Alexander Khrgian quit Moscow for Montenegro in 2008 and immediately felt at home, setting up a law firm that helps the tiny country’s outsized Russian diaspora do business, profiting from close ties between the two countries. “We liked the climate, the people and conditions for doing business,” said the lawyer. “So we stayed.” But a parliamentary election due on October 16 could test those ties. The vote, its outcome very much in the balance, could be Montenegro’s last before joining the Western NATO alliance, an expansion dubbed “irresponsible” by Russia. Attracted by the mountainous country’s majestic coastline, some 15,000 Russians flooded into the country after its 2006 split from Serbia, bringing money and Russian influence to the former Yugoslav republic of just 650,000 people. Ushering Montenegro into NATO is a priority for the West, wary of Russian influence in a strategic region that is on the frontlines of the migration crisis facing Europe.
“We want Montenegro in NATO because we are worried about Russian influence,” said a Western diplomat in Serbia’s capital Belgrade of a policy that divides the Adriatic country down the middle.
Montenegro was bombed by NATO 17 years ago when the alliance intervened to end Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. At the time, Montenegro was in union with Serbia.
Joining the alliance is the central pillar of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic’s campaign ahead of an election in which he is likely to face his toughest test in nearly a quarter of a century of leading the country.