Pence declares future of Western Balkans 'in the West'
Podgorica (Montenegro) (AFP)
US Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the future of the Western Balkans lay "in the West", on the last leg of a tour aimed at reassuring Eastern European allies worried by Russia.
After visiting Baltic state Estonia and the Caucasus nation of Georgia, Pence arrived on Tuesday in NATO's newest member Montenegro on the Adriatic Sea.
Pence's tour is a show of support for allies in the region rattled by Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of a bloody separatist rebellion in Ukraine.
Montenegro's accession to NATO on June 5 -- and Georgia's hopes of joining the military alliance -- have stirred fury in Moscow, which considers both countries to be in its historic sphere of influence.
"We truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West," Pence told reporters in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, alongside Prime Minister Dusko Markovic.
The vice president hailed Montenegro's accession to NATO as a "historic achievement" and pledged US commitment to strengthening ties with the region.
On Tuesday in Tbilisi, Pence slammed Russia's "occupation" of part of Georgia's territory since a brief 2008 war, and pledged President Donald Trump would sign off on new sanctions against Moscow "soon".
Later at dinner in Montenegro, which is home to around 620,000 people, Pence said his trip was "testament to the fact that America has no small allies -- only strong allies".
"Your courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world, and I commend you for it," he said.
Washington said in April there were credible reports that Moscow had backed an alleged coup attempt in Podgorica on the eve of Montenegro's election in October last year.
Montenegrin authorities also allege that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the conspiracy in a bid to prevent the country from joining NATO, but Moscow denies any involvement.
Pence is attending the Adriatic Charter Summit in Podgorica on Wednesday afternoon, which also brings together leaders from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovenia.
The US Senate on Thursday approved a package of tough additional sanctions against Russia over alleged meddling in last year's US election and its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine.
Pence told a press conference in Georgia on Tuesday that Trump would sign the bill "soon", although the White House has not set a timeframe.
In Estonia on Monday, Pence insisted that a retaliatory move taken by the Kremlin, to cut the US diplomatic mission in Russia the face of the looming sanctions, would not lessen Washington's commitment to its allies.
© 2017 AFP