Montenegro’s foreign minister on an official visit to Israel

Prof Dr. Srdjan Darmanovic, Foreign Minister of Montenegro, signing the guest book at the Israeli President's Residence (photo by Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; used with permission)
Prof Dr. Srdjan Darmanovic, Foreign Minister of Montenegro, signing the guest book at the Israeli President's Residence (photo by Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs; used with permission)

Recently I interviewed the new Foreign Minister of Montenegro, Prof. Dr. Srdjan Darmanovic, who is on a state visit to Israel. He has been Montenegro’s Foreign Minister since late November 2016. Darmanovic was the Founding Father and the First Dean of the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Montenegro (2003-2010). He was Founder and President of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM), a think tank based in Podgorica (1998-2010). He was also the President of the Montenegrin Diplomatic Academy (2006-2010). He is currently a member of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission (European Commission for Democracy through Law), and has been since 2005. Darmanovic visited Israel for the first time in 2011, on a trip that was hosted by The Israel Project. He met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the late Shimon Peres. He toured Israel both by ground and by air. Israel’s Speaker of the Knesset, Yuli Edelstein visited Montenegro in 2016, and Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s Minister of Regional Cooperation, was there in 2017. Hanegbi brought 13 Israeli leading business executives with him. The Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, was in Montenegro in July 2018. Currently, bi-lateral relations between Montenegro and Israel are considered positive. In the interview Darmanovic spoke about future partnerships with Israel, as well as regional developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. He also spoke on international relations.

Here are excerpts from the interview, conducted July 16, 2018:

Question:

Culturally, there have been Israeli dance groups, authors, film makers, and, in the future, archeologists bringing their creativity and expertise to Montenegro. There was a lot of publicity in 2017 when Israel sent two teams to Montenegro to assist firefighters. Montenegro has signed a three-year cooperation agreement with Israel in the areas of culture, education and science. In terms of continuing cooperation, what else do you foresee in future partnerships between Israel and Montenegro, like cyber-security and agriculture, for example?

Answer:

We find our relationship with Israel very important in many ways. As you know Montenegro is a new NATO member since June 2017. We care about security in Europe and elsewhere. Montenegro is also a member of the anti-ISIS coalition. We have been in Afghanistan almost from the very beginning. About 20% of our total small army already participated in Afghanistan. Israel is a very important security player in this region and wider. A country that is a member of NATO can participate with Israel in this arena.  (Israel is not a full-member of NATO, but it is part of the Mediterranean Alliance). Our Minister of Defense was recently here, and we signed an agreement on cooperation in defense areas. We can receive a lot of information from Israel in the transfer of knowledge, as well as concrete systems, especially in cyber-security, which we can use to advance NATO centers. We are a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism in our region. In that way, we cooperate with partner countries. Israel is definitely one we can cooperate with.

Around 20,000 Israelis visited Montenegro last year, which was a very positive surprise for us. It is going to increase this year. There are projections of more than 30,000 Israelis that will visit this summer. Definitely, the air connection of Tivat to Tel Aviv is helping this trend. Israeli businessmen are more and more interested in the prospect of investing in Montenegro. And, we had a very successful Israeli-Montenegrin forum organized in Montenegro last year, where people from the business community in Israel met our counterparts, including some members of the government, in order to see what the interests are. I think that digital technology is one of the areas, as well as agriculture.

We have a small but vibrant Jewish community in Montenegro. The government has already given space to the community for a synagogue to be built. Also, we have a culture center of Judaica in the country and it makes our cultural connection closer. We are looking forward to even deeper connections with Israel in the future.

Question:

The Terezin Declaration determined that January 27th would commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day. There is an organization called IHRA – The International Holocaust Remembrance Association. Montenegro is not a member. On January 27th of every year, Macedonia and other Balkan countries have official events on this particular day. Israelis and Jews throughout the world see this as a positive step in remembering the Holocaust. How do you plan to take this example of your neighbors and commemorate special events in the Montenegrin Foreign Ministry on this important day?

