Dragan Plavšić examines the drivers behind Nato expansion in the Balkans and the implications for the left in the region
In December last year, Nato officially invited Montenegro to become the 29th member state of the most powerful military organisation of our times, if not, in fact, of all time. That the invitation will have flattered the already over-inflated ego of the country’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanović, and his ruling clique, there is, of course, little doubt. Nevertheless, this was flattery to deceive, for as everybody knows, Montenegro’s voice in Nato will be like a whistle in a whirlwind.
To be sure, the invitation had nothing to do with the direct military contribution that Montenegro – a country with a population of some 620,000 and armed forces that barely number 2,000 – will ever make. And insofar as there was any distinctly military motivation, it was a geostrategic one, given Montenegro’s naturally fortuitous location on the Adriatic Sea. With Slovenia, Croatia and Albania already ensconced in Nato (and with Italy a long-time member), Montenegro’s inclusion plugs a gap along the coastline and turns the Adriatic, finally, into Nato’s private pool.
But although this military geostrategic consideration was by no means decisive, it was nevertheless an integral aspect of what was decisive - imperialist geopolitics. And it is here, in the potentially explosive interrelationship between imperial geopolitics and the domestic politics of a country divided between pro-Western and pro-Russian camps, that Montenegro and the specific timing of Nato’s invitation assume significance.
Nato Expansion, Russia and the Balkans
In September last year, Obama’s Vice-President, Joe Biden, telephoned Djukanović to inform him that the US would be supporting Montenegro’s accession at Nato’s December meeting. The official White House “Readout” of the call stated that Montenegro’s membership would “demonstrate the credibility of Nato’s Open Door policy”. The language was characteristically Orwellian, for what those four words – “Nato’s Open Door policy” – signalled, when decoded, was the determination of the US to push on with its relentlessly aggressive expansion of Nato eastwards towards Russia.
Indeed, ever since 1989, when the Russian Empire and the Warsaw Pact began to collapse, the US has, via Nato (and the EU), pursued an imperialist policy of expansion and integration in Eastern Europe. After some 40 years of the Cold War, a golden window of opportunity dramatically swung open, allowing the US to capitalise on Russia’s relative weakness, encircle it with new Nato states, and raise a pre-emptive flood barrier against any future attempts by Moscow to reassert itself.
At the same time, with Yugoslavia imploding, it was inevitable that the very success of Nato’s strategy of expansion in Eastern Europe would, from the outset, be intertwined with, and be dependent on, its ability to end the war in the Balkans. For it was here that Russia, however weakened, retained hopes of exercising at least some geopolitical sway by appealing to Christian Orthodox and Slavic sensibilities, especially among the Serbs.
Warren Christopher, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, who was initially sceptical about intensifying US diplomatic and military intervention in Bosnia in 1994-5, later recorded how he came to realise that “there was a triangular relationship among Nato, Bosnia, and Russia that could not be ignored”. Christopher later observed how the 1995 Dayton Agreement, by sealing the end of the Bosnian war following decisive US bombing, “reinforced the central role of Nato in Europe’s security architecture” and led to Nato’s “continuing importance” being “universally acknowledged”. And what was true of Bosnia was all the more true of Serbia four years later, in 1999, when the first wave of East European states – Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary – were inducted into Nato in the very month that the US-led attack on Serbia and Montenegro (then one country) commenced.
Nevertheless, as Nato expansion got under way, it would not have been difficult for any suitably objective observer to foresee that the more Nato pressed its superior advantage ever closer to the borders of Russia by absorbing one Eastern European and Baltic state after another into its ranks - the more, in other words, that it ‘cornered’ Russia - the more it became likely that Moscow would eventually react, despite its relative economic, political and military inferiority, to save what could be saved of its regional position and international prestige.
The preliminary sideshow diversion of Georgia, a long-time Nato hopeful, where Russia intervened in 2008 to back the small breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was a sure sign of things to come. For it was Ukraine that was destined, sooner or later, to become the key fault line, given its position on the Black Sea and its potential power to ‘lock in’ Russia. As Warren Christopher put it as long ago as 1995, again in familiar Orwellian terms:
“Of course, some states of the former Soviet Union command particular attention because of their potential to influence the future of the region. Ukraine is critical. With its size and its position, juxtaposed between Russia and Central Europe, it is a linchpin of European security.”
