PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro will have to beef up its public support for NATO and strengthen the rule of law before it can become a member, the alliance's secretary-general said Thursday.
The tiny Balkan state is deeply split between its traditional ties with Russia and those wanting to join the Western military alliance. Polls say public support for NATO has never exceeded 40 percent.
Russian officials have warned Montenegro against joining NATO, saying the Kremlin would regard that as a provocation. Montenegro, which has had strong economic and cultural ties with Russia, has joined Western sanctions against Moscow for its policies in Ukraine.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Podgorica that Montenegro's membership bid is in "the crucial phase" and that it will be discussed at NATO's ministerial meeting scheduled for December.
"We count on Montenegro to continue to strengthen the rule of law and we encourage you to further build public support for membership," Stoltenberg said after meeting Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic whose long-standing government has often been accused of corruption and mismanagement.
"It is important that Montenegro does what needs to be done and that it demonstrates that it is ready to become a valuable member of the Alliance," Stoltenberg said. "Joining the Euro-Atlantic family is a win-win for Montenegro and for NATO."
Djukanovic said that it is in Montenegro's national interest to get the green light for membership by the end of 2015.
"I really expect that we have an additional improvement of public support in the next few months, which would qualify us for the positive outcome at the end of this year," Djukanovic said.