Montenegro: Conference on raising public awareness on joining NATO

{gallery}newsletters/10/4/1{/gallery}Currently within Montenegro, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, citizen support for NATO integration is not at an satisfactory level, yet. Citizens are either not informed or remain poorly informed regarding the benefits and risks of joining the North-Atlantic Alliance. Reasons for this can be found in a lack of political will and in the absence of a comprehensive and effective strategy among those with the ability to influence public attitudes.

“Dialogue on NATO – joint efforts on raising public awareness in Montenegro” was the name of a two-day debate held in Podgorica on September 29 and 30. It was organized by the Euro-Atlantic Club in Montenegro in cooperation with Montenegro’s Ministry of Defense, NATO, and the Embassies of the United States, Great Britain and the Kingdom of Norway. Also participating in this debate were representatives of various NGOs in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia; and representatives of the ruling coalition and opposition parties in Montenegro. Many members of the diplomatic corps were invited to the event.

Target groups

After welcoming remarks and an introductory speech by the president of the Euro-Atlantic Club in Montenegro, Savo Kentera, the debate was opened by the Ambassador of Great Britain to Montenegro, Kate Knigh-Sands. Ambassador Knigh-Sands said: “The key factor in furthering the NATO integration process is the need to send information regarding NATO membership to those citizens who are opposing it, as well as to those who have not formed their opinion yet, in order to present to them, in a systematic way, the advantages and risks of joining NATO.” This was also confirmed by the research of Professor Miloš Bešić, which highlights the beliefs of citizens that only the government and its employees will profit from the benefits that NATO integration offers.

NATO representative Uroš Zver emphasized that a “communication strategy has to include all population structures that will, in an adequate way and through direct communication, be offered an explanation to eliminate their doubts regarding NATO.” Savo Kentera of the Euro-Atlantic Club in Montenegro expressed belief that any communication strategy must be based on dialogue, because lectures on a topic do not represent true communication.

Aleksandar Dedović, from the NGO Alfa Centar, emphasized that they have identified target groups they want to talk to, but that dialogue with “ordinary citizens“ who can barely “make ends meet“ should not be insisted on.

The President of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Policies, Neđeljko Rudović, stated that “only a third of Montenegrins support the country’s admission to NATO,” and “ways to better inform citizens have to be found.” He believes that a possible cause for the poor support among citizens lies in the aggressive propaganda that the ruling structures are implementing regarding NATO integration.

Retired General Blagoje Grahovac said that Montenegrins are bellicose in nature; that each Montenegrin inherits the need to wage wars and that this stereotype can be eliminated only by Montenegro’s admission in NATO. He has also noted that the road to NATO is Montenegro’s greatest project since its independence.

Regional experiences

The question of joining NATO is not exclusively a question that affects Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and other potential members. It also concerns neighboring countries and the wider region. This is an opportunity for regional members of the Atlantic Charter to talk about the experiences they faced on the path to NATO membership and to work on recommendations and suggestions that might be of key importance to new members.

“Public opinion on NATO is greatly influenced by events that have taken place south of Slovenia,” said distinguished professor Anton Bebler, president of the Atlantic Alliance of Slovenia. He believes that the politics of former U.S. president George W. Bush exerted tremendous influence on public opinion in Slovenia, especially when the United States invaded Iraq. At that moment, public support for NATO dropped from 60% to 40%.

Professor Bebler’s former student, Uroš Krek, who is now Secretary at the Slovenian Ministry of Defense, notes that the most important step is assuring citizens’ legitimacy and removing any lack of understanding through constant dialogues. He believes these things can be achieved through implementation of the Communication Strategy, and that Montenegro could benefit from taking over Slovenia’s model of assuring public support. This model has been based on constant formal briefings and special sessions with journalists. Through these briefings journalists are informed promptly on where Slovenia is in the integration process. In his words, a very important part of Slovenia’s strategy is participation, at all public meetings in local communities all across the country. A crucial role in presenting the importance of NATO integration has been played by the Slovenian government, which has been very much involved in the process. The Slovenian Minister of Defense alone has had over a hundred appearances in the media.

