted coup” in October 2016, which appeared to be the work of a Russian backed opposition group – the Democratic Front[5]. While influence is difficult to measure quantitatively, these events provide a qualitative picture of Russian influence.

While Russia’s influence is primarily socio-political in nature, the foundation of this influence is a healthy influx of FDI — approximately a third of the country’s GDP — and a steady stream of Russian tourists, which account for up to 25% of total tourism[6]. In a small nascent nation reliant on tourism these numbers speak volumes. Moscow knows this, which is why they waged a successful campaign of misinformation to decrease Russian tourism to Montenegro. Unlike China’s strategy for achieving influence in Montenegro, Russian aims have an overtly political tone designed to destabilize the country in its slow, but steady, march towards West.

Moreover, Moscow presents a wholly different problem for the EU — one that legislation and economics cannot easily counter: despite the narrative liberties that Putin is taking, it is hard to forget that less than two decades ago Western Europe, under the umbrella of NATO, was taking part in the bombing of Montenegro. A lot has changed since the Dayton accords, but memories run deep and provide inroads to manipulating people’s politics. The EU’s historical indifference for the Balkans means Russia is starting with the upper hand, firmly entrenched in the political, social, and economic lifelines of the country. Dislodging this influence will take significant effort and strategic patience that may extend past 2025.

Impacts on the EU

Despite the EU’s highly calibrated approach to accession, the external influences of China and Russia promise to make Montenegro’s accession interesting, if not problematic. As Sino-Russian relations continue to warm, they present an increasing threat to the EU’s status as the hegemon of the continent[7]. As these countries go about exploiting the historical, social, and economic cleavages that exist, they may destabilize Montenegro and negatively impact the EU as a whole. Furthermore, Moscow and Russia may exploit the EU’s stringent bureaucracy and past handling of Southeastern members to invoke derision from Podgorica.

Nevertheless, Russia and China have divergent interests in the region, with Russia benefiting from a destabilization and China benefiting from stability. Despite these differences, each influence could complicate Montenegro’s adoption of certain chapters of the EU’s acquis communautaire, specifically those that address economic and political policy. Such a failure would require the EU to make a tough choice between its bureaucracy and its strategy. With more accessions planned how Brussels deals with these realities will reverberate well outside the confines of this current EU expansion.

After an assessment of the situation in Montenegro two questions emerge. Foremost, can the EU counter the influences of Russia and China? Second, is Europe’s continued integration keeping the problem of external influence at bay or inviting it inside? The EU leadership would need to address these questions as the accession process moves forward and adopt measures to mitigate where necessary.

David M. Andre

MA in Security Studies
Naval Postgraduate School, California

Notes and References

[1] One Belt One Road Initiative  is the development strategy proposed by the Chinese government that focuses on connectivity and cooperation between Eurasian countries. Geographically structured along several land corridors, and the maritime silk road, The One Belt One Road Initiative includes infrastructure corridors encompassing around 60 countries, and will cost an estimated US$4-8 trillion

[2] “China and South-Eastern Europe: Infrastructure, trade and investment links” European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. (2016, July). RetrievedEu from www.ebrd.com/documents/comms-and-bis/see-china-investments.pdf.

[3] Brussels Rattled as China Reaches Out to Eastern Europe. Foreign Times. (2017, November 27). Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/16abbf2a-cf9b-11e7-9dbb-291a884dd8c6.

[4] Russia’s Putin: Ties With Montenegro at Odds With Our Age-Old Friendship. Reuters. (2017, April 11). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2018-04-11/russias-putin-ties-with-montenegro-at-odds-with-our-age-old-friendship.

[5] Higgins, A. (2016, November 26) Finger Pointed at Russians in Alleged Coup Plot in Montenegro, the New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/26/world/europe/finger-pointed-at-russians-in-alleged-coup-plot-in-montenegro.html.

[6] Anastasakis, O. (2018, January). Assessing Russia’s Economic Footprint in Montenegro Policy Brief No. 73, (January 2018). Clingendel Spectator. Retrieved from www.csd.bg/fileSrc.php?id=23347.

[7] Chase, M; Medeiros, E; Roy, S: Rumer, E, Sutter, R and Weitz R. (July 2017). Russia-China Relations: Assessing Common Ground and Strategic Fault Lines. (July 2017). Carnegie Endowment. Retrieved from http://carnegieendowment.org/files/SR66_Russia-ChinaRelations_July2017.pdf.