“In trying to influence Montenegro as much as possible, Russia, above all, wants to reduce the influence of the West and provoke the West and NATO, and for that it has the support of the current government,” says the longtime journalist and political scientist Ilija Despotovic from Podgorica. He also recalls the influence of Russia throughout history. He points out that most people in Montenegro, especially young people, still turn to the West.
TheGeopost: Russia and Montenegro have had good relations throughout history, but even then Russia was mainly concerned for its own interests and made decisions to the detriment of Montenegro. However, the people, but also a part of the Montenegrin government, still have the opinion that Montenegro should return to Russia, and not to the West. Russia uses this, trying to influence more political and social events in Montenegro through the church and Serbia. How much power does Russia have and is it dangerous for Montenegro? Has Russia’s “malignant” influence on Montenegro increased since Montenegro’s entry in NATO?
Despotovic : It is true that Russia and Montenegro have had good relations in the past and that Russia has always taken its interests into account. Decisions concerning Montenegro, above all, were in the interest of Russia, and often, in essence, to the detriment of Montenegro itself. As an example, let’s mention the San Stefano Peace Treaty, after the successful wars with Turkey, in the spring of 1878, by which Montenegro, with the consent of Russia, received a considerable territorial expansion, with borders longer than today . At the Congress of Berlin, in July of the same year, Russia accepted the decision of the great powers to annul the provisions of the Treaty of San Stefano and return Montenegro to the old borders.
However, the idea that we should have closer relations with Russia, ie much closer than with any other country, is still ingrained in Montenegro, moreover, despite its relationship with Montenegro. The current government in Podgorica is very much in favor of this stereotype. Russia is using this, through efforts through the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbia, to have a greater influence on political and social events in Montenegro, and through this, in fact, to strengthen its position against the West.
Montenegro and Russia have had interstate relations for more than three centuries, or rather a kind of connection between the last Montenegrin dynasty (Petrovic) and the Russian court. No country, on the other hand, has ever had an official diplomatic representation in a country in full diplomatic format. Montenegro and Russia exchanged first ambassadors in the modern sense and with full diplomatic capacity in Podgorica, that is, in Moscow, only after Montenegro’s new independence, in the 2006 referendum, although the building of the Russian embassy in Cetinje was built at the end of the IX century.
Russia realized its “diplomatic” cooperation with Montenegro, with the bishops in Cetinje, who personified the highest civil authority in Montenegro, through its emissaries who occasionally came to Montenegro, when it suited them, the Russian kingdom, mainly from Dubrovnik, where they had their center. As a rule, they were always Serbs, not people from Montenegro itself, and they came to Cetinje when necessary, in the interest of Russia, to encourage the Montenegrin war against the Ottomans, or when it was necessary to mediate for the settlement of some internal political disputes in Gora. The Russian emissaries from the tsars brought the so-called “grammars”, a kind of diplomatic letter, or with information about medals for prominent Montenegrins, or with instructions, more precisely, certain, very specific, demands in the fight against the Ottomans, and all of these seen in the interest of the Russian Empire. During the 19th century, when maritime traffic improved, Montenegro occasionally received material aid from Russia, in arms and food. Some Montenegrin rulers also received financial aid and books, mostly liturgical, which arrived in Cetinje. Much later, in some periods, some Montenegrins were educated in Russia. Some Montenegrin rulers sent requests to the Russian Tsar to take a certain number of Montenegrin families during the years of drought and famine, in order to settle permanently in Russia. A number of Montenegrins also moved to Russia. Some Montenegrin rulers also officially visited the Russian court, mostly of their own free will, and some were ordained bishops by the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the bishops, Vasilije Petrovic, died and was buried in Russia. This tradition was interrupted by Prince Danilo Petrovic (from 1851 to 1860), who severed ties between the state and the church, which, above all, angered Russia itself, and returned, as we would say today, to much from the west in terms of foreign policy. Russia, along with Serbia, as well as several other countries, is considered one of the collaborators in the campaign that preceded the assassination of Danilo Petrovic.
On the other hand, Russia’s benevolence and assistance has almost always been conditional on the fulfillment of certain Russian military and state needs and interests. It can be said that it has never been unconditional. Montenegrin bishops experienced this and for the most part, were aware of such an attitude. Even if some of them showed dissatisfaction, they were “sanctioned” by the Russian Empire. One of them, Petri the Great Petrovic, moreover, was not approved to come to Russia, and the second Petri Petrovi N Njegos himself had problems with the Russians.
According to some historians, in the first decade of the 20th century, Russia together with Serbia devised a plan for the unification of Montenegro and Serbia and, in fact, for the destruction of Montenegro as a sovereign state. That plan was carried out, by illegal means, in 1918, when Montenegro was annexed to Serbia and in that “alliance” became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, losing its old name.
Despite all this, the Montenegrin dynasties had a non-critical attitude towards “cooperation” with Russia. Moreover, they idealized Russia, in fact the Russian tsars. Some of them were blindly of the belief that Russia would have helped more if it was not so far away from Montenegro. Hence the phrase “God is high, Russia is far away”, and if it was not so, Montenegro would be better off.
The remnants of such meanings, idealized notions, for Russia, still exist today and this is the possibility of influence in Montenegro. Even if the Montenegrin government is in power, which in essence, seen objectively and in a broader context, is not free from prejudice and old-fashionedness , then the risk from the Russian factor should not be neglected. Montenegro, in the state-political sense, has never manifested such a radical step in foreign policy and consequently an attitude that is not in Russia’s interest, as when it joined NATO. And, of course, that hurt Russia more. Montenegro was considered a “safe” pro-Russian state. The Montenegrin coast has long been considered almost natural, a destination for Russian ships sailing in the Mediterranean.
