Pence’s Montenegro Visit ‘Timely and Important’

Vice-President Pence’s visit to Montenegro not only underlined US support for NATO and regional democracy, it also highlighted concerns over Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans.

For the second time in the recent past, Montenegro has been in the limelight. After a scene at a NATO Summit in Brussels in May when US President Donald Trump shoved Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic in order to take his place in the front row during a photo opportunity, US Vice-President Mike Pence paid a historic visit on August 2 to the newest member of the Western military alliance. 

A visit by the highest ranking American official ever to come to Montenegro has again propelled the tiny state into the high orbit of global policy. It may be just a consequence of geo-political circumstances or a result of thought-through, Montenegrin policy. I would say a little bit of both. 

The current vice-president’s trip to Europe had more to do with Russia, its growing influence in Europe and the validation of America’s new/old approach toward traditional European allies.

Described as a testing ground for the current administration’s policy toward Russia, it was set to prove America’s unwavering and solid support to a group of new allies, like Montenegro, and those nations living on European “fault lines”. From that perspective, the visit to Montenegro has more than a local or regional dimension.

Given political confusion in US-Russian relations, which are often overshadowed by perplexing messages from Washington, the ongoing US Congressional hearings and Russia's military and political assertiveness, Pence’s visit to Eastern Europe was timely and extremely important. 

Not only did he (re)confirm traditional American support for NATO and its European partners, but he also wanted to make European allies aware that President Trump completely shares his views. Pence didn’t miss an opportunity to point out that he “brings greetings from President Donald Trump who sent me here as a visible sign of the alliance that we now enjoy through NATO”. 

He wanted to underline that America’s well-known and traditional views on NATO and the open-door policy remains unchanged despite President Trump’s tweets and numerous dubious comments about the alliance. While President Trump did not reaffirm America’s commitment to collective defence at a NATO Summit in Brussels, with an obvious purpose, Pence took this trip to underscore the concept of collective defence stipulated by NATO’s Article 5. 

That being said, the US Vice President’s visits to the Baltic states, Georgia and Montenegro personifies standing points of many members of Congress and Trump’s own administration, including the current defence secretary and national security adviser. Time will tell whether the GOP’s long established policy prevailed over pro-Russia’s voices in the current administration. 

Security threats

NATO has endured so long for a good reason. Although it often looks like bureaucracy in Brussels exists for its own sake, the strategic reality and modern asymmetric security threats provide convincing justification for the alliance’s existence. 

The same can be said for NATO’s open-door policy which, alongside EU enlargement, secured a smooth democratic transition for most Eastern European countries and their inclusion in NATO and the EU. More than ever, countries wishing to join the military alliance and the EU needed words and, hopefully, acts of encouragement from their western partners and the US. In their view, Pence’s trip was appropriate and necessary, although Moscow sees it as a trip to “the new sphere of US influence”.

Strong encouragement and a new, reinvigorated, EU and NATO perspective is especially needed in the Western Balkans. Mired in lasting economic problems, political stagnation, growing social injustice, insufficient democracy, weak law enforcement institutions, endemic nationalism and outstanding bilateral disputes, the region was an easy target for Russia to present itself as a viable alternative to a never-ending candidate process for membership of prestigious European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Russia will continue to exploit these weaknesses in most Balkan states. Moscow is utilising the democratic deficiencies of those states in an effort to gain greater geopolitical influence. The Kremlin seeks to weaken democratic transition, to erode state institutions and the rule of law concept, which Pence echoed in his statement at the Adriatic Charter Summit in Podgorica. 

To achieve its goals, Moscow often supports political parties and individuals in Europe and the US who challenge the core postulates of liberal democracy and separation of powers. Russia intends to keep NATO and the EU out of the Balkans to the fullest extent possible, therefore an effective response to it is a continuous pro-active approach from the US and EU side.

Democratic transition in aspiring countries should be reinforced: the rule of law, anti-corruption measures and strong institutions are the precondition for stability in the region.

And so Pence’s visit to Montenegro was not just a strong, political gesture vis-à-vis Moscow; it’s an equally important message to local leaders. It highlights America’s support for the region while calling for more effective democratic reform. 

US support ‘conditional’

Pence’s words that “it’s time for progress in the volatile Balkans” or his statement that with America’s support “Balkan leaders should make the most of this moment for progress in the Western Balkans” are to be read not as unconditional, unlimited American support. It is support for democratic reforms, and reforms can be reinforced only by local leaders. 

Eventual membership is an outcome of a common endeavour. The EU and the US should not turn enlargement or membership of NATO into a moving, hardly achievable target while Western Balkan states must work harder on democratic reforms and becoming more honestly engaged in regional cooperation. 

In Montenegro’s eyes, Pence’s visit was of extreme significance for several reasons. Regionally, it underlined the constructive role that Montenegro has been playing for years. Internally, it was not just an acknowledgment of achievements resulting from the foreign policy goals set in 2006, shortly after the country regained independence. This was also an excellent opportunity for the government to reconfirm that it had “irrevocably” tied itself to the West, as Markovic stressed during Pence’s visit. 

In return, Montenegro got much-needed words of support from America. It was in Podgorica that a high-ranking US official for the first time openly confirmed that Moscow masterminded the October coup attempt.

During the meeting with Markovic, Pence stated: “Russia’s intentions were laid bare when Moscow-backed agents sought to disrupt Montenegro’s elections, attack its parliament and even attempt to assassinate its prime minister to dissuade the Montenegrin people from entering the NATO alliance.” His message resonates strongly among those in the country and beyond, who didn’t trust Montenegro’s version of the event. 

Even the meeting with representatives of Montenegro’s opposition has a double political meaning or a double political reading. First, the government may emphasise that “the vice-president urged the opposition to return to parliament to carry out their responsibilities as legislators and represents of voters who elected them”, and second, it could also be perceived as an attempt to regroup the Montenegrin opposition in order to politically marginalise the Democratic Front alliance, known for its political and financial affiliation to Moscow.

If a broad and, hopefully, civil opposition block could be formed and sustained, it might effectively undermine the Democratic Front’s plan to assert itself as the strongest opposition entity in Montenegro capable of uniting the whole opposition around its political programme. Furthermore, such a new political coalition could be a respected political force in parliament and play a potentially important role in (early) general elections.  

In hope that the outcomes of this trip will not be tainted with new, puzzling Twitter posts by the president, Pence’s visit seems to be a sign of the administration’s commitment to remain engaged in the region and even put it higher up the list of American priorities in Europe. Balkan history teaches us that a probable American retreat coupled with EU negligence may have lasting, adverse implications for the region and European security.