Montenegro expects to join NATO by the middle of 2017, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said Thursday, as his country and the military alliance signed an accession protocol despite Russian concerns over the move.
"It is our expectation that the allies would finalize ratification as soon as possible, so that, in mid next year, Montenegro would become a fully fledged member of the alliance," Djukanovic told foreign ministers and other representatives from the 28 NATO member states at a meeting in Brussels.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg spoke of an "historic step," coming 10 years after the Western Balkan country achieved independence.
"Membership will give Montenegro the ability to help shape NATO policy. It will bring more stability and security to the region, therefore promoting prosperity," Stoltenberg said.
"It is important that NATO is an alliance that is open to new members if they want to live up to the obligations and the values that NATO stands for," Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen added. "We think it's great to enlarge the family."
But Russia is expected to retaliate against the move, with high-ranking lawmaker Viktor Ozerov on Thursday saying there will be an "appropriate response."
Montenegro - a historical ally - does not pose a military danger, but NATO's eastward expansion threatens the national security of Russia, the head of its upper house of parliament's defence and security committee said.
Further details about Moscow's planned response were not immediately available, but Deputy Defence Minister Nikolay Pankov told the Interfax news agency that he did not expect a Cold War-style arms race or expansion of Russia's armed forces.
Relations between NATO and Russia are already strained because of the Russian annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Sergei Zheleznyak, the vice speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament, accused the Western military alliance of acting against the will of Montenegro's citizens.
NATO is "closing its eyes to the obvious fact that the majority of Montenegrins do not want to join this military bloc," Zheleznyak said in comments carried by the state news agency TASS.
Montenegro's Djukanovic, however, said polls in his country show that there is more support for NATO membership than opposition.
When asked whether he thinks that a referendum should be conducted on the accession, the prime minister said that question would be up to the parliament that takes power after elections in October.
"The integration processes of our country are unstoppable and there is no alternative," Djukanovic added. "It's a future that has started and a future that we shall pursue."
He pledged to continue implementing reforms.
For his part, Stoltenberg said he would like to see Montenegro make more progress on enforcing the rule of law, fighting corruption and modernizing defence institutions.
It would be the third nation from the Western Balkans to join the military alliance, after Albania and Croatia.
Montenegro will, as of Thursday, participate in the alliance's meetings as an observer, until all NATO nations ratify the accession protocol. It would then become the 29th member of the alliance.
The country is also working on joining the European Union, but that process is expected to take several more years.
Djukanovic said Montenegro has in 10 years gone from being "one of the most underdeveloped countries" in the former Yugoslavia to being "at the doorstep to NATO as one of the most developed countries in the region."