In the light of this kind of long-term geostrategic calculation, which came to fruition in 2014 with the ousting of Yanukovych, supported by the US, Putin’s eminently foreseeable response was to back the Russians of East Ukraine and, in a dramatic breakout to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol so as to secure safe harbour for the Russian fleet, to annex Crimea.
This very specific context - Putin’s relative successes in placing obstacles directly in the path of further Nato expansion in Georgia and Ukraine, not to mention indirectly by intervening in Syria – explains why the “triangular relationship” between Nato, Russia and the Balkans has reinvigorated significance today. In the same breath, it also explains why Montenegro, in particular, has suddenly assumed special significance.
Nato, Russia and Montenegro
For some years now, the split between Montenegro’s pro-Western (i.e. pro-US) and pro-Russian factions has been deepening, giving rise to burgeoning doubts as to the political durability of Djukanović’s pro-Natoclique. Putin’s recent successes have certainly played a key role in this, for every success he has had, however relative, has threatened to embolden and fuel support for Montenegro’s anti-Nato opposition, raising to a new pitch the key issue of which geopolitical direction the country should take.
Although Montenegro’s opposition, the Democratic Front coalition, formed in 2013, has repeatedly assailed the Djukanović clique for its corrupt, criminal, nepotistic clientelism, for its vote-rigging and for its abusively manipulative relationship with the media – none of which, incidentally, has shaken US support for Djukanović – the Democratic Front’s real claim to political distinction lies in its pro-Russian and pro-Serbian stance (given that, like Djukanović, it too is pro-EU).
This stance is not simply a reflection of historical ties with ‘Mother Russia’. It is deeply rooted in those sections of the population who remember only too well Nato’s 1999 bombing of Serbia and Montenegro and who were opposed to, or at least sceptical about, Djukanović’s decision to break with Serbia and declare independence, following a narrowly won referendum in 2006.
The US decision to invite Montenegro into Nato, after a decade of hesitative toing and froing on the issue, is therefore an act of calculated political timing that reflects accelerating anxiety about Russia’s re-assertiveness and the wider impact it might have. Most immediately, though, it is an intervention in domestic Montenegrin politics with the naked goal of bolstering support for Djukanović’s pro-Nato clique and weakening its pro-Russian opposition. Doing so, however, threatens to bring deep tensions - of all kinds - to boiling point.
The demonstrations that shook Podgorica, the capital, a month after Biden’s call to Djukanović went public - demonstrations led by the Democratic Front calling for free and fair elections, and subsequently swelled by the angry expression of mass discontent following Djukanović’s attempt at repression - may well be a sign of still more explosive events to come. Nevertheless, in the greater game being played here, these are distinctly minor considerations. For Montenegro per se is not, of course, uppermost in Washington’s calculations; its ‘value’ is the broader role its induction into Nato can play, both internationally and regionally.
And at this particular juncture, as relations between the US and Russia progressively deteriorate, transmitting their tensions directly into the divided heart of Montenegro’s body politic, Nato’s invitation delivers a message whose power is inversely proportional to Montenegro’s size.
For it tells Russia that Nato’s expansion will continue, no matter what; it tells Russia that Putin’s relative successes in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria will not prove to be the obstacles to further Nato expansion he wishes them to be; and it tells Russia that Nato expansion will continue to advance into the very part of Europe, the Balkans, where Moscow has been increasingly hoping that historical loyalties will give it much needed traction for its own self-serving imperial ambitions.
But will Montenegro join? That it will join is by no means a foregone conclusion, as Washington well knows. The official White House “Readout” of the Biden-Djukanović call in September expressly stated that US support for Nato membership was “contingent” upon Montenegro “boost[ing] popular support for Nato accession”. And boosting it does indeed appear to need.
Last year, a whistleblower leaked information to Montenegro’s anti-Djukanović and anti-Nato activist, Marko Milačić, of the Movement for Neutrality in Montenegro (MNMNE), which demonstrated that Djukanović and his ruing clique had been lying about the extent of popular support for Nato integration.
The leak revealed that the government was well aware of the results of a November 2014 IPSOS poll it had commissioned showing that 57% of the population was opposed to Nato membership and 35% in favour. Nevertheless, the results were never made public; instead, Djukanović continued to claim that support stood at 46%. Since then, polls in June 2015 appeared to indicate that support was fluctuating between 41-47%, with a small majority in favour, though MNMNE reported that its highly placed source in the ruling party was maintaining that support still stood at 33-35%. By December, Djukanović was claiming that new polls now showed a clear majority, by some 10%, in favour of Nato membership.
