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Montenegro Optimistic of NATO Membership Invite

FILE - A SH-60 Seahawk helicopter takes off from the flight deck of USS Jason Dunham during a joint exercise with the Montenegrin navy March 16, 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea.

Hosting NATO's top brass, Montenegro said Wednesday it was optimistic of being invited to join the Western military alliance in December, over the objections of Russia.

Ambassadors of NATO's North Atlantic Council meet in Podgorica on Wednesday and Thursday in the latest signal of the alliance's resolve to invite Montenegro to join its ranks.

Bringing in the tiny Adriatic republic of 650,000 people would mark the first expansion of NATO's ranks in ex-Communist eastern Europe since Montenegro's neighbors Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and the first since Russia-West tensions erupted over Ukraine's 2014 revolution and the war that ensued.

"I am certain the conditions are there for the Alliance member states in December to take the decision to invite Montenegro to join," Montenegrin Foreign Minister Igor Luksic said in a statement to Reuters.

The United States has signaled its support for Montenegro's accession, providing it continues to work on issues of crime, corruption and democracy.

Russia has described the alliance's expansion into the Balkans, where Moscow enjoys historical ties with fellow Orthodox Christians, as a "provocation".

But the accession of Montenegro, over the Adriatic Sea from Italy, is unlikely to stir the kind of tension that NATO's overtures to the likes of ex-Soviet Georgia have done previously.

Russian Money

Montenegro's breathtaking Adriatic coastline has seen an influx of Russian private money, homebuyers and tourists since the country split from a state union with Serbia in 2006.

But relations with Moscow have long been uneasy given the Montenegrin government's pursuit of closer Western integration and worsened further when Podgorica joined EU sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Montenegro's government points to opinion polls that suggest citizens narrowly support joining NATO, 16 years after the alliance struck targets in the country during an 11-week air war to drive security forces under late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic from Serbia's then southern province of Kosovo.

Montenegro was then part of a rump Yugoslav state with Serbia, left over after Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia broke away from their joint communist federation.

It won independence in 2006 and has undertaken reforms in pursuit of EU and NATO membership.

Critics, however, point to the 25 years of political domination by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists, long dogged by allegations of organized crime that the government says are unfounded.