by Staff Writers
Rome (AFP) Oct 14, 2016
NATO head Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Friday European efforts for a more closely integrated defence policy, boosted since Britain's vote to leave the EU, but warned against trying to create "an alternative" to the North Atlantic Alliance.
"Stronger European defence will be good for the European Union, it will be good for Europe and will be good for NATO," he said at a press conference with Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome.
Stoltenberg said enhanced cooperation between European nations could only be positive and urged countries to increase defence spending because "we live in a more dangerous world with new challenges and new threats and we have to respond and adapt".
But he said "we must make sure to avoid duplication with NATO structures and that what Europe does is complementary to NATO".
"I'm very much assured by the strong statements from minister Gentiloni and many other European leaders that this is not about establishing something that is an alternative to NATO," he added.
While EU defence ministers have held talks in recent months to discuss ways of boosting defence cooperation, the move has angered Britain which has vowed to oppose any attempt to create an "EU army" following the Brexit vote.
The challenges facing NATO and the EU include "an increasingly assertive and unpredictable Russia".
"In recent weeks, Russia has deployed missile systems closer to Alliance borders that could carry nuclear warheads... We will continue pursuing our policy of strong defence combined with political dialogue."
Minister Gentiloni said Italy would play a part in a move to counter Russian war games in areas bordering NATO Baltic states since the start of the Ukraine crisis, sending 140 men to join other battalions in bolstering the alliance's eastern flank.
The news sparked an outcry from Italy's left wing and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which slammed "a move which risks exposing our country to war-like scenes and puts us back 30 years."
NATO and Russia's influence dominate Montenegro vote
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who led the small Adriatic republic to independence from Serbia in 2006, has steered the nation towards closer ties with the West, pursuing membership in both the European Union and NATO.
But Djukanovic is up against groups who oppose joining the military alliance, an issue that deeply divides the country, and analysts say he may fail to win enough support to form a stable government.
Montenegro's recent invitation to join NATO -- yet to be ratified by Podgorica as well as other member states -- follows other decisions that have displeased its long-time ally Moscow.
Podgorica was among the first to recognise Kosovo's independence in 2008, and in 2014 joined the EU's policy of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
After three centuries of close friendship, Russian investment in Montenegro has markedly declined and Moscow has threatened consequences if it enters NATO.
The Democratic Front, a pro-Russian opposition group, organised huge and occasionally violent anti-NATO protests late last year, calling for unrest if the government joined the alliance without holding a referendum on the issue.
"If we win the October 2016 elections we will abolish sanctions against Russia and develop the closest economic and political ties (with Moscow)," Strahinja Bulajic, a leading Democratic Front official, told AFP.
He said the sanctions were "one of the most shameful acts in national foreign policy".
- Sceptical of NATO -
Opinion polls show that while most of Montenegro's 620,000 people support EU membership, less than 40 percent are pro-NATO, with older people in particular leaning towards Russian ties.
Many remain sceptical of NATO after its 1999 bombing campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was part.
Pre-election surveys are not published but according to a confidential poll seen by AFP, Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) is set to get 40-43 percent of votes -- requiring the support of ethnic minority parties to form a government.
The position of opposition groups in Montenegro is complicated: not all are pro-Russian, with some in favour of joining the EU but against being part of NATO.
The Democratic Front, which is against both western alliances, is accused by the DPS of being illegally financed and supported by Russia.
Among the other former Yugoslav republics, Croatia and Slovenia have both joined NATO, while many former communist states in eastern Europe have also become members -- something Russia sees as a threat to its security.
"At these elections we will decide whether we lead Montenegro into the society of European nations or we take it backwards by at least 10 years," Djukanovic said during his campaign.
- Russian investment falls -
The premier's pro-Western policies have had economic consequences.
Russia was once the leading foreign investor in Montenegro but in 2015 it cut its annual investment almost by half to just 68.9 million euros ($77.1 million).
This fell to 22 million euros in the first six months of 2016, according to Montenegro's national bank.
While this investment has dropped off, Russia has strengthened its influence in other ways in the region, for example through media -- the Kremlin-backed Sputnik agency set up a local-language portal from Belgrade last year.
At a NATO summit in July, Djukanovic urged the EU to "implement a stronger regional strategy towards rival Russia... and provide greater, more visible diplomatic support to Balkan leaders".
Opponents of the premier, who has ruled for more than 25 years, accuse him of authoritarianism, corruption and control over the electoral process using state apparatus.
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