Whatever the truth of all these polls - as polls in Montenegro are clearly more a political weapon than an accurate reflection of public opinion – they do indicate, at the very least, the volatile character of public opinion on Nato membership. This volatility reflects the essentially geopolitical divide of Montenegrin politics and, for that reason, is especially sensitive to wider international developments. It is perhaps no accident that the November 2014 IPSOS poll revealed a clear majority against Nato membership following the events in Ukraine.
In any event, this volatility certainly lies behind Djukanović’s decision not to hold a referendum on Nato membership, but to push a vote through parliament instead, where he is more certain of winning. However, here opinion polls appear to be decisively and unambiguously against him. Some 84% of Montenegrins want the issue decided by referendum, and this has therefore become a key oppositional demand.
Nato, Russia and Serbia
Nato’s invitation to Montenegro was also, of course, a message to Serbia, the one and only Balkan state with no present intention of joining Nato. For Serbs, of course, the memory of Nato’s 1999 bombing remains strong with recent opinion polls showing 73% opposed to membership and only 12% in favour. Inevitably, Russia has long perceived an opening here, which the US, in turn, has been anxious to block.
The consequence is that Serbia is now as geopolitically divided as Montenegro. However, the specifically Serbian version of this divide expresses itself rather differently, at governmental level, in the form of a tortuously twisted policy of so-called neutrality between East and West, the long term sustainability of which is routinely questioned by observers.
For on the one hand, Serbia has been, since 2006, a member of Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme, that notoriously Orwellian ante-room to full membership; last year, Serbia went still further, deepening its cooperation to the highest level possible for a non-member by agreeing an Individual Partnership Action Plan with Nato; and in 2015, the Serbian Army participated in a host of Nato training exercises in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Ukraine and, as recently as October 2015, in Germany.
On the other hand, however, Serbia has held, since 2013, observer status in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation [CSTO], Russia’s version of Nato, comprising five other members, all of them former Soviet republics; in 2014, unlike Montenegro, Serbia refused to support sanctions against Russia for intervening in Ukraine; and in 2015, Serbia participated, for the very first time, in two military exercises with Russia, much to Nato’s disapproval.
There is little doubt that this geopolitical schizophrenia, masquerading under the mantle of neutrality, reflects not just a division of labour but also a difference of approach (albeit with a degree of reciprocity as circumstance requires) between Serbia’s pro-Russian President, Tomislav Nikolić, and his more pro-Western Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić.
Nevertheless, Serbia’s policy of neutrality does reflect the more or less settled will, at least for the moment, of a ruling class that believes it has no option but to double-deal in order to achieve its pressing political objectives, that is, entry into the EU (for which it needs Western fears of Russia) and an agreement on Kosovo that protects its state interest (for which it needs Russia to intimidate the West, the key player in Kosovo, into accommodating at least some of its wishes).
However, there is a fundamental and fatal flaw with this strategy. For the more that Serbia attempts to play Russia against the US in order to extract what concessions it can, the more it encourages the US and Russia to vie ever more energetically over Serbia’s political soul, thereby deepening, intensifying and indeed escalating competitive imperialist intervention in the Balkans. For this reason, the specific character of Serbia’s neutrality is more formal than substantive. Indeed, it better resembles the survival strategy of a prey in a cage with a tiger and a hyena. Seeking to assuage the appetite of one by gaining the passing favour of the other, it succeeds only in sharpening the appetites of both.
It is no accident, then, that in the last few years, and most intensely in 2015, Serbia has become the focus of an accelerating tug of war between the US and Russia. To assess this tug of war more concretely, we need to take a comparative look at the imperialisms vying for Serbia’s loyalty.
Nato and Russia Compared
A concretely comparative analysis of these imperialisms obliges us to reach a rather clear conclusion, that it is Nato (i.e. the US) that holds the whip hand on all three decisive levels, the economic, the political and the military.
The US is still the world’s largest economy, despite a relative decline since 1945, with a GDP almost ten times that of Russia. In fact, Russia’s GDP places it tenth in world rankings well beneath four Nato and EU states, the UK, France, Italy and, in particular, Germany whose GDP alone more than doubles Russia’s.
