Interview With TV Vijesti

Victoria Nuland
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Podgorica, Montenegro
July 12, 2015

Question: At the beginning, thanks for your time. I suppose you had a busy schedule today. You met some of the highest officials of Montenegro today. What were your key messages to them, and remarks?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, first of all, it’s great to be back in Montenegro. I haven’t been here for about a year. Last year when I was here, it was just before the Wales Summit, and at that time, we were talking about the full range of issues, but particularly about Montenegro’s NATO membership bid. At that time, we were quite concerned that there was more work to be done, so this time I wanted to touch base on how you’re doing economically, how you’re doing in terms of strengthening rule of law, strengthening democratic institutions, including a free press. We’re doing a lot together in the security sphere, so I saw the defense minister, and I wanted to talk to the opposition as well. So it was a really good chance to talk to everybody and assess how the country is growing as a democratic state.

Question: Measurable progress in the area of rule of law is noted one of the key preconditions for Montenegro in terms of getting an invitation to join NATO. In an interview given recently to our TV station, Mr. Stoltenberg pointed out the need to secure the functioning of the newly formed institutions, such as special prosecutors. In your view, what would be the evidence of the progress needed for the decision on membership?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, let me say that, like Secretary General Stoltenberg, we are looking in particular now at two things. As you said, progress in rule of law. A year ago, many of the basic institutions were missing. You’ve made a lot of progress over the last year in laying the foundations, as you said, in courts, etc. Now what we’re looking to see is that these institutions really start to work and that some of these long running cases that are very important and that Montenegrin people want to see resolved actually come to resolution in the coming months, so that everybody can see that it’s not simply having institutions, but institutions that deliver. So that’s one thing. The other thing that we’re watching very closely is the national debate about NATO. NATO is a solemn responsibility. It’s about our readiness to defend you, your readiness to defend us, so before we decide on an invitation, we need to be sure it’s not just the senior leadership and politicians that want this, but that the people of the country really want it, that they’ve chosen—

Question: --Public support

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Exactly-- the clean democratic direction that NATO signifies. So we’re watching to see that you’re having a real national conversation and that support for NATO is growing and that it becomes the majority position of the country.

Question: When it comes to rule of law and measurable progress, representatives of some NATO member states, such as Germany, complained earlier that, in negotiations with the EU, the government presents open cases in the process against high corruption and organized crime as completed while these cases then get rejected in the higher court. Is this something that is to be tolerated?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, I’m not sure about what particular cases you’re talking about with the EU.

Question: There are very few of them…

Assistant Secretary Nuland: But, as I said at the beginning, you have a number of long-running high profile cases that have gone on quite a long time, and if you can come to resolution on some of those, it will be important to demonstrate, to your own people first and foremost, that these institutions actually function and deliver justice, not simply that you have them on paper. So, it’s important to have the institutions, but it’s even more important that they deliver justice and that they send a message. I would say that on some things, like going after drug smugglers and those who would abuse your territory for their own gain, you’re also making progress, but there’s more to be done there too.

Question: Even though the accent has been placed on the rule of law, public support to NATO, some believe that the political environment is of crucial importance. To what extent would the invitation depend on relations between the U.S. and the EU on one side, and Russia in the light of the Ukraine crisis?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: This is not about Russia. This is about Montenegro. This is about the strength of Montenegro’s democracy, the strength of Montenegro’s interest and commitment to meet the rights and responsibilities of democratic, clean NATO member states, so we will not make this decision based on any outside thing. We will make it based on the progress Montenegro itself has made, and its own commitment to be in this family of nations and to take this solemn pledge to defend us and have us defend you. It’s a very serious thing, and it’s about our relationship. It’s not about anybody on the outside.

Question: Some government officials, including Dusko Markovic, the government’s Vice President, claim that Moscow supports anti-NATO efforts. Has the government shared this perception with you?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: He’s obviously made some of those concerns publicly. It wouldn’t be the first time that outside forces who don’t favor NATO enlargement have tried to manipulate the internal debate in a country. What we want to see is that this decision is made by Montenegrins for Montenegrin reasons, that nobody on the outside interferes.

