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news 10 Feb 17

Anti-NATO Groups Demand Referendum in Montenegro

Montenegro’s pro-Russian opposition and some NGOs say NATO membership of the country must be decided in a referendum, as society remains deeply divided over the issue.

Dusica Tomovic
 Montenegro's main opposition group, the Democratic Front, said it plans to organise a referendum on the country's membership in NATO. Photo: the Democratic Front.

A group of pro-Russian opposition parties and an anti-NATO organisation in Montenegro are demanding a referendum on NATO membership as the date for when parliament is expected to vote on the issue looms.

The groups want a referendum held on March 24, marking the day in 1999 when NATO began bombing Serbia and Montenegro in order to force Serbia's then leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his police and military from Kosovo.

Marko Milacic, director of the Movement on Neutrality, said that according to a survey, 84 per cent of Montenegro's citizens want such a referendum and even 68 per cent of those who support the NATO membership bid also think a referendum is the best way to reach a decision.

"Any different form of decision-making would violate democratic principles and the will of the people," he told BIRN.

Milacic said the government had systematically hushed up these two crucial poll results since they were leaked from the government’s own internal opinion poll in 2015.

"It is necessary to keep up the pressure to hold a referendum. While the government has poured an enormous amount of money into their corrupt-criminal lobbying channels, we, the critics, the opposition, need to strengthen our position," Milacic said.

Meanwhile, Montenegro's main opposition group, the Democratic Front, said it also plans to organise a referendum on membership of NATO if the ruling majority keeps insisting that the decision should be left only to parliament.

The Front said that the idea of a "people's referendum" had also received the support of the Kremlin when its leaders visited Moscow last week.

Montenegrin authorities say Russian nationalists were behind an alleged coup attempt in on election day on October 16, that included plans to kill then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and take power to stop his government's bid to join NATO.

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in that - but it has actively supported local groups that oppose its traditional Balkan ally becoming the 29th member of NATO.

The government expects no later than the spring to finish the accession process after parliament approved the decision, arguing that the constitution does not oblige the country to organise a referendum.

The government already has a solid majority of 42 MPs in the 81-seat parliament as the ruling coalition strongly supports alliance membership.

The opposition has boycotted the assembly since the October 16 election, claiming it was marred by serious irregularities.

A December 2016 opinion poll found only 39.5 per cent of Montenegrins in favor of NATO membership and 39.7 against. Recent opinion polls have suggested similar figures.

Concerns have been raised as the accession protocol remains stuck in the US Senate and some supporters fear President Donald Trump's Republican administration might want to slow the process or even stop it.

The protocol was not on the agenda of any Senate sessions in January, although it was expected to be ratified at the first sitting after Trump's inauguration on January 20.

So far, 22 of 28 NATO allies have approved the accession protocol and the endorsement of the US would encourage the others to give a green light.

The US Senate vote is seen as a test of the new Trump administration’s policy toward Moscow, which considers any further eastward expansion of NATO a provocation.

According to a recent Politico article, Michael Flynn, the US national security adviser, favours Montenegro joining the military alliance.

Asked about Flynn’s position, a Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov said: “The Russian attitude to the further eastward enlargement of Nato is well known: this attitude is negative.”

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