Chief prosecutor overrules jailing of Montenegro opposition leaders

Milan Knežević [waving] and Andrija Mandić behind riot police, in front of the parliament in Podgorica. [Reuters]

Montenegro’s chief prosecutor, Ivica Stanković, issued yesterday (15 February) binding instructions to his special prosecutor not to arrest two opposition MPs, although the parliament stripped them of their immunity on charges of having participated in the plotting of a coup d’état.

The move seems to be intended to defuse an explosive situation that may turn, as opposition leader Nebojša Medojević said, into civil war, or at least a deep unrest.

On 13 February special prosecutor Milivoje Katnić asked for parliamentary immunity to be lifted from Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević, two MPs from the Democratic Front (DF), the largest opposition group in the Montenegrin parliament.

Montenegro prosecutor targets opposition leaders in ‘coup’ investigation

Montenegro’s special prosecutor yesterday (13 February) received permission from a parliamentary council to strip immunity from two opposition leaders targeted in the investigation of an alleged coup attempt on 16 October, where general elections were held in the Balkan country.

Katnić wants to put Mandić and Knežević on trial for “acts against the constitutional order and security of Montenegro”. He says both leaders of the Democratic Front, which oppose the nation’s bid to join NATO, have undermined the country’s national security.

Mandić and Knežević deny the charges. Several hundred people gathered yesterday in front of the parliament in Podgorica to protest the motion to strip them of their immunity from prosecution.

Riot police

Mandić and Knežević waited for the vote on their immunity outside parliament, and afterwards entered the house, where, they said, they waited to be arrested.

Video footage from inside and outside parliament shows the massive presence of the riot police and minor incidents between opposition MPs and their colleagues from the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). But security prevented any violence from erupting.

Mandić returned from abroad after the news of the parliament vote. Both could have fled the country but they insisted that they were not cowards, unlike those who sought to silence them.

Knežević said there was no force to stop them for the struggle to free Montenegro by all democratic means.

Montenegro, a former Yugoslav republic, has been abuzz with conspiracy theories since the 16 October election when authorities arrested 20 Serb citizens at the border with Serbia, accused of planning armed attacks against state institutions.

Montenegro election marred by ‘coup’ accusations

Montenegro said it had arrested 20 Serbs for planning to carry out attacks after voting wrapped up in the Balkan nation’s tense parliamentary elections yesterday (16 October).

Mandić is president of the major ethnic Serb political party in Montenegro, the New Serb Democracy and head of the Democratic Front (DF), a centre-right umbrella organisation of several political forces that obtained 20.3% at the elections.

Knežević is leader of the Democratic People’s Party, one of the DF member parties.

39 opposition MPs, including the 18 MPs from the Democratic Front, are currently boycotting the Montenegrin parliament over allegations of electoral fraud. They are asking for early elections to be held in 2018, together with the presidential election.

The opposition consists of four political forces, of which the Democratic Front is considered part of the “hard opposition”, often described in Western media as pro-Russian and pro-Serbian.

DF said the alleged plot was fabricated and accused the country’s strongman, Milo Djukanović, of using the security services to help extend his quarter-century dominance over Montenegro.

Djukanović, the leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), occupied top positions in Montenegro before the country’s 2006 independence and has since served as prime minister in successive terms. After winning the 2016 elections, he resigned and Duško Marković took over as prime minister.

Before the 2016 elections, Djukanović said Russia was financing the opposition in order to derail Montenegro’s imminent NATO membership. The opposition parties, three of which are pro-NATO, deny this.

Some 20 people – mostly Serb nationals, including two Russian citizens, Eduard Sirokov and Vladimir Popov – have been accused of participating in the 16 October plot that allegedly included plans to kill Djukanović and assume power.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has insisted that those arrested had no connection with the Serbian state, and that there was no evidence of Montenegrin politicians being involved. Russia too has denied involvement in the alleged coup and assassination attempt.

Asked to comment on the political tensions in Montenegro, Maja Kocijancic, spokesperson for EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, said on 14 February that the Commission was following the developments “quite closely”, as Montenegro is a EU candidate country well advanced in its accession talks.

“When it comes to the elections […], we reacted at the time and continue to work with the Montenegro authorities on all relevant issues”, she said.

The Commission bases itself on an OSCE report which maintains the elections were free and fair.

Geopolitical crossroads

Regarding the alleged attempted coup, Western diplomats who asked not to be named, said they believe Russia is behind the story, although this seems to be hard to prove.

The alleged coup looks so amateurish that many Montenegrins don’t believe in the involvement of foreign governments.

Western diplomats widely assume that Russia intervenes directly in Montenegrin policies by financing political parties, NGOs and media who are close to their politics. Russia and the organisations concerned deny this.

Montenegrins are anxiously awaiting the result of the coup investigation of which special prosecutor Katnić is in charge. Another piece of news Montenegrins believe will seal their faith in the coming months is the ratification of their NATO accession treaty by the USA.

Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexei Meshkov was quoted as saying on 1 February that dragging Montenegro into NATO may cause a rift in Montenegro’s society. He made the statement after receiving Mandić and Knežević in Moscow, at their request, as TASS wrote.