Russia is actively working with “strongholds” of anti-EU and anti-Nato sentiment in the Western Balkans in order to compete for influence, Montenegro’s prime minister, Milo Dukanovic has warned.
He told EUobserver in an interview at the recent Nato summit in Warsaw that up to one third of people in the region opposed Western integration.
He said people in the lowest income brackets in a part of Europe where average GDP per capita is just €6,000 did not see the long term benefit of EU economic reforms and feared the “novelty” of EU political values.
He also said that these people “still cherish a certain emotional attachment to Russia from the past”.
“They want to see Montenegro stuck in the jaws of the retrograde past. They’re afraid of everything that’s a novelty because they don’t have enough self-confidence to adjust to the changes”, he said.
He said this made them “very good prey” for Russian propaganda, but he said Russia also supported the anti-Western minority in other ways.
“They [the Russians] have their strongholds, the role of which is to oppose Nato and the EU, not only in our country, but in all the countries of the region”, Dukanovic said.
“These minorities have very frequent contacts with Moscow. It is clear Russia is very supportive and provides the logistics for certain political parties, NGOs, and media outlets which are trying to hamper Montenegro’s path to Euro-Atlantic integration”, he said.
“Do I see this as a peril? Yes, I do”, he said.
Dukanovic has held high office in Podgorice, either as prime minister or as president, since 1991.
He shepherded the country to starting EU entry talks in 2012 and to being invited to join Nato in December last year.
But he faced a threat to his authority in street protests that began in October 2015 and lasted until January.
The protests, which called for him to abandon Nato and to step down over corruption allegations, included sporadic violence and caused a split in his ruling coalition.
He told EUobserver that Montenegro has now reached a point of no return in terms of its EU and Nato future, but that other nations in the region are not there yet.
He urged the EU to stop navel-gazing about enlargement and to implement a more “assertive” strategy vis-a-vis its Russian “adversary”.
"Wherever there is no EU or no Nato, other forces fill the space", he said, referring to Russia, but also to radical Islam, which is gaining a foothold in the region.
He said the EU should help to lift people out of poverty more quickly and make a bigger show of diplomatic support for Balkan allies.
He said that the Berlin Process, a German initiative of holding summits of EU and Balkan leaders, is the right “therapy” for the region’s ills.
Speaking to EUobserver shortly after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, Dukanovic said Brexit has so far had little impact either on public opinion or on state policies in Balkan countries.
He urged Europe to continue integration despite the UK decision.
“All of us need a Europe which is prestigious and globally competitive. If it is united, Europe will be more competitive and more stable”, he said.
He added that if EU fatigue delayed Montenegro’s accession, then the “process of Europeanisation” was “no less important” because it meant that “day by day, people in the region are living a better quality of life”.