Did Rogue Russian Agents Plot a Coup in Montenegro?
Tiny Balkan country’s accession to NATO remains controversial
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
It was election day in Montenegro on Oct. 16, 2016 when then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic announced police had arrested 20 Serbians and Montenegrins. They had been arrested for plotting a coup to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO, he said.
According to Montenegrin Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, the plotters had acquired police special forces uniforms and intended to storm the Montenegrin parliament. Then a sharpshooter would assassinate Djukanovic and the group would install an anti-NATO government.
The plan was an “attempt to divert Montenegro from the course it has been following for the past 20 years — namely, its desire to join the EU and NATO,” Djukanovic said. It was “more than obvious that Russian structures” were responsible.
Katnic later described some of the conspirators as “Russian nationalists,” but claimed there was no evidence of ties to the Russian state. The opposition Democratic Front party scoffed that the abortive coup plot was “contrived and fabricated” to scare up support on election day.
For its part, the Kremlin denied involvement in “arranging any illegal actions” in Montenegro. Certainly some of the notoriously corrupt Montenegrin government’s allegation did seem fishy, but subsequent developments in Serbia soon cast a different light altogether on the incident.
So, how did a tiny nation of 650,000 become the object of fierce geopolitical competition? Quite simply, Montenegro possesses the only stretch of southern European coastline west of Turkey that doesn’t belong to a NATO member state.
In 2013, unconfirmed reports suggested Russian officials had offered Montenegro’s government billions of dollars in exchange for the right to build military bases in the coastal cities of Bar and Kotor. With an amenable government in place, Russia could set up a naval base and gain easy, direct access to the Mediterranean.
Consider the difficulty the Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov endured as it lumbered around continental Europe for its accident-prone combat deployment to Syria, forced to refuel at sea because it was denied access to Spanish ports. A naval base in southern Europe outside of the Black Sea would expand Russia’s strategic options.
Of course, there are important caveats. Russia would have a difficult time defending a small, isolated enclave in Montenegro in a full-scale military confrontation with NATO.
On top of that, Turkey still controls access to Russian ships attempting to pass through the Black Sea via the Bosporus strait. However, in 2016, relationships between Moscow and Ankara warmed rapidly despite dangerous mishaps.
At the same time, in Montenegro, the opportunity for a Mediterranean outpost was rapidly vanishing. In May 2016, Djukanovic signed a NATO accession accord over Russia’s objections.
By 2017, only a handful of the alliance’s member states still needed to ratify the small Balkan country’s entry. But at the time of the apparent putsch, whether or not Montenegro would actually join the military bloc was already up for debate.
NATO accession was and still is highly controversial domestically, to the point that it became the defining issue of the last round of parliamentary elections. One poll found Montenegrins were divided almost exactly down the middle, with 39.5% for and 39.7% against — a close result shared by most other polls.
Many in the country have long felt an affinity for Russia and Serbia based on their shared Slavic cultural heritage and Orthodox Christian religious faith. When Japan attacked Russian holdings in the Far East in 1904, Prince Arsen Karadjordjevic and many other Montenegrins traveled all the way to China to fight on behalf of the Tsar, prompting the legend that Montenegro had been at war with Japan for more than a century.
After other pieces of Yugoslavia split off to form their own, independent countries in the 1990s, Montenegro stayed in a federation with Serbia. Montenegrins fought alongside Serbian militias in the subsequent conflict.
During the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, NATO warplanes bombed targets in Montenegro, killing eight civilians. The tiny mountainous country of 650,000 only became an independent state in 2006 following a national referendum.
By then, Montenegro — which acquired a stretch of picturesque coastline after 1913 — had become a popular vacation destination for tourists and businessmen from Russia. In turn, many wealthy Russians acquired large tracts of land and invested in Montenegrin businesses, accounting for one third of Russia’s foreign direct investment.
Businessman Oleg Deripaska even purchased a majority share of the Montenegro’s aluminum producer KAP, which accounted for 40 percent of the country’s GDP at the time. He did so because “[Russian Pres. Vladimir] Putin encouraged him to do it” because “the Kremlin wanted an area of influence in the Mediterranean,” according to one associate.