Answer:

We really should consider this. It is deeply in our national conscience. We have always had in our text books, education, and history, the understanding of the human rights of mankind, and the meaning of the Holocaust in the history of the world. So, in Montenegro, the problem of understanding the Holocaust absolutely does not exist. Probably, we should take this symbolic step. We have always properly understood this not only as a tragedy of one people, but as a tragedy of humankind. We should really do everything that portrays us as one of the members who support this. Good relations with our Jewish Community also testifies that we perceive it correctly.

Question:

I was in Montenegro when two leading Israeli theater companies performed “Our Class”, the story about the Polish pogrom during the Holocaust. That event in Montenegro was sponsored by your government.

History teachers from different countries come to Yad Va Shem, especially from the Balkans region, to learn about Holocaust related topics. What do you think about sending Montenegro’s teachers to Israel to learn about this sad time in the history of the Jewish People?

Answer:

It would be wonderful!  You gave me an idea to talk with our Minister of Education. I think it is a great idea. It’s learning by teachings from experts. It is very often more efficient than learning just by reading.

Question:              

Your country is one of those next in-line for integration into the EU. How do you see Montenegro positioned in a future partnership with the EU?

Answer:

We are a very clear front runner in the region. Montenegro and Serbia might finalize their accession process by 2025. I believe Montenegro can do better and do it faster. A candidate has to deliver, and change its society, according to the European standards. While the EU members are the ones who decide the dynamics, Montenegro after accession into NATO, is fully dedicated to its EU drive. We have no larger national priority than to finalize our Euro-Atlantic integration. We are already a member of the Atlantic alliance, and now to become a member of the EU.

Europe will never be free and at peace without absorbing the western Balkans; without making us members. And, the western Balkans will not be stable and democratic without joining the broader family of European nations. Europe, when the western Balkans was out of its reach, faced many a crisis derived from our region. On the other side, we have always needed some additional sources of stability and prosperity than us, ourselves.

Enlargement is not just the technical or administrative issues. It’s not just to fulfill all the necessary standards for Brussels. It is about changing our society. But, we should not underestimate that enlargement has its geo-political side. The western world now has its competitors in the Balkans. There are other powers who are meddling in the western Balkans affairs, and they try to exert their own influence. Most of them are not devoted to western values. In our case, it was Russia who tried to deride us in 2016 of our participation in NATO. Competition is legitimate for influence in the region. But, I think that the EU should be properly aware of the fact that it has to, in a way, fight for the western Balkans. And, maybe give even more impetus for the candidate countries. We, in the western Balkans, still don’t have strong anti-European movements and political parties. We have some of them, up to 20%. But, no party can win elections in the western Balkans on an anti-European platform at the moment. That kind of an impetus should, somehow, be explored.

Question:              

Let’s talk about your relations with Moscow. As you implied earlier, Russia tried to stop Montenegro’s entrance into NATO. And, Russia tried to sabotage Montenegro’s elections in October 2016, with an attempted coup. How do you currently view Russia’s influence in your country?  And, in what way will future relations with Russia develop, now that you are a member of NATO?

Answer:                 

We have been through hardships regarding Russia meddling in our elections in 2016. It was a very dangerous situation. A trial is still on-going about this case. Two Russian agents have been indicted in our court. They are out of our reach in Moscow. And, some other people have also been indicted because of that action. Of course, Russia has always denied its involvement. The facts are different, as far as I can see in the prosecutor’s arguments; not only that, but what we received in NATO information from our neighbors.

Russia is still a player in the region. Russia has interests in Montenegro. We have never been egocentric to think we were the primary Russian target. We were a Russian target in the context of regional affairs. Montenegro was one of the pieces of the puzzle, and in a brutal way.

Things are now a bit better. We did not detect serious Russian meddling in our elections this year; not in the presidential race or the local elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory message to our President (Milo Dukanovic) in his election win. And, there is no harsh rhetoric anymore.

So, maybe, Russia accepted the fact that we are now a member of NATO; that we have our legitimate interests; that we are not an enemy of any state; that we are too small a country to harm anyone; and, that things should go back to a normal way. It will take time. It will probably depend on the relations between Russia and NATO; between Russia and the U.S. and Europe. We did not enjoy having a clash with a superpower. But, we always wanted to make our own choices. And, our own choice was to become a part of the community of western democracies.

