PODGORICA Montenegro's parliament ratified the membership agreement with NATO on Friday, taking the former Yugoslav republic a step closer to becoming the 29th member of the alliance despite protests over its 1999 bombing campaign.
Outside the parliament, where 46 of 81 deputies voted in favour of the agreement, several hundred anti-NATO supporters burned the NATO flag and demand a referendum on membership.
Montenegro's accession would mark the first expansion of NATO ranks into ex-Communist eastern Europe since its neighbours Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, and the first since relations between Russia and the West hit a post-Cold War low with the outbreak of war in Ukraine.
"NATO membership will provide a safer and better life for all citizens in Montenegro," Prime Minister Dusko Markovic told the parliament session, held in the town of Cetinje, the royal seat of the mediaeval state.
The population remains deeply divided over membership, with many angry over the alliance's 1999 bombing of Serbia to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in Serbia's then southern province of Kosovo. NATO planes also bombed Montenegro, then part of a rump Yugoslavia with Serbia, arguing its targets were part of the war machine.
Former president Momir Bulatovic, once a close ally of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, said Friday was "a sad day." Bulatovic told protesters: "I feel humiliated as this decision has been taken on my behalf."
All but two of the NATO allies have now ratified the accord, which is strongly opposed by Russia, which has strong historical and cultural ties to Montenegro. Podgorica hopes to formally join NATO at a summit next month.
Montenegro has a population of 650,000 and a military of only 2,000, but it is strategically positioned along the Adriatic coast and surrounded by NATO members or hopefuls, except Serbia which maintains military neutrality.
Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement: "Given the potential of Montenegro, the North Atlantic alliance is unlikely to receive any significant 'added value'.
"But in Moscow we cannot ignore the strategic consequences of this step. Therefore, we reserve the right to take such decisions, which are intended at protecting our interests and national security."
(Additional reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Janet Lawrence)