You must know the already-famous story by now. President Donald Trump appeared at the NATO summit last week in Brussels, pushing aside Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic.
While trying to make his way to the front of the traditional family photo, he grabbed Markovic by the arm and pushed aside. Mr. Markovic, surprised at first, thereafter smiled the matter off.
The video footage generated indignation on social media and around the world, specifically in the Balkans. Yet after all, how did the Montenegrins feel and what did they think when watching the video? How was Markovic welcomed back in the country? And did Montenegrins protest, saying their national pride had been disregarded?
Montenegro was one of the six republics under the former Yugoslavia. After Yugoslavia dissolved, the rump state emerged as “Serbia-Montenegro” in 1992. Later in 2006, Montenegro became independent, after which it turned its wheel hard and fast toward the West. The tiny Balkan country started accession negotiations with the European Union in 2012.
In order to learn about the domestic reactions toward this crisis, I touched base with Djordje Popovic, a Serbian academic living in Montenegro who heads leadership programs for Western Balkan politicians funded by the EU.
Popovic said they all first thought the video was fake. “When Montenegrins realized the footage was real, their reaction snowballed, arguing that Trump had humiliated our national pride,” he said. But the main result has apparently been the deepening of the latent polarization in the country.
This Balkan country has been waiting at NATO’s door for nine years. Its membership required the ratification of the accession protocol by all parliaments in NATO member states who have all completed this process. In the U.S., the Senate ratified the membership with a majority vote, which was then approved by Trump. Hence Trump’s signature has been vital for the country.
This is why U.S. elections were vital for Montenegro mainly because Trump’s victory had been a nightmare for pro-NATO Montenegrins. After all Trump is widely perceived as a pro-Russia and anti-NATO leader. Moreover Russia stands against the NATO membership of Eastern European countries such as Montenegro. This is why Trump’s support was vital for Markovic and therefore he commented after the summit that Trump’s move was “simply a harmless situation.” “It is natural that the president of the United States is in the front row,” he said.
On the other hand, the prime minister is also fighting a hard battle in his own country. As in every Eastern European country, the pro-West and pro-Russia sides are clashing with each other. But Montenegro also has an extra characteristic: NATO bombarded Serbian targets in Montenegro in 1999 during the Kosovo war. Hence the anti-West spirit is much higher in the Balkan country given that 30 percent of the population is Serbian. Moreover, 70 percent of Montenegrins are Orthodox, just like Russians. According to Djordje, these 70 percent are totally against NATO.
This Russia-West axis was also reflected on the elections in Montenegro last October. The then-government alleged that Russia was plotting a coup to install a new government in the country that would be more hostile toward NATO. Even though Russia denied the allegation, pro-West Montenegrins rushed to the ballot box and voted for Markovic. In other words, the prime minister’s fate is closely tied to the country’s NATO membership.
Djordje explains that Montenegrins have reacted to this crisis over the Russia-U.S. axis and that Trump’s move has been a great gift to pro-Russia groups in the country. The domestic press has also reacted in line with the same split. The pro-Russia and anti-Markovic daily Vivesti has appeared since that day with the headlines: “Our national pride has been disregarded.”
“Look, this is how NATO will treat us. Our value is this low in the eyes of the U.S.,” is its main argument. The pro-government and pro-West daily, Pobjeda, on the other hand, basically says: “Come on guys, Trump didn’t even know who he was pushing aside!”
This is exactly why this crisis is funny and absurd. Most probably it doesn’t have anything to do with Montenegro! But if you are a severely torn Balkan country with a population of just 620,000, it’s not surprising if you scatter at the flip of a switch from a superpower.