Pompeo stops in Montenegro and North Macedonia to discuss NATO, no comment on Ukraine

By David Brunnstrom
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Montenegro

By David Brunnstrom

PODGORICA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began a short trip to two small Balkan countries, Montenegro and North Macedonia, on Friday to discuss their roles in the Western NATO alliance.

The streets in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica through which Pompeo's motorcade passed were cordoned off by police.

Flying in from Rome, Pompeo became the most senior U.S. official to visit Montenegro since independence in 2006. He was set to be the most senior U.S. official to visit North Macedonia since 2000 in a stopover later in the day before flying on to Athens.

Pompeo was met by Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic at the airport, and was due to meet President Milo Djukanovic later.

Later, he will fly to Ohrid, a town on a lake in North Macedonia, where he will meet top officials.

Pompeo's trip to Southern Europe has been overshadowed by an impeachment inquiry in the United States against President Donald Trump.

U.S. Democrats have pushed ahead with the inquiry following revelations by a whistleblower that Trump had asked Ukraine in July to investigate key political rival Senator Joe Biden and his son, and had withheld aid to Ukraine ahead of this request.

Pompeo has yet to comment on evidence presented in the probe on Thursday, in which it was revealed that the former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, Kurt Volker, thought it was "crazy" to withhold military aid from Kiev as it confronted a threat from Russia.

At the start of a meeting with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic and Darmanovic, Pompeo did not respond to a journalist's question on whether he thought Volker had acted appropriately in the case.


SECURITY ISSUES

Pompeo said the United States was about to finalise a deal for "$36 million worth of light tactical vehicles" to Montenegro.

He commended intelligence cooperation with Montenegro, through which "we've been able to develop a patch against the latest Russian (computer) malware that now protects millions of devices worldwide."

U.S. officials said Pompeo would discuss security issues, given that Montenegro joined the U.S.-led NATO alliance in 2017 and North Macedonia's membership is expected to be ratified by the end of the year.

"It is of strategic importance for Montenegro to have U.S. and EU presence in the Balkans so there would be no space for (influence) of those countries who do not share same values," Montenegro Prime Minister Dusko Markovic said.

North Macedonia's attempts to integrate with Western institutions were hampered until it agreed with its neighbour Greece last year on its new name. Greece had long insisted that "Macedonia," the name the country chose after the breakup of Yugoslavia, implied a territorial claim on the Greek region of that name.

U.S. officials said Pompeo would discuss security issues, given that Montenegro joined the U.S.-led NATO alliance in 2017 and North Macedonia's membership is expected to be ratified by the end of the year.

"The focus here is on NATO allies number 29 and 30," a senior State Department official said in previewing the trip for journalists last week.

"It underscores the importance of the NATO enlargement, the open-door policy."

"And of course, in both countries, I think, we will talk about Russian efforts to sow discord there," the official said, recalling allegations of Russian involvement in a coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016 and interference in North Macedonia's effort to resolve its long-running feud with Greece.

Two Russian intelligence officers and two opposition politicians were among 13 people sentenced on Thursday over a 2016 election day plot aimed at toppling Montenegro's government, killing the prime minister and bringing a pro-Russian alliance to power.


(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Bernadette Baum)