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The southeastern European country of Montenegro could become the 29th nation to join the NATO alliance. A two-day seminar held at the George C. Marshall European Center helped Montenegro government officials examine what the next steps should be. Connections through the Marshall Center alumni network helped bring the right people around the table.

By James E. Brooks,
George C. Marshall European Center Public Affairs

“Someday you’re going to pick up the phone and call one of your course mates and you’re going to solve a problem,” Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove said to a group of senior executives at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies last fall.

That network of professionals Breedlove spoke about came alive to help one southeastern European country. 

On Dec. 2, Montenegro was invited by NATO Foreign Ministers to start accession talks and become the 29th member of the Alliance.  This was good news.  But it wasn’t long before office telephones started ringing in Podgorica and Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. 

What were Montenegro’s next steps to become a member of NATO?

A two-day, tailored seminar convened at the George C. Marshall European Center Jan. 26-27, for senior government officials of Montenegro to address questions and concerns about NATO membership and to strengthen working relationships with Montenegro’s neighboring NATO alliance nations. The ability to pull together the seminar to discuss Montenegro’s next steps is an example of the power of the Marshall Center’s alumni network of nearly 12,000 professionals from 151 countries. 

According to seminar organizer and Marshall Center’s Program Director for Central and Southeast Europe Matt Rhodes, this seminar was important to enhance Montenegro’s understanding of the NATO's formal review process and to help them prepare to become a member of the NATO alliance. Montenegro’s Marshall Center alumni network numbering more than 100 members, many of which are in executive positions within their government, played an important part.

“I have to express my thanks to those who were not only in the seminar as participants but also played a role in shaping the seminar and creating ideas for the topics.  I have to single out MehmedinTahirovic who is the head of public relations and protocol for Montenegro’s ministry of defense and the long-time president of Montenegro’s Marshall Center alumni club. He and I joke sometimes that his interest with Montenegro having a relationship with NATO goes back further than before there was a NATO,” said Rhodes in his welcoming remarks at the start of the seminar.

The George C. Marshall European Center has been called a “center of excellence” for its ability to bring the right people around the table, in the right place at the right time. More than a dozen Montenegro government officials from seven agencies attended the seminar. Half of the officials attended previous Marshall Center resident courses. For Montenegro, the seminar was important in understanding what comes next.

“Matt Rhodes and I worked together in a security forum last year and we sat down and talked about the possibilities of the invitation for Montenegro to be a member of NATO and what to do.  We said when the invitation came, he would take care of arranging things at the Center and I would do other things in my country.  I had to get consult with my ministers and my administration across the agencies. Once everyone agreed, then we worked out the details of the program,” said Tahirovic.

Over the two-day seminar, Montenegro officials heard from officials from NATO, U.S. European Command regarding what needs to be done.

“It really was good to hear what we have to do in a real short time during this accession period. It’s crucially important how to find the best solution for implementing the documents required and getting everyone to sign them,” said Tahirovic.

There is no mystery to the process for becoming part of the alliance.  Montenegro’s neighbors Croatia and Albania are the two most recent additions to NATO.  During the seminar, officials had the opportunity to hear from Croatian Parliamentarian Dr. Davor Bozinovic; as well as Slovakia’s Head of Security Policy Peter Bator and Hungary’s Erik Baktai, a counsellor for his nation’s Foreign Affairs.  Together they shared their own national “lessons learned” perspectives.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that each senior government official who shared their experience were Marshall Center alumni.

While the seminar helped Montenegro gain a great deal of direction along the road to becoming the 29th member nation of the alliance, there is no guarantee that they will arrive where they are heading.  The accession process is challenging. Continued reforms in rule of law and fighting corruption are needed.  Support for becoming part of the alliance is also needed by the Montenegro public.  Fortunately for Montenegro, and as were reminded in this seminar, help is available through the Marshall Center alumni network. No one understands the importance of this network more than Tahirovic.

“In 2011, we started to create a regional alumni association. I was the first chairman, and we are continuing to grow this association in our region with Ukraine and Moldovia.  I think it’s a great opportunity and great chance to improve this area. Unfortunately, our region is very poor in the science and security sectors and the Marshall Center is a good place for common engagement in our region,” said Tahirovic.

NATO membership provides its members a level of stability and the confidence required grow stronger and prosper with the help of partners.  Membership relies heavily on trust and understanding. Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Breedlove told leaders one other aspect of the work they do here as a Marshall Center participant and future alumnus.

“No matter if the course work was wonderful and the opportunity was wonderful, what you will really get from this are the people around you and the fact you can pick up the phone and call somebody to help solve a problem,” Breedlove said.

Figuring out what the next steps for NATO accession are, Montenegro did just that. They picked up the phone.