Former Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort and his partner Rick Davis aided in these endeavors. Davis ultimately received $7.5 million to obtain a U.S. visa for the Deripaska and arrange meetings with Republican Senator for Arizona John McCain, all in spite of the U.S. government having banned the oligarch from entering the country due to multiple money-laundering, racketeering and extortion charges.
But Djukanovic and his political elite preferred to move towards integration with the European Union, which had a more lucrative economy than Russia’s. KAP eventually went bankrupt in 2013, forcing Montenegro to seize and resell the company.
Meanwhile, Montenegro pursued accession into the E.U. and NATO. This aroused passionate opposition from Moscow, as well as Montenegrins with bitter memories of the NATO bombing campaign.
Slavic nationalists, ethnic Serbs, and Orthodox Christian priests in Montenegro favored closer ties with Russia rather than Western Europe. Leaders of the opposition organized major street protests in 2015 and 2016.
Its leaders made frequent visits to Moscow and allegedly received funding directly from the Kremlin. The opposition in turn claimed E.U. and U.S. spies and financing were an active factor in Montenegro’s politics.
On election day in 2016, a distributed denial-of-service cyber attack targeted the Montenegrin government, media and other websites, including Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists in particular.
And then there was the coup. Even without the contested election and controversy over relations with NATO and the E.U., many Montenegrins were already disinclined to trust the government’s version of events.
In 2014, the collaborative Organized Crime and Corruption Report Project named the Montenegrin lead the second most corrupt person of the year. Putin took first place.
To try and buttress the allegations, Katnic’s office posted a video online — seen above — of the gear it claimed to have confiscated from one of the conspirators, including police special forces body armor, encrypted cell phones, barbed wire, tear gas and pepper spray. Claiming they had been “swiftly destroyed in a safe location,” authorities did not display any of the weapons they reportedly seized from the plotters.
Of the 20 individuals Montenegro’s government detained for the attempted coup, it has released the majority. The government alleged one of the individuals they arrested, former Serbian gendarmerie commander Bratislav Dikic, was caught conspiring in a recording on a phone.
However, some claim the Serbian ultra-nationalist lost part of his tongue due to cancer and would not have been intelligible. In 2015, officials sacked Dikic due to ties to organized crime, but he alleged the police had framed him by planting a phone and keys to a storage unit full of weapons.
In a highly unusual and normally impossible move, police released the prime suspect in the October 2016 plot, Aleksandar Sindjelic, as a “protected witness” in exchange for his cooperation. To make the deal legally permissible, the government claimed it has changed the charges to fit the circumstances.
These details all paint a shady picture. Some commentators have suggested the plot might be related to organized crime rather than politics.
And then there’s Serbian connection. Initially, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic voiced doubts the plot in Montenegro was real.
But the Serbian’s leader’s tune changed dramatically on Oct. 24, 2016, when his country’s police arrested two Russian nationals, Eduard Shirikov and Vladimir Popov. At the time, the two men had special forces police uniforms, encryption and tracking equipment and 120,000 euros in cash.
Vucic stated there was “incontrovertible evidence” conspirators had used “modern equipment” to spy on and track Djukanovic and communicated across borders using encrypted cell phones. In neighboring Montengro, officials described the two as members of the Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency.
Even more alarmingly, on Oct. 29, 2016, Serbian investigators uncovered an arms cache situated near the route the Vucic drove to work. Then police discovered a car packed with explosives, remote detonators and small arms in a garage in New Belgrade, which includes the country’s capital.
Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic claimed there was evidence someone had offered organized criminals $10 million to assassinate Vucic. In 2003, mobsters had orchestrated the murder of then-Prime Minister Zoran Dindic.
However, Stefanovic added that he believed the plot had its origin in the political motives of a third party “in the region.” Vucic himself had been pursuing accession to the E.U. — but not NATO— while attempting to balance his own country’s strong Russian sympathies.
