Western Integration vs. Putinism in the Balkans and Ukraine
by Stephen Schwartz
On May 19, Montenegro, smallest of the Balkan states with only about 650,000 people, signed the accession protocol beginning its process of membership in NATO. If the agreement is ratified by all the countries of the Atlantic alliance, which seems probable, Montenegro will become its 29th affiliate. It will be the fourth western Balkan nation in NATO, following the admission of two other ex-Yugoslav lands—Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2009—and Albania, also in 2009.
Montenegro will not bring much firepower to the alliance. Its military establishment counts only 2,000 personnel. Yet its embrace of the West brought anger from Moscow. The Putin regime, according to an unnamed Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman quoted by the Voice of America, threatened to "change [its] policy . . . to this friendly country," through economic and other sanctions. The Russian representative condemned Montenegro's NATO engagement as an "attempt to change the military political landscape in Europe, especially in the light of the alliance's course to restrain our country." The latter phrase refers, obviously, to Western criticism of Russia's recent expansionism, mainly the seizure of Crimea and other violations of the independence of Ukraine since 2014—and especially its sponsorship of pro-Russian armed detachments in eastern Ukraine.
Still, what is Russia's interest in Montenegro? Unlike Ukraine, Montenegro was never part of Russia or the Soviet Union, and in 1948, under Yugoslav Communist dictator Tito, Montenegro was removed, with the rest of Yugoslavia, from the orbit of the Kremlin. Nevertheless, Putin's ambitions are wide, going beyond reassertion of control over former-Soviet "republics" like Ukraine as well as the "near abroad" ruled by Russian puppets during the Cold War. On May 12, when U.S. and NATO officials inaugurated an Aegis antimissile defense facility in Romania—another country that joined NATO in 2004—the Russians responded with the same paranoid rhetoric. Additionally, NATO is reinforcing its presence in Poland and the Baltic states, which are vulnerable to Russian interference.
As reported by Reuters, Russian sources characterized the antimissile site in Romania as an element in a plan "to encircle [Russia] to close the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet and where NATO is also considering increasing patrols. . . . 'It is part of the military and political containment of Russia,' Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, declared, according to the Interfax news agency." The Russians scoffed at NATO arguments that the antimissile defense was developed primarily as a shield against Iran.
Romania is separated from Russia by Ukraine and Moldova, and Montenegro has always been distant from Russia. But Montenegro is not the only ex-Yugoslav entity included in the Putin calculus of his new empire. A Serbian-majority zone (the "Republic of Serbs" or "R.S."), purged of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, was carved out of Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 1992-95 war in that country, leaving it partitioned. The "R.S" borders much of western Montenegro, and is divided between supporters of its pro-Putin ruler, Milorad Dodik, and an "Alliance for Change" that seeks closer ties with Western Europe. Dodik's followers demand a full secession by the "R.S." from divided Bosnia and a firm alignment with Russia. On May 14, thousands of anti-Western marchers in Banja Luka, the Serbian-Bosnian "capital," carried posters of Dodik and Putin. They were opposed by protestors accusing Dodik and his associates of corruption.
Back in Montenegro, the local population includes a Christian Orthodox majority of about 72 percent, plus substantial minorities of Slav Muslims in its north and Albanians, both Catholic and Muslim, on its east, facing Kosova. The Montenegrin-Kosovar frontier has been a cause of heightened political discord in Kosova, where the Albanian political opposition has accused the government in Prishtina of selling out Kosovar interests in negotiations about the demarcation. On May 20, Kosova president Hashim Thaçi declared that a deal with Montenegro was done and signed, but it remains to be ratified by the often-fractious national parliament, the Kosova Assembly.
To the south of Kosova lies Macedonia, another ex-Yugoslav "republic" under scrutiny by Putin and his cohort. Since last year, Macedonia has faced a political crisis over the alleged abuses by its former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, accused of mounting a massive wire-tapping effort against the country's media, political, and religious elite. Gruevski resigned in January 2016 in response to the scandal. Yet on April 7, Gjorge Ivanov, his colleague as president of the government and leader of the dominant Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity-Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (DPMNE-VMRO), dissolved the Macedonian parliament. On April 10, Ivanov pardoned Gruevski and 55 other people implicated in the wire-tapping affair. The wire-tapping inquiry was shut down.
Ivanov announced that new elections would be held on June 5, but the main opposition party, the ex-Communist Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM), pledged to boycott the vote, with the DPMNE-VMRO putting forward the only slate. On May 18 the Macedonian Constitutional Court ruled the dissolution of parliament invalid and ordered a halt to electioneering.
Macedonia's opposition has produced a novel variant on the "color revolutions"—orange in Ukraine, rose in Georgia, tulip in Kyrgyzstan—that are interpreted by the Kremlin as menacing tools of anti-Russian encroachment. In Macedonia, a "colorful revolution" has emerged, so-called because demonstrators fire multihued paintballs at symbols of the Gruevski regime, which spent millions of euros on pretentious monuments, while the country's people contended with poverty. German news agency Deutsche Welle quoted economist Branimir Jovanović saying, "colors are our answer against the grayness that this government has been pushing for years. . . We are giving color to the 'bunkers' that Gruevski and his gang made: the bunkers that occupied freedom of thought, the bunkers that hid the billions that they stole in the last 10 years. They dictated grayness; we give them color back. They forced uniformity; we give back variety."
Macedonia is more ethnically diverse than Montenegro, with at least a quarter of the Macedonian population of 2.1 million comprising Albanian Muslims and Catholics. The "colorful" nature of its dissenting movement reflects a common bond of civic fervor among its differing citizens, as do displays of the Macedonian and Albanian flags together at many of the tumultuous demonstrations.
Within the core zone of Putinite aggression, everything appears to return inevitably to Ukraine. The January 2016 issue of the highly-reputed, peer-reviewed journal Post-Soviet Affairs included an article by Marlene Laruelle, a French-born research professor at George Washington University, on "The three colors of Novorossiya, or the Russian nationalist mythmaking of the Ukrainian crisis." Laruelle has determined, by a close examination of many sources, that in the eastern Ukrainian confrontation, "foreigners, who are neither Russian nor Ukrainian, fight [for Moscow] . . . many of them with Neo-Nazi views. . . . Serbian troops appear to be the most numerous, followed by Belarusians" and combatants from other former Soviet "republics."
According to Laruelle, the "three colors" of "Novorossiya" or "New Russia," the nationalist (and tsarist) title of occupied Crimea and contested eastern Ukraine, are red for communist nostalgia, white for a return to monarchist imperialism, and brown for fascism. Against the orange, rose, tulip, and multiple colors of hope, one thing guides such aggressive ideologies: hatred for the West.