As the U.S. presidential elections were approaching last year, voters in the tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro liked to say that they deserved to cast a ballot at least as much as any American. They were only half joking. Like many people in Eastern Europe wedged between the dueling interests of Russia and the West, the outcome of the U.S. race held nearly as much significance for them as the results of their own elections.
In Montenegro the stakes were especially high. After a decade of negotiations, the country had almost succeeded in joining the NATO military alliance at the end of 2015. Then Donald Trump entered the picture – the first major contender for the U.S. presidency to question the usefulness of that alliance and the wisdom of expanding it any further toward Russia’s borders. Moscow, which sees the expansion of NATO as the top threat to its security, was meanwhile seeking to gain a foothold in Montenegro, whose deep-water ports would be a perfect stopover for Russia’s naval missions in the Mediterranean.
This tug of war reached a crisis point last fall. During Montenegro’s parliamentary elections on Oct. 16, the government announced that it had foiled a Russian-linked plot to seize power in Montenegro, assassinate the then-Prime Minister, Milo Đukanović, and install a leader who would keep the country out of NATO. Russia has denied any involvement in the alleged plot, and the opposition in Montenegro has questioned whether any attempt at a coup d’état took place.
As it continues to investigate the conspiracy, Montenegro is pushing ahead with its bid to join NATO. Out of the alliance’s 28 members, 24 have already ratified Montenegro’s membership. But the vote is now stalled in the U.S. Senate, and a senior U.S. official told TIME this week that the White House currently has no plans to endorse Montenegro’s membership.
All of that is cause for alarm to Duško Marković, the pro-Western politician and former intelligence chief who became Montenegro’s Prime Minister after the elections in October. With his country now waiting at NATO’s doorstep, Marković sat down with TIME on Feb. 13 in his office in Podgorica, the nation’s capital, to discuss the alleged coup attempt and what he expects from President Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin:
TIME: Throughout its history, your country has been conquered and dominated by some of the world’s greatest military powers, from the ancient Romans to the Austro-Hungarians to the Third Reich. Now, roughly a decade after gaining independence, you want to join up with NATO, the world’s most powerful military alliance. Why?
Marković: What happened [after the dissolution of Yugoslavia] was something that was characteristic of the Western Balkans for many centuries — there were permanent conflicts, wars, peace conferences, and then repetition, over and over again. All of those experiences never led to any mechanisms for self-control and the resolution of crises. That is why, even though the Balkans form a natural part of Europe, they have been falling behind Europe for many centuries. … And that is why in 2006, after regaining our independence, we adopted a declaration, in which we stipulated that NATO and the European Union would be the key goals of our state policy.
Some officials in the U.S. have questioned your country’s usefulness to NATO. Montenegro has only about 620,000 citizens. It has no air force. It has no military academy. It has no coast guard. Your armed forces have less than 2,000 active personnel. So what does NATO have to gain from letting you join?
Montenegro is very strategically positioned. It has an exit to the Adriatic Sea. [Other] countries of the Adriatic, namely Slovenia, Croatia and Albania, are already NATO member states. Montenegro is the only country which is not. It has a very powerful port, the port of Bar. And this port of Bar is strategically important for NATO’s opponents, especially following the conflict in Syria, when Russia started its search for a good naval base in some of the warmer seas.
Then it should not surprise you that Russia has been so resistant to Montenegro joining NATO. In Russia’s official military doctrine, the expansion of NATO is listed as the number one security threat, higher than terrorism. Can you understand Russia’s resistance to your NATO membership?
Russia has a very strong interest to expand its outreach to the Adriatic coast, and the Montenegrin decision to belong to another civilizational circle poses an obstacle. It’s all about the strategic conflict between global interests, the power games between NATO and the West on one side and Russia on the other. Montenegro has cherished for more than 300 years its good friendship with Russia, and we would never allow our territory to be misused in order to disrupt Russian security in any way.
Nevertheless, we are going to defend our own interests and the interests of this Western community that we opted for. Enabling Russia to gain power, or to gain dominant influence in the Western Balkans, would mean losing our sovereignty at the same time. And we want to keep that sovereignty for ourselves. … So we are not ready to allow Russia to make decisions for us and to direct the course we take.
Your government has alleged that Russia, or individuals loyal to Russia, attempted to stage a coup d’état in Montenegro during the elections in October. The government in neighboring Serbia has confirmed some of the details of the plot, which was allegedly planned on Serbian territory. From your perspective, what exactly happened ahead of the October elections?
Russia interfered with our election process. They started visibly supporting the political forces opposed to NATO. It was right out in the open. We were warning people about that. A lot of money was pumped in illegally. Russian officials were publicly threatening us. Their [security] services were in touch with politicians, with the Orthodox Church, with NGOs, with some media outlets. An environment was created in which the pro-Western forces were supposed to lose.
