A Montenegro prosecutor received parliamentary approval yesterday (13 February) to strip immunity from two opposition leaders who are targeted in the investigation of an alleged coup attempt on 16 October, when general elections were held in the Balkan country.
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, 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.
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 OSCE has considered the elections free and fair.
The opposition consists of four political forces, of which the Democratic Front is considered part of the “hard opposition”.
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.
Katnić, the special prosecutor in charge of investigating the coup attempt, 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.
Nebojša Medojević, president of the Movement for Changes, one of the Democratic Front’s member parties, told journalists that prosecutor Katnić and pro-NATO authorities “are provoking a civil war in Montenegro”.
Medojević said the Democratic Front will hold consultations with the other opposition parties, the international community, civil society and the media, in order to avoid war and find a political solution.
The parliament is expected to hold a vote to lift the immunity of the two MPs on Wednesday (15 February). It is likely that the opposition will organise protests.
NATO bid looming large
A frequent visitor to Russia, Mandić, who returned from Moscow earlier this month, has warned of mounting political tensions in the Western Balkan country of 620,000 people, who are divided over joining the Atlantic alliance.
NATO signed an accession agreement with Montenegro last year, paving the way for the country to become the 29th member of the Western military alliance.
So far, 24 of the 28 NATO allies 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 in Parliament, after all 28 current members have completed the ratification, possibly in May. The ratification is expected to take place even if part of the opposition continues to boycott parliament.
The most fervent opposition forces oppose NATO membership because many members are ethnic Serbs angry over NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. Russian leaders have supported DF calls to hold a referendum on Montenegro’s NATO membership and Mandić has threatened to organise one even without parliamentary approval.