The political influence of the US is global, spread far and wide by the false ‘universalism’ of the ideology of human rights, and secured by multiple political alliances with disparate states in all continents. Russia, by contrast, has no real countervailing ideological power; its political appeal remains essentially regional, stemming from ethnic, religious and historical ties (mainly Russians outside Russia, and their Christian, especially Slavic, Orthodox co-religionists in the Balkans) and the opportunistic support it can pluck from the odd crack and crevice in Nato power.
This disparity is also stark in the military sphere. The military budget of the US exceeds that of the next nine largest military spenders combined, including China, Russia, the UK, France and Germany. Russia’s CSTO with members Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan self-evidently pales by comparison with Nato, and pales still more given the current determination of the US to raise the military expenditure of each Nato member state to 2% of GDP.
Lest this be misunderstood, these facts are not elicited so as to minimise Russian power, but to place it in its proper perspective. It gives hard empirical force to the statement that the US is in the aggressive driving seat of contemporary world politics. And it is this overweening power that has given Washington the arrogant self-confidence to exploit its advantage to the maximum possible, not just in Ukraine, but also in the Balkans.
It is inevitable, therefore, that this broader disparity between the US and Russia should also be reflected in the skewed balance, or imbalance, of Serbia’s policy of neutrality.
Although Serbia has observer status in Russia’s CSTO, it is much more closely and firmly tied into Nato. Although Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Russia over Ukraine in 2014, by July 2015 it was taking part in a Nato military exercise in Ukraine itself. And although Serbia took part in two military exercises with Russia in 2015, it also committed itself to participating in 22 such Nato military exercises last year.
When we add in Serbia’s determination to join the EU, the general trend of its policy has clearly been more pro-Western than pro-Russian. As a result, the US feels sufficiently confident of its position to step up the pressure on Serbia not just by inviting Montenegro into Nato, but also by other, still more threatening, means.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that in October, only a month after Biden’s call to Djukanović, news emerged that Croatia, a Nato member since 2009, was planning to acquire from the US tactical ballistic missiles with a range of 300km - and the potential to strike Central Serbia - together with mobile M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems to deliver them.
The significance of this should not be understated, for Croatia is procuring a powerful and relatively exclusive strategic weaponry (operated by only a dozen or so countries globally, including seven Nato members, the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey). By thus arming Croatia, Serbia’s main rival and former enemy in the 1990s, the US has purposely shifted the military balance in the Balkans to Serbia’s fear-inducing disadvantage.
The most immediate motivation behind the release of this news was to send a characteristically hypocritical warning to Serbia, or at least to some in Serbia, not to interfere in Montenegro’s domestic divide over Nato, either on its own account or in collusion with Russia. But its motivation clearly went deeper. As Marko Ćustić, editor-in-chief of the Croatian military magazine, Defender, commented:
“Croatia’s goal is to intimidate Serbia, because it is in America’s interest for Serbia to know that it must opt for the West. This is just one of the steps that America is taking to pull Serbia towards European integration.”
This is a calculated risk, but a deeply dangerous one given the inflammatory character of Croat-Serb relations. Having for years dangled carrots before Serbia’s nose in one hand (the prospect of EU entry and a deal on Kosovo), the US has now chosen to wave a military stick in the other, via a suitably provocative regional proxy, in order to shunt Belgrade into unequivocal support for the West. By this carrot-and stick strategy, the US hopes to induce the so-called pragmatic realists of Serbia’s ruling class to stop vacillating, to once and for all ‘face facts’, and to work more intensively at marginalising their more pro-Russian compatriots.
Serbia’s instant reaction to news of Croatia’s plans was to turn to Russia with a request to purchase its S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which has the capacity to engage ballistic missiles. On a visit to Belgrade last month, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dmitry Rogozin, stated, "We will provide direct support to the ally in the Balkans. We will consider your request in the shortest amount of time". And in the midst of a live news conference, Rogozin personally handed Vučić a macabre ‘gift’ – a miniature model of the S-300.
The US will have anticipated this instant reaction, of course, but it is clearly playing the long game. It knows that Bosnia’s Bosniak and Croat politicians plan to join Nato (even if the Serbs there do not); it knows that Macedonia will join, as and when the dispute with Greece over its name can be resolved if recent rumours, sufficiently newsworthy to be reported, can be believed; and, of course, it can be entirely confident of Kosovo’s resolve to join. All of which will leave Serbia well and truly surrounded by Nato states.
