PODGORICA, Montenegro — World War III? Not us, say puzzled and concerned Montenegrins.
Public officials in the tiny Balkan nation in southeastern Europe didn’t know what to say initially when U.S. President Donald Trump suggested Montenegro could set off a global Armageddon with a military of fewer than 2,000 members.
That the leader of the world’s dominant superpower would characterize the country’s population of about 620,000 as “very strong” and “very aggressive people” first 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 the military alliance’s newest and smallest member were provoked, having NATO behind it could embolden “a tiny country with very strong people” to engage, the president said of Montenegro.
“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 that 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, noting in a parliamentary debate on Wednesday that they were made within the context of questioning NATO financing and not intended to insult 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, Maine Gov. Paul LePage was visiting Montenegro in hopes of strengthening ties with business and political leaders when the president’s interview aired. Maine and Montenegro have had a partnership since 2006 that LePage says 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 with a statement Thursday in which it said “the United States is proud to call Montenegro an ally.”
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 speak 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.
By PREDRAG MILIC , Associated Press