PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday praised reforms so far in Montenegro and urged further effort ahead of the December decision on whether to invite the Balkan country with historic ties to Russia to join the Western military Alliance.
"Montenegro is a strong aspirant for membership," Stoltenberg said after addressing lawmakers and speaking to Montenegrin officials.
"Further implementation of the reforms is key," he added. "It demands strong commitment, but it can be done and Montenegro is taking the right steps."
Stoltenberg, who is on a two-day visit with ambassadors from NATO's North Atlantic Council, has praised Montenegrin reforms of the armed forces and intelligence services.
The Montenegrin government has strongly pursued NATO membership since the country became independent in 2006, but it has been told it must also beef up public support for NATO, strengthen the rule of law and step up other reform.
"It is important to continue with the reform momentum by December and after that," Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said. "In such atmosphere, we have much reason for optimism that we will reach our goal."
Illustrating the public divide on NATO membership, dozens of anti-NATO protesters gathered in the capital, Podgorica, holding banners reading "No to NATO." The same slogan has been sprayed on dozens of buildings throughout the capital city.
Anti-NATO sentiments are due partly to NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999. Still, recent opinion polls have suggested that support for NATO has grown in recent months amid a strong government campaign.
"It is now important for Montenegro to show that the systems are performing, delivering the results for which they were created," Stoltenberg said.
The United States has signaled support for Montenegro's membership bid, but Russia — which has traditionally strong religious, cultural and historic influence in the Balkans — has been opposed.