Question: Four months ago, the press service of the President of France, Francois Hollande, stated to our TV station that there is a consensus in the alliance over the fact that none of the four candidate countries were ready to join NATO. Mr. Stoltenberg recently stated there is a debate concerning Montenegro. Despite that, do you hope that consensus will be reached by the end of the year in terms of Montenegro?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: What I hope is that those in Montenegro who want this country to meet NATO’s very, very high standards for membership continue to do the hard work to make this country strong enough, clean enough, democratic enough to achieve an invitation and that the people of Montenegro have a really good conversation among themselves about whether this is what you want. And if you come to the conclusion that more than half of your population wants this, and if you’ve made the progress along the lines that we’ve been talking about today, then you’ll stand in a strong position when we come to the decision towards the end of the year. The United States has not made a decision; we want to see you make more progress. We do think you are making progress, but equally important is the conversation among you about whether this is what you want.

Question: The recent State Department report stated that—I’ll quote that—that the country also suffered from continued deterioration of the environment for non-government institutions including the media and civil society, while you also state at a meeting with the president of the Montenegrin parliament that NATO requires clean democracy. If this is the case, is it possible that the country gets the invitation without solving the issues noted in the report?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, we have been talking for a number of years about the media environment here, about ensuring that there is space for all opinions. It was one of the major subjects that I discussed with the prime minister last year. We raised it again this year. We do think that the environment is improving, that there is more tolerance for more voices here. We were also pleased to see prosecution of those who attacked journalists recently this year. That’s the kind of thing that needs to continue. This country needs to be a “no go zone” for violence against journalists and violence against those who have opposition views. It’s never easy to be criticized. It’s not easy for any of us, but that’s what a democracy is about. It’s about free speech.

Question: But in the same report I just mentioned, it stated that there were instances of harassment of journalists, a failure to resolve several past cases, that there were also governmental and quasi-official attacks on leaders of non-government organizations from the pro-government media.

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Again, we continue to make our concerns known. I made my concerns known today that attacking media is unacceptable in a democracy, and in fact, even if it’s not always easy to hear criticism, that’s part of what it means to be a leader in a democratic society, whether you’re in the governing party or whether you’re in opposition.

Question: What would you say regarding claims by a part of the opposition, even pro-NATO opposition, that the current government poses the NATO process as a central state issue for the purpose of its self-preservation while it suspends freedom and weakens institutions that you consider to be pillars of democracy? In the other words, their view is that government in the area of international politics makes the moves that satisfy the interests of international centers while those centers keep their eyes closed when it comes to the “party-cratic” system and misconduct inside the country that prevent the genuine democratization of Montenegro.

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, we’re certainly not going to get in the middle of your internal politics, but every standard that NATO puts forward for candidate countries, including Montenegro, is about measuring your democratic development. That’s why we’re so insistent on progress in rule of law. It’s why we’re so insistent that countries be making progress in tackling corruption, in tackling criminality, why we’re so insistent that there be strong institutions like free media, like NGOs, etc. -- because those are the kind of democracies that we want in our family. So we don’t want to see this become a political football between parties. What we want to see is whether the country as a whole, and the majority of Montenegrins, are willing to do the hard work to continue moving forward democratically, and whether you as a country want to be in NATO.

Question: Reform of the security and defense sector—and that’s the last question—has been also in the focus. Has Montenegro done enough in this area regarding identifying radical Islamic groups and individuals? How realistic is the danger of having terrorism have more serious splash in the Balkans?

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Well, Montenegro’s been an increasingly strong partner on the security side. First and foremost, you’ve done a huge amount to reform your defense structures, to make your military more modern, more deployable, more able to defend the country. You’ve also done a lot to clean up the intelligence services and ability for outside interference. You’ve also been a strong partner, whether it’s the huge number of Montenegrins who have deployed with us in Afghanistan, whether it’s the contribution that you’ve now made to the Peshmerga and their fight against ISIL, or the foreign fighter legislation that you’ve passed to try to ensure that the country becomes a “no-go zone” for recruitment, etc. This is a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge in the United States. It’s a particular challenge in the Balkans to ensure that recruitment can’t happen here, that funding can’t happen here, and we’re all working on it together. It’s not just a challenge for Montenegro; it’s a challenge everywhere, and on this six-country tour that I’m on now I’ll be talking about it with every government.

Question: Thank you very much and thank you for your time.

Assistant Secretary Nuland: Thank you.