Kristaq Birbo, from the Atlantic Alliance in Albania, used the opportunity of the debate to present his country’s progress in democratization and the fight against organized crime and corruption. This progress was awarded by the admission of Albania into NATO. Around 95% of Albanians support the country’s recent membership. This percentage has not changed over time. Birbo emphasized that, joining NATO, Albania has gained more than just membership, and that the level of security has increased as a result of this.

Miloš Šolaja, from the Center for International Relations in Banja Luka, talked about relations between Russia and the BiH entity of the Republika Srpska, as well as the notable increase in Russian influence and new Russian investments. He also talked about NATO and the decrease of support within the RS population for BiH’s integration into NATO. According to his presented data, 64% of the citizens of the Republika Srpska strongly oppose the country’s integration into the Alliance. He emphasized that Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a specific situation and that the country cannot yet talk about joining NATO, and instead can only focus on joining the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

The BiH Ministry of Defense representative, Asif Kahriman, said that one of the obstacles in BiH’s road to NATO is a lack of consensus in solving the issue of military property in BiH. This issue is a key factor in BiH’s admission to the MAP. Kahriman has emphasized that the BiH Ministry of Defense has done everything necessary for continuation of NATO integration, but that it now needs help and cooperation from other BiH ministries and the international community.

{gallery}newsletters/10/4/2{/gallery}BiH has created a Communication Strategy through which, in 2009 and 2010, the public was questioned regarding their support for NATO integration and the Partnership for Peace Program. No significant changes of public attitude toward NATO integration have been noted. Kahriman emphasized that there is a need in BiH for educating not only the citizens on the issues, but also the media, in order for the media to adequately report on the integration processes.

“In 2006, Croatia created a communication strategy with the aim of acquiring and maintaining public support as a crucial prerequisite for the country’s admission into NATO,” Luka Vidak, President of the Croatian Atlantic Council said. The Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has organized discussions on NATO integration topics in all of the country’s provinces, in order to establish direct contact with its citizens, with positive results.

“The consensus among political elites has made it easier for Croatia to prepare itself internally and implement its communication strategy, but this consensus is not the case in other countries in the region,” Vidak said.

Dragan Lozančić, senior advisor to the Croatian Ministry of Defense and a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany; said that a “communication strategy is merely a part of a system… membership in NATO should not be imposed as the final goal, but rather the goal should be the development of society and institutions to guarantee the safety of all citizens.” The important question is how to formulate a solution to this problem, since the solution has to be acceptable to “ordinary citizens” as well as those dealing directly with the issue.

According to Ismet Ramadani, Vice-President of the Euro-Atlantic Council in Macedonia, “An alternative to joining NATO does not exist! After the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO in 1999, citizen support within Macedonia for NATO integration dropped by 30%, but the greatest hurdle now is the process with Greece relating to the country’s name.” Despite past opinion and present difficulties, Macedonia wants to join NATO, and presently, public support for the integration process is around 80%.

Tijana Andrić from the Atlantic Council in Serbia said “Serbia does not have a developed communication strategy for joining the EU and NATO, mostly because of recidivism from the past and the politization of the Kosovo story.” A great number of Serbian citizens are completely uninformed on integration processes, and many people base their opinion on emotion and ideological factors, Andrić says. She believes the solution lies in “objective propaganda,” the issuing of publications and media reports, and the organizing of public debates and discussions.

Education, not propaganda

The conference was closed by the former director of the Agency for National Security of Montenegro, who is presently minister without portfolio, Duško Marković. During closing remarks, Marković said: “Montenegro has not yet found adequate models to explain to its citizens all of the benefits of NATO membership. This is why public support is at such a low level. Other reasons can be found in our recent past. I would like to emphasize that NATO is the best and the safest choice for Montenegro and its citizens; a choice that would enable the prosperity of the whole society.”

According to conclusions reached at the end of the two-day conference, the participants agreed that it is of crucial importance that NATO membership opponents have opportunities to present their arguments unimpeded, so that the process has full democratic legitimacy. Governments cannot have a monopoly over the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, since integration must be a process that includes the whole state, and not only certain groups, political elites, or individuals. Parliament members within the government should be more involved, as they represent a key factor in the implementation of an effective communication strategy. Within the communication strategy framework, all messages Parliament members are sending must be clear, precise, and comprehensible to ordinary people. The purpose must be the education of citizens (through dialogue); not propaganda.


Text and photo: Aner ZUKOVIĆ