These prospective members further reinforce the disparity, this time in geopositional terms, between the US and Russia. And this essential disparity on all the key economic, political and military levels, a disparity inseparably and intimately intertwined with those political anchors – the EU and Kosovo – that mean Serbia’s ship is thought unlikely to drift far from Western harbours, has persuaded US geostrategists that time is on its side when it comes to shunting Serbia decisively westwards. For a Serbia firmly entrenched in the West’s camp would solve not a few problems for the US in Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro, where populations loyal to Serbia reside.
All in all, these developing events give us ample cause to reflect on what they tell us about the perilous plans of US imperialism in the Balkans. Its relentless determination to expand Nato into the Balkans is being pursued at the multiple risk of political turmoil in Montenegro, of inflaming enmity between Croatia and Serbia, of provoking a Balkan arms race, and of eliciting a sustained response from a cornered Russia anxious to push its own imperial ambitions in the Balkans as another counterweight to its own progressive encirclement by Nato.
Conclusion: Nato, Russia and the Balkan Left
Whether or not Serbia will turn decisively westwards, however, remains an open question, notwithstanding the aggressive confidence of the US. There is, of course, the key fact that Serbs remain overwhelmingly anti-Nato (though they are also pro-EU, if by a lesser margin). But it is also the case that just one small, faltering step in Nato’s expansion could have potentially incalculable consequences. If, say, Montenegro were to reject Nato membership in the coming period, its rejection could have an impact across the Balkans in inverse proportion to the country’s size – this time to the disadvantage of the US. For this would then be the very first such rejection by a membership invitee in the history of Nato’s otherwise unblemished expansion eastwards. If so, it might help raise questions about a policy that has been a dogmatic staple in an Eastern Europe dominated for a quarter century or so by an asphyxiating mode of politics - the politics of a ‘self-colonising desire for the West’, that is, the obsequious, but voluntary, submission to an agenda set by Washington and Brussels. And this would then open new ground and new opportunities for the Balkan Left.
It is of course axiomatic that an authentic Balkan Left must oppose both US imperialist aggression and Russia’s imperialist ambitions in the Balkans. However, it cannot afford to do so abstractly - it has to do so with a concrete appreciation of the current balance of forces between these two powers. And here, as this article has argued, the balance clearly lies in favour of the US and Nato. For this reason, our focus has to be the US, even though the specific terms of this focus have to be carefully varied to suit the concrete political situation of each Balkan state.
Certainly, in Montenegro, the lack of an organised authentic left is a crucial problem. Nevertheless, for individuals on the left, this is an opportunity. They need to participate in the anti-Nato movement and there are places for them to go. The Movement for Neutrality in Montenegro is one such organisation. It supports the anti-Nato movement, but it keeps its distance from its more pro-Russian elements by stressing the need for neutrality. It supports the call for a referendum as the only properly democratic way forward. And it has attracted the support of left intellectuals such as Immanuel Wallerstein who is a member of its International Advisory Committee.
This also points the way forward for the Serbian Left, though with some key differences. The Serbian Left needs to stand up for a real and substantive neutrality in place of the government’s weak and formal neutrality. This means arguing for an end to any further participation of any kind in Nato or the CSTO.
At the same time, this needs to be accompanied by a political offensive against the two anchors that tie Serbia to the West. On Kosovo, the Serbian Left should argue that the government should announce its intention to recognise Kosovo’s independence in return for the agreement of the US that Serbia and Kosovo be Nato-free zones. At one and the same time, such a position would free Serbia from its dependence on both the US and Russia. And on the EU, the Serbian Left needs to argue for a properly independent approach to this question which recognises that joining will simply mean bowing to the diktat of Brussels.
However, for an authentic Balkan Left to emerge from all this, there needs to a wider perspective too, and this is the Idea of a Balkan Federation. Without this guiding perspective, one that entails transforming policy towards Balkan neighbours from one of mutual distrust or even enmity to one of friendship, it will be impossible to make political ends meet. And there the daily common struggles of workers across the Balkans against neo-liberal austerity has to be our springboard.
 There is still the short 20 km Adriatic coastline of Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, in the greater scheme of things, this is not very significant.
 In the Stream of History: Shaping Foreign Policy for a New Era, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 230 and 358
 Ibid., p. 263-4
 See endnote 2 above.
 International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2015, London, Routledge, 2015.
 This phrase joins the notions of East European “self-colonisation” since 1989 and a “desire for the West”, of the Hungarian Marxist, G. M. Tamás, and the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, respectively.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).