This article is part of our special report Montenegro: Breaking the stalemate?.
Montenegro, which broke away from a union with Serbia to become independent in 2006, has been engulfed in a coup drama since the 16 October general election when authorities arrested 20 Serbians accused of planning armed attacks against government institutions.
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, whose party came out ahead in the election but without a parliamentary majority, had presented the vote as a chance for Montenegro’s 620,000 citizens to endorse his policy of joining NATO and the EU, instead of pursuing deeper ties with traditional allies in Serbia and Russia.
Since October, tensions have built up in the small Western Balkan country, and the situation became even more tense after the nation’s special prosecutor obtained the lifting of parliamentary immunity from two opposition leaders who are suspected of having participated in a failed coup.
According to The Telegraph, quoting Whitehall sources, the coup to attack Montenegro’s parliament and kill pro-Western leader was directed by Russian intelligence officers with support and blessing of Moscow to sabotage the country’s plan to join NATO.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the allegations, while Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it was “irresponsible ” to make such accusations.
The plot was foiled only hours before it was due to be carried out, but would have caused heavy bloodshed and plunged the tiny country into turmoil on the eve of becoming Nato’s 29th member, the British paper reported.
Riot police were deployed to contain hundreds of protesters who gathered in front of the parliament in Podgorica last week to protest against the motion lifting the two leaders’ immunity.
In an attempt to defuse tensions, Montenegro’s chief prosecutor ended up overruling the motion, allowing the two men to to walk free.
39 opposition MPs in the country’s parliament, including the 18 lawmakers from the Democratic Front (the hardline opposition), are currently boycotting the assembly over allegations of electoral fraud. They are asking for early elections to be held in 2018, together with the presidential election.
The government of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and its allies who control a slim majority of 41MPs of the total of 81MPs in the Montenegrin parliament believe that the elections were free and fair, and so does the ODIHR, the specialised OSCE body for monitoring elections. DF, however, has produced a 40-page report listing various irregularities.
The political stalemate is coupled with a geopolitical tug-of-war over the small country’s NATO bid.
Montenegro would become the third NATO member in the Balkans, after Croatia and Albania, which both joined in 2009.
The hardline opposition wants a referendum on NATO membership, although there is no constitutional requirement for holding such a poll. The ratification should take place in Parliament. A majority of MPs are in favour of the country’s NATO accession, but society remains divided.
An opinion poll conducted in December has only 39.5% of Montenegrins in favour of NATO membership and 39.7 against. Other opinion polls have suggested similar margins.
So far, 24 of the 28 NATO members have ratified the accession of Montenegro to the military alliance. The remaining countries are Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and the USA.
Montenegro is expected to ratify its NATO accession after all 28 current members have completed the ratification process, possibly in May. Ratification is expected to take place even if part of the opposition continues to boycott parliament. In spite of their participation in the boycott, the moderate opposition is expected to cast their votes in favour of joining NATO.
External factors undoubtedly play a role. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexei Meshkov, was recently quoted as saying that dragging Montenegro into NATO may cause a rift in Montenegrin society. The US has spearheaded Montenegro’s EU push, but doubts subsist whether the Trump Administration would like to take on board an ally with less than 2000 military personnel.
An EU diplomat in Podgorica confirmed that Montenegro and geopolitics had become two peas in a pot.
“This little country plays an important role in the current developments in the Western Balkans,” the diplomat said. Indeed, Montenegro’s future should speak volumes about the prospects of the EU hopefuls in the region.
The ratification of Montenegro’s accession to NATO is important for not only for Montenegro but in the wider context and for the regional stability in the Balkans, the diplomat said. He pointed out that the EU appreciated the fact that Montenegro had “aligned 100%” with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, including EU sanctions against Russia.
The government of Montenegro has also recognised Kosovo, a move that may appear surprising, given the closeness of Montenegrins with Serbs, with Belgrade having no intention whatsoever to recognise their former province as an independent state. It is assumed that if the hardline opposition would get the upper hand, one of the first things they would do is abandon the sanctions and rescind Montenegro’s recognition of Kosovo.
Montenegro is also a champion in its EU accession talks, outpacing Serbia and Albania, the only two other countries in the Western Balkans in the process. Until now, NATO accession has always preceded EU accession, for all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
Regarding the alleged coup, the diplomat said EU member states had been informed of it by the Montenegrin authorities.
“Investigation into this matter should be finished as soon as possible so that the citizens of Montenegro can learn the full truth about this case,” he said.
Momčilo Radulović, President of the European Movement Montenegro, told euractiv.com that Russia had proved that “with small amounts of money you can make miracles in the Western Balkans”.
“The estimation is that up to €5 million were spent to Montenegro, succeeding to create a strong electoral crisis. Just imagine what they could create with €50 million in Serbia. But Montenegro is more or less stable. Institutions are more or less stable. And the society is more or less stable. That’s the good story – we are not that crazy to fight a war for Russian interests,” Radulović said.
A Russian diplomat dismissed the allegations. Regarding the coup, he stated that his country sought information from different sources, both from the government and opposition, including the Democratic Front, for a more complete understanding of the political process in Montenegro.
He said that he could not comment on the circumstances of the so-called coup attempt in the absence of any strong evidence that such an attempt took place. Moreover, he explained, the Russian Embassy did not make any request to Montenegrin law enforcement authorities about the Russian nationals named in relation to the alleged coup.
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.
The Russian diplomat also recalled the words of Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on 7 November that Russia played no role in the alleged coup attempt. The diplomat expressed regrets that an anti-Russian campaign remains underway in a number of Montenegrin media, although the Special Prosecutor, Milivoje Katnić, had stated that “Montenegrin law enforcement authorities do not have any evidence of Moscow’s official involvement.”
With regard to Montenegro’s plans to join NATO, the diplomat also recalled the requirement for NATO members to spend 2% of GDP on defence, which in his words can create additional difficulties for the country’s budget.
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.
Special prosecutor Milivoje Katnić, in charge of the coup investigation, said yesterday (20 February) in a TV program that he had evidence of Russian nationalistic structures being involved, with the support of Russian state authorities.
“Behind these events are nationalist structures from Russia, but now we know that Russian state authorities were involved. The organs of the Russian state must investigate which bodies are involved and open a criminal trial over these acts”, the Special prosecutor said.
Katnić said that the real name of Russian citizen Sirokov (also spelled as Shirokov), accused of participating in the plot, was Eduard Shishmakov, and that he was a deputy of the Russian military attaché in Poland was expelled for espionage, as a persona non grata. His new passport was given to him by the authorities of Russia, Katnić said.
The indictments should be ready by 15 April, Katnić said.