Montenegro's top diplomat has recognized a trio of current and former U.S. legislators for their work strengthening the partnership between the United States and the Balkan nation, which is NATO's newest member.
Calling Podgorica's June 2017 accession to the transatlantic military alliance his nation's top foreign policy objective, Montenegro Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic personally presented medals to former U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, Ohio Representative Mike Turner and Arizona Senator John McCain, who was unable to attend the event.
Their support for Montenegro's 2017 accession to NATO, along with efforts to further integrate Podgorica with the Euro-Atlantic community, Darmanovic said, has proven critical to bolstering the country's international status.
Presented with the Order of the Montenegrin Great Star, Biden, who also spoke on behalf of McCain, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer, called it "a genuine honor to receive the highest award that the country has to give."
"I got engaged in the Balkans very early on, as a senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, when [Josep Broz] Tito was still the president of Yugoslavia. I've always believed that until southeastern Europe is fully integrated in Europe, there will never be full peace and security in Europe," he said. "Our ability to conduct foreign policy in the world rests upon a stable, growing and democratic Europe."
Formerly part of communist Yugoslavia, a stronghold of Moscow, Montenegro became an independent republic in 2006, when its 650,000 citizens voted in a referendum to split from Serbia. With a military of only 2,000, the country is strategically positioned along the Adriatic Coast, whose deep-water ports can support naval operations in the Mediterranean.
Amid claims of Russian meddling in the country, where officials accuse Russian spies of orchestrating an attempted coup to derail the NATO accession process in 2016 — a charge the Kremlin resolutely denies — both McCain and Biden have called for greater U.S. and E.U. engagement.
"Today, just 12 years after declaring independence, Montenegro is a full member of NATO, bound and protected by — and I emphasize this — Article 5 of the NATO treaty," Biden said. "It is a sacred commitment that the U.S. has made to any member, large or small, of NATO, and it does not go unnoticed in other parts of the world. Particular among our Russian brethren, it is critically important."
By undertaking comprehensive defense and intelligence sector reforms to meet NATO standards, Biden said, Montenegro has also ensured a better life for its ethnically diverse population.
"You lose elections in United States, you still get a pension. When you lose in Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, you lose so much more," he said. "It took enormous courage for Montenegrins to say, 'I want freedom, I want the right to choose whatever destiny I want.' And this is a multiethnic country — small, but large in significance."
Turner, chairman of the U.S. delegation to NATO's parliamentary assembly, said his work to build congressional support for Montenegro's NATO accession wouldn't have been possible without McCain's and Biden's leadership.
"Having Montenegro as a democratic ally is greatly important as NATO continues to combat Russian aggression, especially in the Balkan region," Turner said. "I would like to thank Montenegro for their partnership and look forward to continuing our countries' bilateral and the alliance's multilateral relations."
This story originated in VOA's Serbian service.