Mogherini’s Western Balkans tour: A missed opportunity to defend Montenegro against Russian meddling

Last week, Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign and security policy chief, hit the road for her first trip to the entirety of the so-called “Western Balkans Six,” the region’s countries not yet part of the Union, to assure them that their membership perspective was still alive. This was a noble undertaking, given the crucial elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany scheduled to take place this year that could rock the European Union and send it spiraling into a deep internal crisis.

Yet Mogherini’s trip got off to a bumpy start in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. In her speech to parliamentarians, Mogherini addressed a half-empty room. The Montenegrin opposition that has boycotted parliament since the October 2016 elections had rejected Mogherini’s invitation to join her at the Assembly.

However, it was Mogherini’s own comments that called into question the EU’s approach to the region as well as the sincerity of the Union’s commitment to the Western Balkans’ European perspective. Speaking to the press after her meeting with the newly-elected Prime Minister of Montenegro, Duško Marković, Mogherini said, “I was saddened that the opposition was not present today.” Referring to the continuing parliamentary boycott, she stated that “trying to return to the institutions – this requires good will on the opposition side but also on the government side to create the conditions for the situation to evolve into a normal institutional situation.” Mogherini ended her comments by explaining the EU position vis-á-vis Montenegro’s political crisis:

“It is not for the European Union to indicate a solution. I always say that we do not enter into the politics of countries, not even in the politics of our own Member States. We relate it to the institutions of the country and we strengthen institutions.”

Mogherini notably avoided naming the elephant in the room – the reason for Montenegro’s ongoing institutional crisis. On October 16, 2016, in the midst of the election for the Montenegrin parliament, the police announced that they had arrested 20 Serbian citizens the night before who had entered the country planning a terrorist attack on state institutions and high-level officials. Among those arrested was Bratislav Dikić, the sacked former head of Serbia’s infamous special police, the gendarmerie. Montenegro’s mostly pro-Russian opposition, which suffered a narrow defeat at the polls, accused the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of a stunt aimed at manipulating voters and subsequently boycotted the new assembly. The opposition had campaigned against their country joining NATO (as most other member states have already done); a membership that is currently awaiting ratification by the US Congress and that is fiercely opposed by Russia.

In a country (and region) in which skeptical citizens have a strong predisposition for conspiracy theories, the notion of a Russia-sponsored coup was initially dismissed. The German intelligence agency at first also shared the Montenegrin opposition’s characterization of the incident. It soon became clear, however, that the allegations were more substantial than many had initially believed.

As the investigation progressed, Montenegro’s Special Prosecutor, Milivoje Katnić, first announced that the incident had been a coup attempt, organized by Serbian and Russian nationalist groups, but without the involvement of the Russian state. Then, in February, Katnić accused Moscow of orchestrating the failed coup, citing new evidence and naming an alleged Russian security services member as the mastermind behind the attempt. A few days earlier, Katnić had accused two leading politicians from the opposition Democratic Front (DF) of involvement in the failed coup, and the ruling coalition MPs lifted their immunity.

In Berlin, diplomats have become critical of their national intelligence agency’s original assessment of no Russian involvement, and the Chancellor’s office has become increasingly worried about rising Russian interference in the Western Balkans. The EU’s Intelligence Analysis Center’s assessment excluded neither possibility. UK and US intelligence agencies that assisted Montenegrin authorities in their investigation have in recent weeks concluded that the coup attempt was real and staged by Moscow, and insist that they possess hard evidence.

Against this background, Mogherini pledged to Montenegro’s ruling coalition and opposition to sort things out through dialogue within the institution of the parliament while adhering to traditional insistence on EU “ownership” in the management of the crisis. This approach missed the mark completely and seemed to reaffirm the weakness of the EU’s policy which sadly has been evident in the Western Balkans for over a decade.

First, a coup attempt aimed at violently overtaking state institutions, particularly one with involvement of high-level opposition officials, can’t simply be sorted out in parliament, but rather must be dealt with in legal proceedings before the judiciary.

Second, Mogherini is to be commended for insisting on the EU’s engagement in strengthening Montenegro’s state institutions. They face an extraordinary challenge in dealing with the coup attempt. Yet the EU itself has in the past contributed to domestic distrust in Montenegro’s rule of law institutions. Several times during the accession process Brussels met resistance to reforming the judiciary but did not trigger the mechanism foreseen in the rule of law chapters – to stop progress in all negotiating chapters when there is a blockage in the implementation of chapters 23 or 24.

Finally, the EU has a strategic interest in a peaceful, democratic, and stable Western Balkans. Russian subversion in the region clearly undermines those aims. And while it is not the EU’s role to advocate for Montenegro’s NATO membership, the Union does have a genuine interest in ensuring that the country’s citizens have the free democratic choice to make up their minds on which alliance their state should join.

In that sense, the EU’s foreign and security policy chief would have better served the Union’s own interests by taking a different, more direct approach. Mogherini should have acknowledged the coup attempt up front, sending a clear public signal to Moscow that the EU won’t tolerate such undemocratic, let alone violent, interventions in the Western Balkans.

At the same time, she should have warned the ruling party against misusing the failed coup to undermine democratic procedures in order to strengthen its own position. She should have offered the Union’s assistance to Montenegro’s judiciary in dealing with the prosecution of the failed coup in a way that guarantees professionalism and independence and that raises public trust in the process. And she should have scheduled bilateral meetings with opposition representatives instead of tying dialogue to the parties ending or at least interrupting their parliamentary boycott.

But Mogherini did none of these things. Doing so would have sent a strong message to political elites and the public alike of the Union’s commitment and full support for the democratic process in Montenegro.

It would also have sent an important signal to Washington where the new Trump administration and Congress have raised doubts about continued US commitment to the country’s NATO membership perspective. It is worth reminding that it was the US under the Obama administration that blocked the decision on Montenegro’s membership application for two years, conditioning approval with the cleansing of the Montenegrin military security services of pro-Russian personnel. US ratification of Montenegro’s NATO membership would bridge the wide gap between Trump’s statements on NATO and those of his cabinet members and draw an important red line against Russian meddling in the Western Balkans. The fact that Mogherini’s visit failed to support such an outcome was a missed opportunity.