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).
The pro-Russian opposition – which opposes plans to anchor Montenegro in NATO – described the arrests as propaganda, while Serbia questioned its timing.
NATO membership will be a central issue in Montenegro’s general election on Sunday (16 October), with the vote marking the latest episode in a power struggle between Russia and the West in the Balkans.
The attacks would have targeted the state and possibly “senior state officials”, Montenegro police chief Slavko Stojanović said in a statement.
The 20 were arrested on Saturday night and another individual is being sought, he said.
“They are suspected of coming to Montenegro with the intention of carrying out attacks on institutions, the police and the representatives of the organs of state,” the statement said.
“In addition, we do not rule out (that they were planning) attacks against senior state officials.”
Andrija Mandić, head of the Democratic Front, Montenegro’s main opposition, immediately condemned the announcement as “gross propaganda.”
In neighbouring Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, quoted by the Serbian news agency Tanjug, said he had no information about the arrests.
“I find it curious that this is happening today, and that’s all I’ll say,” Vučić said. “As for the rest, it would be better for me to bite my tongue.”
Campaigning in small ex-Yugoslav Montenegro has been gripped by tension over veteran premier Milo Djukanović’s plans to forge closer ties with the West.
He is pursuing membership of both NATO and the European Union – an objective that displeases Russia, Montenegro’s long-time ally.
NATO will sign an accession agreement with Montenegro today (19 May), paving the way for the small Balkan country to become the trans-Atlantic alliance’s 29th member state, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.
One of the six founding republics of the former Yugoslavia, Montenegro was joined in a loose union with Serbia after the Yugoslav breakup.
The union ended in 2006, when the country narrowly voted in favour of independence, and relations have been fraught ever since.
Djukanović, 54, is the only Balkan leader to have held on to power since the collapse of Yugoslavia began in the early 1990s, serving several times as prime minister and once as president.
But analysts say he is now under pressure, with critics accusing his government of cronyism, corruption and links to organised crime.
Djukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) secured the most votes in Montenegro’s parliamentary election, but with pollsters saying it could not secure a majority.
The preliminary vote count by the pollsters CEMI suggested the DPS would win 36 seats in the 81-seat parliament, five short of an absolute majority.
Official results by the state election authority were expected in the coming days.
In a midnight address to his supporters, Djukanović said he would seek a coalition with parties of national minorities, Bosniaks, Croats and Albanians and the Social Democracy party to secure between 41 to 42 seats.
“Even if the DPS could reach with their political allies some tiny majority, that would be unstable,” said Zlatko Vujović, director of the Centre for Monitoring and Research, a watchdog group.
Just over half a million citizens are eligible to cast their ballot for the 81-seat assembly.
Barricades were put up near parliament early Sunday, apparently to protect the building against any post-election violence.
Mandic, though, urged his supporters to be calm.
“Everything has been set in place to defend Milo Djukanović’s government,” he said. “Tonight, massive chaos is expected – but only in the prime minister’s office, when the results are announced.”
NATO or not
Djukanović, who faced large anti-government rallies last year, has pitched the vote as a choice between ties with the West or with Russia, whom he accuses of funding opposition parties.
Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic survived a confidence vote in parliament yesterday (27 January) in the wake of an invitation to join NATO, but had to rely on the votes of an opposition party after his own coalition partner abandoned him.
“Are we going to be part of developed European society or a Russian colony?” he asked supporters waving national red flags at his final rally in the capital.
Montenegro was invited to join NATO in December, and ratification of the deal will be put to the next parliament.
But the issue profoundly divides the country’s 620,000 people, prompting reminders of the bonds with Russia and the alliance’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.
Moscow, already angered by the EU’s sanctions against it over the Ukraine crisis, has warned of consequences if the Adriatic republic joins the Atlantic alliance.
The Democratic Front opposes membership of either the EU or NATO, and is demanding a referendum on joining the alliance. It staged violent protests on the issue in 2015.
Other opposition groups have more mixed positions – some are pro-EU but would also like a referendum on NATO – yet they have spoken of joining forces to oust Djukanović.