The Euro-Atlantic choice was not anything new. It was not anything that we suddenly decided in 2015 or 2016. It was clearly decided by our voters when they voted on the referendum for independence. For those who supported independence, they knew that if Montenegro would become independent in 2006, it would mean, immediately, that we were going to strive for our EU and NATO membership. So, it was an obligation to our voters, too.

Russia, we understand has its interests, but it was crossing our own interests as a small country to choose our own destiny and our own direction. I believe that better times are coming. As a stable member of NATO, and a future member of the EU, we will have normal relations with Russia like any other member of the western community.

Question:

Regarding integration into the EU and joining NATO, do you see Macedonia successfully following the path of Montenegro?

Answer:

We are strong supporters of our neighbors. As a small country, we believe that we will never be in good shape if we have a crisis around us. Sooner or later all western Balkan countries should be members of the EU. And, all those who want it… members of NATO. We very much advocated Macedonian membership in NATO.

Macedonians and Greeks made a good deal about the necessary name change, a deal in which no one can think they are defeated, humiliated, or cheated. Rational politicians made rational decisions. Macedonians need to approve, in a referendum, a new name for their country, “The Republic of Northern Macedonia.”  Greeks will have less of a problem to get approval in the parliament.

In the meantime, Macedonia received an invitation to begin accession talks to become a member of NATO. After Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania put a complete Adriatic ring under the NATO shield, we are getting another member who will join us in the western Balkans. It is now infusing an element of inland stability in our region. (Macedonia is an inland country). It contributes to the western Balkans stability.

Together, with Macedonia, the next in line for EU membership is definitely Albania. The EU Council will announce that both countries will have an opening in the accession talks in June of next year.

Question:

In what context do you see Montenegro’s relationship developing with Serbia and Kosovo? Should we expect an independent Kosovo received by Serbia?

Answer:

After NATO and EU membership, the pillar of our foreign policy is good relations in our neighborhood. After we regained our independence from Serbia by the democratic vote (we separated peacefully), Montenegro enjoys excellent relations with all our neighbors, Serbia included. We belong to those who recognize Kosovo because we believe it is a reality; it is something that happened after the Yugoslav wars; it is something that the people in Kosovo have wanted; and, it was one of the ways that the tragic Yugoslavia story of the 1990’s has led to warmer calmer waters. We, of course, recognize that Serbia refuses to accept it, and has its own view about it. We have good relations with both of them. We are encouraging all the dialogue between them. We believe that as soon as the dialogue will produce fruitful results, it will be better for both countries. It is difficult to say whether Serbia is going to accept or not accept. It is the matter of a deal. But, I think that out of the disputes of that kind, our future is much more towards EU and NATO, for those who want it, than to stay captured in the Balkans with problems from the past.

Question:

Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia – all six have embassies here in Israel. Good relations continue between Montenegro and Israel. There are now direct flights between both countries. Tourism has grown. There has also been an increase in business and trade. Netanyahu has said that there will be incentives for those nations that are some of the first to open their embassies in Jerusalem. When will you consider Montenegro opening up an embassy in Israel? And, better yet, when will you become the first Balkan country to open up an embassy, specifically, in Jerusalem?

Answer:

We would not want less than our neighbors to have an embassy in Israel. But, it is not a political message at all. It is about the fact that we are a small European country. We have to, very carefully, spend the money for diplomacy. We have only 39 missions in the world, bi-lateral and multi-lateral. And, for all the countries, including very important ones like India, like Japan, like Israel, like Indonesia, like the whole of Africa, like Brazil or Mexico or Canada, we still, for now, have to find other ways to cover our interests. This is mostly from the capitals of other countries. Or, what is a very common practice in the smaller EU member states, to have ambassadors from those countries sitting in Podgorica, or covering those states by several visits or other connections. Being short of an embassy in Israel, we are now, very successfully, implementing the model of the Honorary Consul. Mr. Nimrod Rinot is definitely one of the very best Montenegro Honorary Consul’s we have in the world. And, it is the way we are dealing with this issue so far. I cannot predict when our Foreign Ministry will get more money from the budget to open new spots. But, for sure, in a possible enlargement of our diplomatic network, Israel will be the one that will definitely be considered.

