By Maja Zuvela
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - NATO is helping Western Balkan governments build up intelligence and defense bodies to resist foreign, especially Russian, political influence, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.
Stoltenberg, speaking during a visit to Sarajevo, said the alliance was aware of reports of increased Russian influence in the Balkans and of Russian intervention in political processes in Montenegro.
"We are following that very closely, we work with partners, including Montenegro, to help them strengthen their intelligence capacities and defense institutions," Stolteneberg said, answering a journalist's question.
Montenegro is expected to join NATO this year, a move that Russia strongly opposes. Last year, the Adriatic country's authorities accused a group of Serb and Russian nationalists of planning a coup during Oct. 16 elections to get an opposition alliance into power.
The Russian government denied involvement in such a plot.
"The best way to increase resilience towards any kind of external influence or potential influence is to make sure that the institutions in different Western Balkan countries are strong, modernized and reformed," Stoltenberg said.
He also encouraged Bosnia's rival ethnic leaders to reach a compromise on the country's future and its path towards NATO and European Union membership.
Bosnia has made some progress towards fulfilling the conditions for its Membership Action Plan (MAP), the fore court for the alliance's full membership; but Bosnian Serbs are dragging their feet on meeting the remaining terms.
Stoltenberg said that NATO would not force any country to join and dismissed allegations that the alliance would intervene in Bosnia in the event of political turmoil.
(additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic, writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Ralph Boulton)