In-depth | Montenegro

Montenegro-Russian relations deteriorate

By - 15.06.2017

Years of sanctions, countermeasures, bans, protest notes.

The website of the Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs describes relations between the Russian Federation and Montenegro as consisting of: “Friendly ties and intensive political contacts [that] are constantly being improved and intensified in many areas.” It was a statement that was written in 2013, and has not been updated since.

The quiet, and sometimes more loud diplomatic and verbal conflicts between the two states started in 2014, when without any visible pressure from abroad, Montenegro also adopted the measures imposed by the European Union on Moscow due to the events in Ukraine.

A ban was put in place on the entry of 149 citizens of the Russian Federation to Montenegro. The list contains names of the president of the Russian legislative body, the Duma, as well as its vice president, the deputy prime minister of the Russian government, and several other ministers.

After these measures were introduced, Montenegro’s then-prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, plainly explained the move: “These measures don’t represent sanctions, but restrictive measures introduced by the European Union towards a number of individuals, and we have an obligation to follow the European Union.

Alongside all of this, Podgorica officials were accelerating Montenegro’s path towards NATO, which gave Moscow, faced with the possibility of remaining without any influence in this part of the Adriatic coast, an additional reason to respond to the measures.

“The sanctions involve bans on a certain number of Russian citizens to enter EU territory, and the territories of the countries which also adopted the sanctions. Now they can say: ‘You did it first, so now we’ll do it.’”

Former foreign minister of Montenegro, Branko Lukovac

It put together a list of Montenegrin officials who were to be denied entry to Russia. Ever since, the names on the list have remained a secret, but it is speculated that all MPs in the current Montenegrin Assembly that make up the government are on there, as well as all those who voted for introducing sanctions against Moscow.

One of the persons almost certainly not allowed to visit Russia in the near future is Miodrag Vukovic, an MP from the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists. He was recently stopped at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on his way to Minsk and ended up spending the night there, before being returned back to Montenegro in the early hours. The Montenegrin Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded with a protest note. On the other side, Moscow conveyed the message that this procedure was a reciprocal measure, that had ensued as a response to previous moves made in Podgorica.

Montenegro’s former foreign minister, Branko Lukovac, told the Cafe del Montenegro portal that this reaction from Moscow was expected. “The sanctions involve bans on a certain number of Russian citizens to enter EU territory, and the territories of the countries which also adopted the sanctions,” Lukovac stated. “Now they can say: ‘You did it first, so now we’ll do it.’”

All of this was preceded by parliamentary elections in Montenegro in October 2016, when part of the pro-Russian and anti-NATO oriented opposition was accused of organizing an alleged coup. The Montenegrin authorities said that Moscow played a role in this event, while the Russians denied everything.

Who loses out in the end?

As well as politicians, the big recipients of the Russian “nyet” (“no”) were food products from Montenegro, including wine from one of the largest Montenegrin companies Plantaza, which was banned due to allegedly containing plastics and pesticides.

This was followed by an appeal to Russian citizens for the upcoming summer tourist season. “Russian citizens, and businessmen are taking serious risks when travelling to Montenegro,” warned spokesperson for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Marija Zaharova. “They could face threats and provocations. I warn Russian citizens to think twice before travelling to that country.”

Data from several institutions show that Podgorica is losing out financially. Montenegro’s exports to Russia have drastically decreased in the past three years.

As a result of all this, many fear the effects of foreign policy moves on the Montenegrin economy. The head of the economic editorial staff at Montenegro’s public broadcaster, Radio and Television of Montenegro, Zoran Lekovic, told K2.0 that Montenegro is not in a position to risk losing any markets. “Montenegro is a country with a large foreign trade deficit, so it cannot allow itself the luxury to renounce foreign markets, no matter their size,” he stated. “I’m afraid that in the long run, Montenegro will be the one at a loss.”

But is Montenegro already at a loss at this point? Data from several institutions show that Podgorica is losing out financially. Montenegro’s exports to Russia have drastically decreased in the past three years. When Montenegro was a friend of Moscow, in 2013, exports to Russia totaled almost 6 million euros. The following year, after the countries’ disputes, exports decreased by almost 2 million euros (to 4,020,868 euros). It continued to decrease over the next two years. In 2015, exports totaled just over 2.6 million euros, and dropped again to just over 2.2 million euros in 2016.

