Miodrag Vukovic knew Montenegro’s decision to join Nato would anger Moscow, but he did not expect it to land him in a Russian detention cell.
The member of parliament from Montenegro’s ruling party says he was detained on Sunday by police at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport while waiting for a connecting flight to Belarus, then held without food or water for eight hours before being expelled.
“It was a retaliation, absolutely,” he says of the incident, one of a series of what the Montenegrin authorities insist are punishments meted out by Moscow in retaliation for the Balkan country’s move to join the US-led military alliance.
“They knew of my political reputation and wanted to make an example of me,” he told the FT.
The former Yugoslav republic is now counting the cost of becoming the alliance’s 29th member, an accession endorsed at last week’s Nato summit in Belgium that will be formally concluded on June 5. Ahead of the move, the Kremlin in April slapped an embargo on Montenegrin wine — of which 10m bottles were exported to Russia last year — ostensibly for sanitary reasons. Dusko Markovic, Montenegro prime minister, says Moscow’s move was “clearly [made] in the context of Nato membership”.
Russia the same month launched a broadside aimed at undermining the Montenegrin tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on Russian visitors, including wealthy yacht owners who dock their boats in the picturesque harbours along the country’s Adriatic coast.
“There’s an anti-Russian hysteria in Montenegro,” Maria Zakharova, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, declared at a Moscow press conference as she urged Russians to reconsider their travel plans. Annually an estimated 200,000 Russians visit Montenegro, a small country of just 650,000 inhabitants, and 80,000 Russians own property there.
“We do not rule out the possibility of provocations, arrests for suspicious reasons or extradition to third countries,” Ms Zakharova added.
But this description was dismissed by Marat Guelman, an art collector who moved to Montenegro in 2014 after he was dismissed as head of the contemporary art museum in the city of Perm following an exhibition that critics said insulted Russia.
“These warnings are total nonsense,” he insists. “The Russian community here is an eclectic mix of freelancers, tourism workers and the families of wealthy Russian businessmen. They love it here and are completely safe.”
Montenegro’s economy boomed in the 2000s largely thanks to hundreds of millions of euros in Russian investment and tourism that transformed its seaside towns into glitzy retreats for Russia’s rich and famous.
In 2012 the country began granting residency permits to foreigners who purchased local property, prompting a further influx of Russians seeking financial havens abroad. Recent changes mean the permits can now be extended indefinitely.
But the government in Podgorica has at the same time sought greater integration with the west. By joining Nato it has secured for the alliance an uninterrupted presence along the Adriatic coast, frustrating Moscow’s efforts to roll back western influence in the Balkans and leaving some in the Kremlin feeling jilted.
Montenegro’s military is limited; the country will have the alliance’s smallest military budget. But diplomats believe expanding Nato membership signals western commitment to the Balkans, at a time when, according to UK prime minister Theresa May among others, Russia is using disinformation and other tools to destabilise the volatile region on Europe’s south-eastern flank.
However, the Nato accession has proved controversial at home. Polls suggest Montenegrins are split down the middle on the issue, with Mr Markovic’s government refusing opposition calls for a referendum on membership.
Some fear the impact not just on tourism, but on other sectors of the economy. In a sign of the mounting tensions, Oleg Deripaska, the Russian billionaire who invested in Montenegro’s largest aluminium company in 2005, has taken the Montenegrin government to an international arbitration court in Vienna, alleging unfair treatment — although the origins of this row predate the Nato issue.
The spat mirrors a wider souring of relations with Moscow, which separately stands accused of involvement in an alleged attempt in October to overthrow Montenegro’s government, as part of a failed bid to thwart the country’s Nato accession.
A special prosecutor has accused two Russian nationals — including a former diplomat previously expelled from Poland on suspicion of espionage — of masterminding the plot to storm the country’s parliament and install pro-Russian politicians in government. Moscow has rejected the claims as “absurd”.
Alexander Khrgian, a lawyer who chairs Montenegro’s Russian diaspora society, remains positive and insists the country is “still wonderful” for Russians.
However, he admits he has fielded a number of calls from would-be Russian investors and tourists concerned by the raised tensions.
Mr Markovic insists Montenegro will not be diverted either from its Nato commitments or its western integration plans, whatever the costs.
“We are prepared for any decision [by Moscow]” he told reporters. “Nothing is going to deter us from the path we decided to take.”
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