He had refused to place sanctions on trade with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine and continued holding joint Serbian-Russian military exercises. When discussing the recent plots, he implied that Western agents and influence peddlers were active in Serbia, too.
It is possible the conspirators may have had support from within the Serbian security services, which are a hotbed of nationalist sentiment. After the worrisome discoveries, Vucic announced he was ordering a shakeup of the Serbian intelligence community.
In addition, the arrest of the plotters appeared to set off a discrete reaction in Moscow. Just two days after the arrests, Putin dismissed the director of the Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, Leonid Reshetnikov, who had close ties to the opposition in Montenegro.
Some observers interpreted this as a sign Moscow felt something had gone wrong with their Montenegrin policy. More suggestively, Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian security council, paid a visit to Belgrade on Oct. 26, 2016.
On Nov. 11, 2016, Russian authorities whisked Shirikov and Popov out of Serbian custody and back home. The Guardian reported that “diplomatic sources” informed them Patrushev had personally intervened on behalf of the agents.
A separate source stated that the Russian official had privately apologized for a “rogue operation.” Moscow has vigorously denied this account of events.
Meanwhile “protected witness” Sindjelic confessed to meeting with the two Russians at a ‘luxurious apartment’ in Moscow in September 2016, though he did not implicate any members of the Russian government. The once prime suspect stated two Russian nationalists he met while fighting alongside separatists in Ukraine’s Crimea region recruited him into the conspiracy, giving him $200,000 to find “muscle” for the operation.
Now, Montenegro has requested extradition of two additional Serbians, Nemanja Ristic and Predrag Bogocevic, for participation in the plot.
Ristic, a far-right Serbian nationalist with a history of making death threats, posted an Instagram photo of himself next to visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in December 2016. In February 2017, a Serbian court ruled the country could not extradite Ristic because his involvement in the conspiracy occurred on Serbian soil. Bogocevic’s extradition case remains active.
It seems unlikely the whole truth of the Oct. 16, 2016 coup plot will ever come to light. However, the account of a rogue “freelance” Russian operation seems most convincing.
The conspiracy seems to have been formed among far right Slavic nationalists, many of whom crossed national borders to fight in Yugoslavia’s civil wars and have since gathered to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. Such groups have sometimes served as proxy for the Kremlin, but are not necessarily under its direct control.
Furthermore, the extraction of Shirikov and Popov from Serbia implies Russian government agents were involved in the plot. However, the Kremlin’s direct knowledge or involvement seems unlikely given the amateurish nature of the conspiracy and the accused perpetrators.
Regardless, Montenegro’s accession to NATO is only waiting on the approval five more NATO-member states, including the United States. Republican Senator for Kentucky Rand Paul delayed the vote in December 2016, questioning whether Montenegro had anything to contribute to make it worth defending.
After initial uncertainty over the famously NATO-questioning Trump administration’s stance, it has since reportedly come out in favor of the accession. Meanwhile, the Montenegrin opposition has boycotted parliament since its electoral defeat.
With or without the help of the coup plot, the DPS won 36 seats to the Democratic Front’s 18 in the parliamentary election and managed to form a majority by cutting deals with ethnic minority parties. There are just 81 seats in total in the Montenegrin parliament.
Djukanovic ultimately stepped down from leadership of his party. By then, he had been either Prime Minster or President for nearly 25 years.
Still, the Democratic Front has demanded a referendum on NATO accession and wants it to take place on March 24, 2017 — the anniversary of the NATO bombing campaign over Kosovo. The minority party does not normally have the right to initiate a referendum in Montenegro, but Moscow has thrown its support behind the opposition’s bid.
The stage is set for another political showdown. On Feb. 15, 2017, the DPS-controlled government voted to strip two of Democratic Front’s senior members of immunity from investigations regarding the putsch. Katnic quickly ordered their arrest.
So, although Montenegro’s path to NATO membership might be theoretically assured, that process may remain a source of division in the small country and in a region where Western Europe and Russia still compete for influence.