GIP Commentary: What Georgia Can Learn from Montenegro’s NATO Accession
Joseph Larsen and Mariam Grigalashvili
Montenegro became the newest member of NATO on June 5. It is the seventh enlargement in the history of the Alliance and the first since April 2009, when Albania and Croatia became full members. For Montenegro, the result has been a long time coming: It received a Membership Action Plan in 2009; the Alliance officially invited it to become a member in 2015; in 2016 the Accession Protocol was signed by the foreign ministers of each NATO member country; and in 2017 it officially became the 29th member of NATO.
Just 11 years after becoming an independent state, Montenegro is a full member of the world’s largest military alliance. That has important implications for other aspirant countries, including Georgia.
What Georgia Can Learn from Montenegro’s NATO Accession
- NATO’s door remains open. Eight years after its most recent enlargement, NATO opened its door once again. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at Montenegro’s Instrument of Accession deposit event in Washington, the move sends a signal to countries undergoing reform that the Alliance is open to accepting new members:“Since NATO’s founding, keeping our door open to new members has been one of our greatest contributions to international peace and security.”
- Geography still matters. As Stoltenberg stated, Montenegro’s membership is “good for the stability of the western Balkans.” The tiny country doesn’t bring much military hardware to the table but it gives the Alliance another foothold in the western Balkans, a region in which it has a checkered past.The western Balkans are unquestionably within geographical Europe. Moreover, the region has never been under Russian or Soviet rule, so the Kremlin cannot plausibly claim it as part of the country’s historical sphere of influence. That made bringing Montenegro into the Alliance a relatively low-risk proposition. Unfortunately, those circumstances do not apply to Georgia.
- NATO accession criteria are not one-size-fits-all. Montenegro’s membership is perplexing to some, especially in Georgia. The country is not a poster child for reform. It has a high level of corruption and a population almost evenly split between those for and against NATO membership. A December 2016 poll found that 39.5% of the population was “for” membership and 39.7% “against”.Georgia has a stronger record on fighting corruption and a population more firmly in favor of NATO membership. Georgia’s armed forces have contributed enthusiastically to NATO missions abroad.These facts understandably have many in the country wondering why it’s still striving for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) while a less committed country received full membership. The truth is, strategic considerations matter as much if not more than the candidate state’s willingness to reform.
- Russia views any enlargement to be a threat to its strategic interests. Montenegro has a population of fewer than 700,000 and an annual military budget of only 58.5 million euro. Its capital, Podgorica, is nearly 2,000 kilometers from Moscow. Yet, Russia did all it could to make NATO accession costly. Last year, police arrested 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens in connection with a plot to break into the parliament, kill the country’s prime minister Milo Dukanović, and bring a pro-Russian coalition to power. Russia’s government denied any involvement, but Milivoje Katnić, the country’s chief special prosecutor, believes that “Russian state bodies” were involved.What’s more, Russia’s foreign ministry openly threatened the country on the day it announced it would join NATO: “In the light of the hostile course chosen by the Montenegrin authorities, the Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures on a reciprocal basis. In politics, just as in physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction.”Russia’s actions sent a stern message to other prospective NATO members. If it’s willing to attempt to subvert a country in the western Balkans, how far would it go to prevent Georgia from joining the Alliance?
- NATO members view enlargement through the lens of risk and reward. This conclusion is the sum of all of the above points. A given country (in this case Montenegro) doesn’t receive NATO membership purely through its own efforts. Members of the Alliance must consider the potential benefits to be greater than the potential downside.In this case, Montenegro made the grade. Extending membership allowed the Alliance to expand into a key strategic area while sending a positive message to other prospective members. And, as mentioned above, the potential downside was small.
*Mariam Grigalashvili and Joseph Larsen are analysts at GIP.