What do you call a country whose president has been recorded consorting with the Italian mafia, electoral roll contains more names than the adult population, investors are stripped of assets for campaigning against political corruption, Christians are persecuted, and military secrets are routinely leaked to Russia?
The answer is “NATO ally.”
Miniature Montenegro – a country on the Adriatic coast of Europe with little more than 600,000 citizens and with no deep historical ties to the West – entered the club in 2017, despite serious concerns of some members of the transatlantic intelligence community.
Now, as America begins to look beyond coronavirus to the threat from Communist China and a revanchist Russia, it cannot be in the interest of the Western Alliance to keep at its top table the political leadership of a country whose presence at best systematically undermines the values of NATO; and at worst, deliberately weakens it by sharing military information with America’s adversaries.
There have been sufficient warnings that President Milo Djukanovic is not a reliable partner. Montenegro has been his private fiefdom for 30 years, with his family and associates benefiting from endemic clientelism. In 2003, Djukanovic was caught red-handed in tapped phone calls with Italian mafia chiefs. Rightly, Djukanovic was named “Person of the Year in Organised Crime and Corruption.” As the awarding NGO described it: “it is really a lifetime achievement award.”
Conscientious citizens of Montenegro don’t have a say in Djukanovic’s election wins. Instead, the means of victory was exposed by the “Envelope Affair” – evidence of arguably the greatest electoral malfeasance unmasked in NATO.
Senior members of the Party of Democratic Socialists were caught on camera receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for a mass voter bribing scheme. Djukanovic’s reaction was not to arrest those demanding the money; instead he issued an Interpol arrest warrant for the person forced to pay: Dusko Knezevic, founder of the first private university in Montenegro and a British citizen, who has been strong-armed for years to pay in order to maintain his businesses. For Knezevic’s exposé of the corruption, the state forced bankruptcy on a bank he founded – a competitor to one run into the ground by Djukanovic’s brother. In response, tens of thousands of Montenegrins took to the streets in protest.
Now with proof of past electoral fraud laid bare, the government has commenced creating fictional voters. Evidence, methodically collated by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, reveals the electoral roll unveiled in advance of this month’s parliamentary election contains over 50 percent of registrations without any address. In a sizable number of municipalities, the roll is larger than the census of actual citizens. The revised number of registered voters unbelievably equals 90 percent of the entire population, making the upcoming election invalid from the start.
Perhaps sensing he is in danger, Djukanovic is now cracking down on the only organization capable of mounting serious opposition to his rule: The Orthodox Church. The new shamefully titled “Law on Religious Freedom” forces Christians to register to practice their religion and makes property of the Church built before 1918 the property of the state. For a Church founded in 1219, property built “before 1918” effectively means all of it.
With a history of confronting repressive rulers from Ottoman Turks to Yugoslavian Communists, and with 80 percent of the country adhering to the Orthodox faith, tens of thousands of Christians have mounted weekly protests. Djukanovic has reacted by arresting dozens of priests, hundreds of parishioners, a Bishop, an Archbishop, and members of the armed forces and medics who have signed petitions in their support. Djukanovic is now overseeing the demolition of Church properties, beginning at an ancient nunnery.
These reasons alone must be sufficient for the United States and its allies to readdress this Balkan fiefdom. But knowledge of its duplicitous relations with America’s adversaries calls for swifter action.
It is an open secret amongst the intelligence community that Montenegro cannot be trusted with certain NATO documentation. Montenegrin state and security services are, as one U.S. operative has privately described, “infested with Russian spies.” In early stages of membership, sensitive information shared with the government was found appearing in Moscow only hours later.
During accession negotiations, America insisted on the retirement of certain Montenegrin intelligence officials before joining NATO. They had been identified as Russian operatives. Djukanovic kept his word, until they were re-appointed in senior positions in the state police. He claimed they were needed to fight organized crime. Yet they had been responsible for the very racketeering networks they were supposed to be defeating.
This cannot continue. Every time yet more corruption, persecution, and duplicity are exposed, Montenegrin leaders claim it's all an unfortunate misunderstanding. No one believes them anymore.
Others are already seeking to act. Leading politicians in Great Britain – NATO’s second largest contributor – are floating sanctions. Moving further forward to combat the excesses of the Montenegrin state, British leaders are looking to fund NGOs involved in open media, rights, and religion.
America can go further. NATO is underpinned by bilateral military alliances between the U.S. and each member country. Suspend, or even the threat to suspend, that agreement and Montenegro’s leaders are stripped of the kudos it provides. The U.S. has suspended bi-lateral cooperation with others before, so it is not without precedent.
Djukanovic allies will claim that if Montenegro is not part of NATO, it would be drawn into the Russian embrace. It’s clear for those with eyes to see that Djukanovic’s party and his government are already closely hugging the Kremlin.
Regardless of the minor risks from this micro-country, America must ensure that all nations of the Western Alliance are good and true members in words, actions, and values. Djukanovic and his followers do not need more time to prove themselves when their chances are long exhausted. The time has come for America to stop rewarding tiny Montenegro’s giants of duplicity.