According to data obtained by K2.0 from the Monstat statistical office, in the first four months of this year, exports from Montenegro to Russia are less than half of what they were than in the same period in 2015 (488,405 euros compared to 1,034,800 euros). The biggest shock was experienced by the Plantaza company, which exported only 80,000 euros worth of stock, even though exports to Russia amounted to 20 percent of total exports of the company.

“If, in the short-term, they don’t find an alternative market, the company’s loss will be staggering, and this is a fact,” Lekovic told K2.0. “The story that the Plantaza wine is poisonous has long-lasting consequences, and represents an announcement on banning the import of Montenegrin wine in the long run.”

This company points out that their wines are good, demonstrated by analysis conducted in Spain, Serbia, and Montenegro, and that they will prove their ‘innocence’ before a court in Moscow. However, they will have to wait until the end of June for the court sessions to take place, meaning a long delay before the re-export of products to Russia.

Besides exports, Montenegro also receives less money from Russian investors. Data obtained from the Central Bank shows that, since Montenegro became independent in 2006 up until March 2017, Russians invested 1.25 billion euros in Montenegro, making up 15.4 percent of total investments (8.1 billion euros).

But this number has been drastically decreasing since 2015; it amounted to ‘only’ 52.8 million euros in 2016, the lowest amount in the past 10 years. The Russians haven’t invested heavily in 2017 either. Data from the Montenegrin Central Bank shows that in the first three months of 2017, Russian investments in Montenegro totaled only 16.4 million euros.

Tourism is the only point where Russia-Montenegro relations are going up-river. Monstat data show that there were more than 316,000 Russian tourists to Montenegro in 2016, making up a third of foreign visitors. Data from the National Tourism Organization of Montenegro (NTO) show that there was also a 13 percent increase in Russian guests in the first five months of 2017 in comparison to the same period last year. “Montenegrin airports expect 650,000 passengers on flights from Russia to Montenegro,” the NTO claims.

However, despite encouraging numbers, Zoran Lekovic warns that there is a need for caution. “The campaign in the Russian media, which invites Russian citizens to think twice before heading to Montenegro, has never been stronger,” Lekovic claims. “It seems that there haven’t been large cancellations of arrangements, but in the meantime our tourist offer needs to find alternative markets, which it has been doing since a few years back.”

K2.0 made enquiries to Montenegro’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs as to how it intends to overcome this issue but received no response.

Moscow: “I’ll be back”

What Montenegro had in mind when it gambled its “historic ties” with Russia, was achieved on June 5, when it became the 29th member of NATO. This was formalized in Washington, when Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic delivered ratification instruments to the American under-secretary for political affairs, Thomas Shannon.

"Russia has to stop meddling with and influencing the political systems of foreign countries. It has to give up on meddling with internal Montenegrin issues."

Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic

Montenegrin prime minister, Dusko Markovic, used this occasion to seemingly send a discreet message to Moscow: “Today, we celebrate the fact that decisions over our country will no longer be made behind our backs, as has happened many times in history,” Markovic said.

He spoke more concretely only a day after the official accession to NATO. In an interview for the German newspaper Bild, Markovic said that Russia was to blame for the coup d’etat (the case hasn’t seen an epilogue in court) and that it attempted to prevent the accession of Montenegro to NATO.

“Russia has to stop meddling with and influencing the political systems of foreign countries,” Markovic stated. “It has to give up on meddling with internal Montenegrin issues. It is not invited to interpret the will and preferences of the Montenegrin citizens.”

Whether to support its colleagues from NATO or for some other reason, the U.S. State Department sent similar messages on the same day. However, after “losing Montenegro,” Moscow replied with the following, Terminator style response: “I’ll be back.”

Russia sent a message to Podgorica that it was breathing down its neck, and that nothing has changed even though it became a member of NATO. “The continuation of anti-Russian hysteria in Montenegro is causing regret among us. In the context of hostile policies from the Montenegrin government, the Russian side has a right to take reciprocal measures,” the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated.

It is difficult to predict what we can expect from Moscow in the upcoming period, but it seems like the Montenegrin economy may be the most affected by this clash between East and West. K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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