Montenegro big trial starts: amateur coup attempt or government set-up?

Thu 7 Sep 2017

Montenegro big trial starts: amateur coup attempt or government set-up?

Yesterday the trial has begun against the two Russian intelligence agents who are accused of plotting to overthrow the Montenegrin government during the general elections of October 2016. The coup failed, because one of the alleged conspirators reported himself to the police before the polling day. Evidence that Russia wanted to overthrow the Western orientated government to prevent Montenegro joining the NATO alliance will be heard in open court. Furthermore, the Russian agents would have planned to assassinate former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS). Besides these men, twelve others are prosecuted for involvement in the failed coup, including leaders of the main opposition party Democratic Front (DF).

Government: Russia and its allies in Montenegro are behind the coup 
The two Russian suspects, both officers in Russian GRU military intelligence services, are Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov. Surveillance photos from spy agencies published by the Britain’s Telegraph newspaper show both men meeting the Serbian nationalist Sasa Sindjelic in Belgrade around the time of the coup. Sindjelic was allegedly hired to lead the coup attempt. Together with nine Serbian and three Montenegrin citizens  the two Russians formed part of a network who planned to assassinate the former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic during general elections last October, Montenegrin public prosecutor argues. Among the Serbs is Bratislav Dikic, former commandant of Gendarmerie, an elite Serbian police unit. The Montenegrin suspects include the leaders of the main opposition Democratic Front (DF), Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic. Both are accused of ‘’committing terrorist acts’’ and face up to 15-years jail sentence, if found guilty. According to the Montenegrin government and Serbia, it is clear that Russia is behind the failed coup attempt.

Opposition: the government is behind the coup
In contrast to the conclusions of the government, main opposition DF and some media outlets claim the coup was fake and staged by the authorities, in fear of losing the general elections. Djukanovic’s DPS is in power since 1991 and with the EU integration related strengthening of the rule of law, media freedom and democratisation of state institutions the party fears of losing its grip on the power. Democratic Front distrusts Djukanovic’s party due to the blockade of a new electoral law in 2011. In addition, the DF accuses the DPS of electoral fraud and corruption. On 5 September, the opposition showed alleged evidence they will present in court that the weapons seized in the October 2016 alleged coup attempt are owned by the Montenegrin police. ‘’We all know that this weapon was taken from the Interior Ministry... to set up the Front’’, said DF official Slaven Radunovic.

Meanwhile, Russia denies any involvement in the coup attempt. However, through political parties links it supports the Democratic Front that are against NATO membership and seek closer ties with Russia. In June 2017 Montenegro became NATO member.

The truth?
Looking to all these different stories, it is difficult to see what really happened the days before polling day last October. Although the evidence for Russian involvement seems to be thin, Western authorities take this seriously into account. According to the British Minister of Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson, it is beyond doubt that Russia was behind the coup attempt. It is hoped that the trial against alleged coup plotters will shed more light on what happened at the election day in Montenegro. 

Montenegro has geo-political value for the Russians. Therefore, Russia always rejected the aspirations of Montenegro to become member of the NATO. After Montenegro jointed the alliance, Russia threatened to take revenge in very vague terms. It fears to lose its grip in the region. Like many other countries in the Balkan, Montenegro wants to become member of the EU as well. Croatia and Slovenia already joined the EU. Even Serbia, Russian’s closest friend in the region, is an EU-aspirant country. During the general elections last year, exactly these issues were at stake.

Sources: Balkaninsight Balkaninsight De Volkskrant New York Times