PLAVNICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro's bid to join NATO is progressing smoothly despite strong opposition from Russia, the Western military alliance's No. 2 official said Thursday.
Rose Gottemoeller spoke in Montenegro where NATO is holding emergency exercise drills while Russian troops participate in war games in neighboring Serbia amid mounting tensions between Moscow and the West over Syria and a variety of other geopolitical issues.
Gottemoeller, on her first trip as deputy secretary-general, said that she expects that Montenegro will become a member next spring after all 28 NATO member states and the tiny Balkan country ratify the agreement in their parliaments.
"The accession process is moving forward smoothly and I expect that, pending all those parliamentary processes being complete ... you would become a member in the spring of 2017," Gottemoeller said. "So I don't see any problems with that."
Montenegro has been invited to join NATO despite strong opposition from its traditional Slavic ally Russia. With Montenegro joining, Russia would lose a strategic access to the Adriatic Sea, and Serbia would remain its only ally in the region.
Montenegrin officials have accused Russia of being behind an alleged coup attempt on election day in October to topple the pro-Western government because of its NATO bid. Russian officials denied the charges, but reiterated their support for anti-NATO opposition in Montenegro.
Sergei Zheleznyak, a lawmaker in Russian President Vladimir Putin's party, called reports of an attempted Russia-orchestrated coup in Montenegro a "failed media sabotage."
"Any attempts to impose on Montenegro conditions that the majority of (Montenegrin) people oppose should be viewed as dangerous political extremism," Zheleznyak said in comments posted on the party's website, adding that the "patriotic" opposition is acting "in line with people's will."
Some 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens, including a former commander of Serbia's special police forces, were arrested in Montenegro during the vote. They are suspected of trying to stage a coup by capturing Montenegrin Prime Minster Milo Djukanovic and storming parliament. Serbian authorities reportedly deported an unspecified number of Russian operatives monitoring movements of Djukanovic from Serbian territory.
Gottemoeller said "the events around your election are a very serious matter," but refused to comment further amid the ongoing investigations both in Montenegro and Serbia.
"I do think that the process of preparing for NATO membership has strengthened Montenegro to address a serious crisis such as this kind and that is, I think, already a positive effect of NATO membership," she said.
Serbia and Montenegro were a single state before their split in 2006. But since the split, Montenegro has pursued pro-Western policies, while Serbia — officially seeking European Union membership — has been struggling to wrestle away from Moscow's grip.
The six-day armed drills in Serbia, dubbed "The Slavic Brotherhood 2016," began Thursday. They involve 212 Russian troops, three transport planes, 450 soldiers from Serbia and 56 from Belarus, Serbia's Defense Ministry said. A few Serbian soldiers are also taking part in the NATO-led exercise in Montenegro that includes fighting floods and chemical attacks.
"NATO puts a lot of importance on countries having the opportunity to choose their security relationships," Gottemoeller said. "It's the countries' sovereign right to choose their own security relationships. It's up to Serbia to decide if it would like to take part in a military exercise with the Russian Federation. As far as NATO is concerned, that's fine, that's OK."
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, contributed to this report.