But they were also preparing an alternative scenario, which we uncovered right at the end of the electoral process. It entailed forming a criminal organization, [whose] activities on the night of the elections was to provoke incidents, to provoke general outrage, and also possibly an armed conflict, which in the event of a victory for the pro-European forces, would lead to attacks, to conflicts, and the violent overtaking of power.
How did you uncover this plot and what is your evidence that it was in fact in the works?
We had certain hints about this scenario, but we didn’t have any tangible proof or evidence until Oct. 12. On that day, a man came to our [security] services and divulged this entire scenario. He let us know that two Russian citizens were backing him. It later turned out that they belong to the Russian military intelligence service. Our prosecutor’s office launched an [investigation] to verify these allegations.
The security services of NATO member countries [also] confirmed and corroborated our information. They helped us to put all of these pieces together, because all of these operations involved the interference of a third party. Servers were used for protected means of communication.
Have you collected physical evidence of this, including the servers that were used for these communications?
What was the ultimate aim of this alleged plot?
This scenario entailed shooting citizens, taking over the parliament, and according to one part of the scenario, the possible assassination of the Prime Minister [Milo Đukanović].
The opposition parties are skeptical any coup attempt took place. For example, it seemed strange to them that you did not put the military on alert on Election Day, even though you claim there was an imminent threat to the state. Why didn’t you inform the military beforehand?
Well, the entire security system had this information at their disposal. But it was not for the military to deal with that. At that point there was no need to bring the military on board. There were police, intelligence services and the prosecutor’s office on board.
Have you had any cooperation from Russia in this investigation?
The only feedback was that these two persons are nationals of Russia, and not a single piece of information more than that.
In some parts of eastern Ukraine, local protests against the pro-Western government in Kiev in 2014 grew into major conflicts with Russian state support. Do you fear that kind of scenario can happen here?
Yes, that’s the modus operandi Russia uses for destabilization. We’re aware of that. But continuously since the elections we’ve had obstruction of the state and its institutions here. They want to make this government nonsensical, the same goes for the judiciary, the prosecutor’s office, the law enforcement authorities. We don’t want to allow them to do that. We know it carries many risks. But we must defend our legal and constitutional order… regardless of what the Russian side is ready to do.
Let’s turn to the Western side. In the past year, the European Union has faced major challenges, from the British vote to leave the E.U. in June to the growing popularity of anti-E.U. parties. At the same time, Russia has grown a lot more assertive and confident on the world stage. Do these geopolitical shifts make you question your decision to integrate with the West?
We have no such dilemma. Our path is clear. That is NATO and the European Union. We know that NATO is going to enter a new stage, a new way of doing things. We believe that especially because of this new position of the U.S. and President Trump, NATO will become even stronger. The way we understand Mr. Trump’s statements is that he wants everyone to contribute equally to the alliance. Which means that soon after becoming a NATO state, Montenegro will be obliged to allocate 2% of its GDP to defense.
As for the European Union, you’re right. The European Union is facing some serious problems. [But] we really believe that once we finish the negotiating process with the European Union, it will not look as it looks today. We believe it will be better organized, and its institutions will be reinforced more than today.
Would you want NATO to admit even countries like Georgia and Ukraine?
Absolutely. It should remain open to those countries and [to the countries of] the Western Balkans. When I spoke to [NATO Secretary General Jens] Stoltenberg in Brussels, I told him that it’s very important for this policy to remain open for all the countries of the Western Balkans. If we preserve peace in the Western Balkans, then in my opinion we preserve stability and peace in Eastern Europe.
In both Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has shown that it is willing to use force against countries that seek to join the NATO alliance. Aren’t you concerned about Russia’s reaction to the continued expansion of NATO?
I don’t think that Russia can carry out an operation similar to what it’s done in Ukraine. … Despite the aggressiveness from Russia, despite its victories in the Middle East, and in Ukraine, I don’t think the Western Balkans can be fertile ground for such attacks. … You know, in a way, they applied the same approach to the elections in the United States. And I’m not sure the same scenario won’t take place in Germany and France during their elections.
Since Donald Trump’s election victory in the U.S., there’s been a lot of concern in Eastern Europe that Trump will sit down with Putin and strike some grand geopolitical bargain, one that would allow Russia to establish a sphere of influence in this region of the world. Do you think such a bargain is possible?
I don’t believe in such a scenario. I think those times when two leaders sat down and decided the fate of the world passed a long time ago. This is just the perspective of a man in a small country, and maybe it all looks different from behind the scenes, behind the curtains. But I don’t believe that we’ll see those two Presidents moving their pawns around the chess table and deciding the fate of countries like Montenegro. Many states have acquired enough resilience to defend their interests today.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Massimo Calabresi contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.