PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — World War III? Not us, say the puzzled people of Montenegro.
Public officials in this tiny European nation didn’t know what to say initially when U.S. President Donald Trump suggested that NATO’s newest and smallest member, which has a military with fewer than 2,000 members, could be the spark that sets off a global Armageddon.
That the leader of the world’s dominant superpower would characterize the 620,000 or so Montenegrins as “very strong” and “very aggressive people” rendered their government speechless. It found its voice Thursday, and what came out was less a battle cry than a chorus of “Kumbaya.”
“We build friendships, and we have not lost a single one,” read a statement issued in the capital, Podgorica, in response to the media’s clamoring for comment. “It does not matter how big or small you are, but to what extent you cherish the values of freedom, solidarity and democracy.”
Living in a region that has seen more than its share of volatile conflicts, Montenegrins say they are much more interested in tourism than war. Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic like Slovenia, the home country of U.S. first lady Melania Trump, is known for its long Adriatic Sea beaches.
“I laughed when I heard that and figured it could be a good advertisement,” retiree Slavka Kovacevic, 58, said of Trump’s depiction while taking a break from her morning shopping.
Trump ventured his thoughts on Montenegro during an interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson conducted Monday after the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. They were discussing NATO’s mutual defense pact.
If Montenegro, for example, were provoked, having NATO behind it could embolden “a tiny country with very strong people” to engage, the president said.
“They are very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you are in World War III,” he added.
The comment was not the first time Trump had taken notice of Montenegro in a way that attracted oversized attention. At a NATO summit last year, his first as president, Trump shoved Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic out of the way while trying to get in front for a leaders’ group photo.
Back then, Markovic refused to make a fuss over the American president’s manners. Markovic also took the high road regarding Trump’s comments this week. He noted in a parliamentary debate Wednesday that Trump spoke within the context of questioning NATO financing and was not trying to put down a particular ally.
“Therefore, the friendship and the alliance of Montenegro and the United States of America is strong and permanent,” Markovic’s government said in its statement Thursday.
Trump’s views have some basis in history. Montenegro, which means “Black Mountain,” does boast of a heroic warring tradition forged over centuries of conquest and contemporary conflicts in the troubled Balkans.
Montenegro was a rare country in the region to retain a level of autonomy during the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Its past ties to Russia, with whom Montenegro shared a predominantly Slavic and Orthodox Christian culture, were so strong that its leaders were said to have declared a war on Japan in 1904 just to support Russia.
Montenegro became part of Yugoslavia after World War I. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegro was bombed by NATO forces in 1999 before it split from Serbia in 2006.
“I just want to remind all the American public opinion and President Trump that Montenegro was an ally with American soldiers in two wars, in the first world war and the second world war,” former parliament speaker Ranko Krivokapic told The Associated Press.
“Montenegrins are not aggressive … but the nation of brave warriors,” he said.
As it happens, the governor of the U.S. state of Maine, Paul LePage, was visiting Montenegro in hopes of strengthening ties with business and political leaders when the president’s interview aired. Maine is six times as big as Montenegro and has had a partnership with the country since 2006. LePage says it originally focused on disaster relief, emergency management and border security.
The Balkans have a difficult history, but “everybody likes Montenegro,” the governor said in a video the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro posted Tuesday. The embassy followed up Thursday with its own statement, saying “the United States is proud to call Montenegro an ally.”
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters seeking clarification of the president’s thoughts on NATO commitments in general and Montenegro in particular Wednesday that any elaboration would have to come from the White House.
“I can tell you that the president reiterated our ironclad commitment to NATO’s collective defense last week” at a NATO leaders’ meeting in Brussels, Nauert said. “Their summit declaration that came out at the end of the summit stated clearly that any attack against one ally will be regarded as an attack against all.”
Although its land mass and military are small, Montenegro was seen as an important addition to NATO when it defied Russia and joined last year. Along with having been a Russian ally in the Balkans, the country sits on a southern stretch of the Adriatic Sea that Moscow has been keen to control.
Montenegrin authorities accused Russia of being behind a foiled coup in 2016 that was intended to kill the country’s pro-NATO prime minister. Russia has denied the allegation. Given the recent tensions, some Montenegrin observers worried Trump’s comments might need to be taken seriously.
Former parliament speaker Krivokapic described Trump’s remark as “very strange.”
“I hope (it was) just a mistake, nothing else,” Krivokapic said. “And I hope that Montenegro was not part of (the) Helsinki talks.”
The reaction of Miljan Kovacevic, 34, a lawyer in Montenegro, was more akin to his prime minister’s post-shove aplomb.
“He is the president of America, but he has not done too well with his statements lately,” Kovacevic shrugged.