As for opening the embassy in Jerusalem, we are not the ones who should decide what is the capital, and how the issue of Jerusalem will be solved in the peace process. We accept everything that will be the result of the peace process. And, we will be happy to recognize whatever will be the reality of the two-state solution.

We were not among those, for the time being, that announced any opening of an embassy, particularly in Jerusalem. It will be decided in due process. If it will be the result of the process, we will open an embassy on that spot where it will be recognized from most of the countries. We are following the EU approach in many of the international issues. We fully understand the arguments of Israel, and also from the Palestinian Authority. We have good relations with both, and we are very much looking forward to the fruitful negotiations and the peace process from the past. And, we are very sad when we see any kind of extremism that prevails. These days, there was the shelling of Israeli territory. I visited Sderot several years ago, and I could have seen with my eyes what it would have looked like. And, I believe that the two sides will find a way to solve this. So, Montenegro will open an embassy in Israel when the time comes; when it (Jerusalem) will be the capital of the country.

Question:

You are here in Israel visiting the land and meeting with Israeli government leaders. You are also going to the Palestinian Authority, even at a time when Hamas is launching hundreds of rockets on Israeli southern cities, killing and wounding civilians, damaging synagogues and schools, and burning thousands of acres of land with explosive devices sent over to Israel’s side of the border. What do you hope will be accomplished in your talks with the Palestinian Authority? How can you help with this problematic violence by Palestinians against Israel?  And, how does meeting with PA officials help Montenegro?

Answer:

PA officials are meeting also with the Israeli government and they have tried to find a solution together. We have diplomatic relations with both from the very beginning. We are trying to promote the same approach we have always had in our own region. It is peace, stability and security. It’s very difficult for us, in every single situation, to say what is really going on. We can say what we think. We can send our messages. We can promote Montenegro’s approach to the international issues. We can say how we dealt with the western Balkans crisis when it happened. As for this problem here, we will definitely always encourage dialogue; and, we will be for suppressing any kind of extremism. We are not a global player. We are not those who are deciding. But, as a small country, we try to have at least a possible global reach, if not influence, to say what we can about international issues. If we talk with the Palestinian Authority, I believe they understand what we say. They have an embassy in Montenegro, too. We have regular communications and everybody knows, very well, that Montenegro is also for the promotion of the peace process under international standards. There is nothing new about that. This visit does not have any kind of motives to give any lessons to anybody. We also have bi-lateral relations with both countries. We always have the approach that the two-state solution is the solution that both sides want. From the very beginning, when I met Prime Minister Netanyahu seven years ago, it has always been the talk of how to find the proper two-state solution. If both sides, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, believe that the two-state solution is proper for them, it is up to us to say we are also fine with that.

Question:

You have had good relations in the past with the United States (being the Montenegro Ambassador there from 2010-2017). And, you know that Israel is one of the closest allies to the U.S. Trump Administration. It would seem obvious that Montenegro would have supported the initiative of the Americans at the UN regarding the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem.

The EU did not have one united voice on this resolution. Were there representatives of the EU pressuring you to vote against it? Bosnia and Croatia abstained on the vote in the UN. Why didn’t Montenegro at least abstain?

Answer:

It is a continuation of our approach to this issue. We believe in the peace process and that it should give all answers of how to deal with it, and how to make a two-state solution viable. We simply did not make any sudden shift in what we are advocating for years. We did not want to be against someone. We just wanted the approach of a peaceful solution according to international law and international standards. And, in that particular resolution, a vast majority of EU countries voted the same way. We believe in the peace process and no more. So, it was just, I would say, a continuation of the same approach we used to have in our region — to work on durable and solid solutions for the future. We have not understood it as favoring one and not favoring another.

Nimrod Rinot, Honorary Consul of Montenegro in Israel; Prof. Dr. Srdjan Darmanovic, Foreign Minister of Montenegro; Dan Oryan, Director of the Balkan Department at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (photo by Carrie Hart)
About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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