In Montenegro, however, a new awareness of the country’s international position is maturing, new generations are maturing, with far less burden compared to stereotypes about strategic issues.
The political forces that give priority to the pro-European, western orientation of Montenegro have also been significantly strengthened.
For the younger generation, even for those charged with Russophilia, the ideal of modern life is not Russia, but the West. This is the potential for a policy that will not allow the decisive influence of the Russian factor. Overall, however, the whole context of Montenegro-Russia relations is much more complex and far more complex for practical political action in Montenegro itself. Of course, everything depends on the relations in the Balkans, when it comes to Montenegro, and on the direction in which Serbia will move, in terms of domestic and foreign policy, in the coming period. The biggest effect in this sense will be if Serbia gives up its major state interests, projects and policies. To be honest, I am not very optimistic in this regard.
Therefore, given all this, the “future” of Russian influence in the Balkans, but also in Montenegro, depends to a large extent, and very importantly, on the real European perspective of Montenegro, when Montenegro will become a member of the European Union. Of course, also from US policy in that context. There is no doubt about the strength of NATO itself, not only in the military sense, but also in terms of its political supremacy as an alliance in the strategic sense. First of all, both NATO and the EU must remove as soon as possible any doubts about their existence and ability to “rule” in Europe and the world as a strategic project, policy and way of life, as a modern democracy and civilization.
TheGeopost: Recently, cooperation in the field of science and culture has intensified, the Russian ambassador has visited the University of Montenegro and cooperation agreements have been signed. Could there be a negative impact in that area as well, given that UCG Rector Vladimir Bozovic is “pro-Russian and pro-Serb”?
Despotovic : Russia has tried to directly, with brutal moves, influence us in political change, whenever given the opportunity, in Montenegro, which would suit it (coup attempt in 2016). It was, without a doubt, a desperate act to thwart Montenegro’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russia had a “fifth pillar” in Montenegro to achieve that plan, which consisted of political forces led by the then opposition Democratic Front, which even today, whenever given the opportunity, demand at least relativize and compromise Montenegro’s membership in NATO. Russia certainly encourages and encourages them in this, through various forms of hybrid action, either directly or in alliance with Serbia, which also sees Montenegro’s membership in NATO as a “betrayal” of itself. This is how history repeats itself, because both Russia and Serbia perceived the decision of the Montenegrin prince Danilo to separate the church from the state and to relinquish the title of bishop, in the middle of the 19th century, as an act hostile to them. Official Russian and Serbian policies simply believe that Montenegro is obliged to pursue their own interests. This has been the case in the past and such a relationship has not been eradicated to this day.
And, of course, when a brutal political force fails in its efforts to keep Montenegro obedient, then, in any case, the method of the soft variant of subversive action in Montenegro is used. So we are going and we will try, but Montenegro is kept in obedience by acting through institutions. The visit of the Russian ambassador to the University of Montenegro is a very illustrative example in this context. Earlier, because a person with unmasked pro-Serbian and pro-Russian political affiliation came to the helm of the University, and the Russian ambassador rushed personally and openly to promote “cooperation” between the educational institutions of the two countries. Concrete forms of that “cooperation” can be expected in the coming period, through exchanges of visits, perhaps in the form of the opportunity to study in Russia, or, for example, greater cooperation in the defense of doctoral dissertations. Culture is particularly apt for camouflaged, “subtle” propaganda of Russia’s state interests, and, of course, media action will be used in this sense. There are already media in Montenegro known as pro-Russian. Russian television “Sputnik” can already be heard to be “Russian CNN”. It is symptomatic, for example, that the Minister of Culture, Education and Science, Vesna Bratic, visited Russia in the first year of the pro-Serbian-Russian government in Podgorica. The media noted that she took part in a debate in Moscow under the flag of Serbia, without the flag of Montenegro.
The current government in Montenegro, as it has shown so far, will do everything to maintain a policy that will not openly offend the West and that will also not irritate Russia. In other words, they will try to convince Russia that the fact that they are not advocating a pro-European policy, in fact, an exaggeration, because they “inherited” NATO membership from the previous, extremely pro-Western government. Russia will try to use such an attitude and policy of the Government of Montenegro for the strategy of action towards Montenegro. But, of course, not because Montenegro itself is important to it, but because it is fit to irritate the West, above all NATO. And, based on all of the above, Russia, in the example of Montenegro, has the opportunity to cover up its NATO and European Union mining policy and present it as a “cooperation” between the two, as noted, countries and the orthodox states, which are also claims, having behind them more than three hundred years of diplomatic relations.
TheGeopost: Due to EU sanctions against Russia, which are backed by official Montenegro, does Montenegro do much harm because it does not export its products to the large Russian market?
Despotovic : The issue of mutual economic sanctions between Montenegro and Russia, of course, must be seen in the context of the general interstate relations between the two countries and their position in the constellation of international relations. Therefore, economic sanctions are of relative mutual importance. Their character has more political taste. A large part of the public in Montenegro does not approve of sanctions against Russia, but this is hardly discussed, except here and there is mentioned in parliament as a “sin” of the previous government. The story of the economic damage that Montenegro suffers due to the ban on the export of Montenegrin wines to the Russian market has long since ceased. Montenegro also exported some processed meat products, but all this seems unlikely to have serious consequences for Montenegrin producers.