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mark mackinnon

Mark MacKinnon

From this Adriatic Sea resort you can almost see Europe. Italy, the locals say longingly, is just over the horizon, across the turquoise waters.

You see also see Europe every time you open your wallet. Montenegro unilaterally adopted the euro upon its 2006 declaration of independence from Serbia. It was informally using the currency for years before that; the trouble of creating a Central Bank and a currency always seemed too much bother for this tiny country of just 700,000 people who are long used to having bureaucrats in another place make decisions for them.

What was supposed to come next was full membership in the European Union (the promise of speedier accession, many here say, was one reason they voted to break with Belgrade in 2006). Montenegro formally applied to join the bloc in 2008, and the country was accepted as a formal candidate two years later, just ahead of Serbia. It is also seeking to join the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.

But the EU seems a faraway dream these days for Montenegro and the other candidate countries of the former Yugoslavia and ex-USSR.

Two things have changed. First came the rise of the Euroskeptics, from Nigel Farage and UKIP in Britain to Marine Le Pen and her Front National in France. Their unexpected electoral success – UKIP and the FN won the largest share of their country's vote in last year's European Parliament elections – stems from growing popular unease with the pace of EU expansion to date, and the accompanying influx of migrants from newly accepted members like Bulgaria and Romania into "old Europe" states like Britain and France.

In electoral times like these, the idea of adding new members like Serbia and Montenegro seems beyond fanciful. It would be a gift to Europe's radicals that no one in Brussels wants to give.

The second big shift is a result of the pro-Western revolution and the subsequent Russian-fueled war in Ukraine. One lesson drawn by many in the West is that it's time to slow the expansion of the EU and NATO to avoid further provoking the Russian bear.

Many in the Balkans smell hypocrisy in how the EU encouraged Ukrainians to take to the streets and topple their pro-Russian government a year ago, then offered only tepid help as Moscow exacted its revenge, first by annexing Crimea and then by funding and fueling the pro-Russian separatists who subsequently rose up in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Many here openly sympathize with Russia's actions in Ukraine, and it's not just a matter of showing solidarity with their Orthodox Christian brethren. In the eyes of many Serbs and Montenegrins, Russian President Vladimir Putin looks more principled than EU leaders who dangle the prospect of membership to countries it seems increasingly unlikely to ever accept.

Serbs, remember, rose up in 2000 to topple Slobodan Milosevic. Instead of the EU membership they thought they were moving towards, Serbs got a shrunken country and a lingering touch of pariah status as the West aided Kosovo's drive for independence in 2008. The "Kosovo is Serbia" graffiti that can still be seen on the buildings of Belgrade and Podgorica has been joined in places by the more freshly spray painted slogan of "Crimea is Russia."

Serbs and Montenegrins also remember when they – as the last remaining members of the old Yugoslavia – were targeted by the kind of sanctions, over the 1999 war in Kosovo, that Russians are now suffering due to the war in Ukraine. In Belgrade, the crumpled ruins of the old Yugoslav Ministry of Defence remain pointedly unrepaired 16 years later after the building was destroyed in a NATO air raid.

Like in Mr. Putin's Russia, nostalgia for what are called the "good old days" of Communist rule is a factor here too.

The rump Yugoslavia that existed in 1999 has since been broken into three parts – Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo – and none of them have a particularly happy existence. Kosovars, their independence still unrecognized by Belgrade and Moscow, are migrating to Europe in record numbers, knowing that the EU isn't coming to them any time soon. They're leaving behind a desperately poor country for lives on the margins in Berlin and Paris.

Serbia and Montenegro, meanwhile, are once more turning east. Pro-Russian sentiment is on the rise in both countries. As the war in eastern Ukraine raged last fall, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic hosted Mr. Putin and held a military parade in his honour, reminding the world of how often Russia and Serbia have stood together in times of conflict. As Mr. Putin looks for a new route to deliver Russian gas to Europe while going around Ukraine, Serbia is one country he can be sure will be happy to have his pipelines.

Montenegro, meanwhile, is simply growing tired of waiting for the EU to love it back. They may use the euro in the seafront resorts and restaurants of Budva, but the overwhelming majority of the tourists and the investors who come here are Russian.

Thus the receptionists. waiters and taxi drivers of Budva are giving up on the English lessons they hopefully started back in 2006. They're brushing up again on their Russian.