Montenegro sentences Russians, opposition leaders for failed 2016 coup

A Police officer stands guard in front of High Court in Podgorica, Montenegro, 09 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/BORIS PEJOVIC]

A Montenegrin court sentenced 14 defendants, including two opposition leaders and two Russians, to prison terms on Thursday (9 May) over of a failed coup in 2016 that aimed to overthrow the government and install a pro-Russian alliance.

One year and a half after the trial started in the capital Podgorica, all 14 were found guilty and handed a combined sentence of almost 70 years in prison.

The biggest sentences were given to two Russians from the military intelligence agency GRU (the same one that tried to poison former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in the UK), who were tried in absentia.

Eduard Šišmakov got 15 years and Vladimir Popov (possibly Moiseev) 12 years. The two were supposed to prepare the assassination of Montenegrin President Milo Đukanovic.

But the focus was on the verdict for the two opposition leaders from the Democratic Front: Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević, who were sentenced to five years in prison each.

According to the verdict judge Suzana Mugoša read, Mandić and Knežević were tasked with recruiting people and preparing protests in front of the Montenegrin Assembly, which were supposed to storm the parliament and take over.

The goal of the coup was to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO. The small country eventually joined the alliance eight months later, on 5 June 2017.

The two convicted DF leaders announce that they would not “easily surrender”.

“We are ready to provide every form of resistance,” Knežević said, urging Serbia to protect them as “their citizens”.

Montenegrin author Milorad Popović told that the verdict is a continuation of “miserable, dangerous divisions in my country that will go on”.

“DF was threatening in 2015 that it will overthrow Đukanović. But their goal is not just Đukanović: they deny the sovereignty of Montenegro in cultural, historical, religious and ethnic terms, which makes this whole thing very serious because it is not an ordinary struggle for power”.

Montenegro, which had been in a state union with Serbia until 2006, is deeply divided between sovereignists and those who want to rejoin Serbia.

Popović said he believed that political life in Montenegro will be further radicalised on both sides after the verdict.

The pro-Russian opposition and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro, which is one of the most powerful political factors giving strength to these forces, will be more extreme, he said. But he could not say how Moscow and Belgrade would react.

The Montenegrin Party of New Serbian Democracy announced that this day is “the beginning of a new struggle against fascism in Montenegro”.

With Montenegro’s accession to NATO, “the political and strategic landscape of the Balkans and the Russian position on that peninsula has changed, since the entire belt of the European part of the Mediterranean, within that of the Adriatic, is under the control of NATO and Russia is thus unable to access the warm European sea,” Popović said.

If the coup had succeeded, he said Montenegro would have become a new Syria or

“The EU needs to integrate the Western Balkans quickly to safeguard its own future
as well as protect the buffer region from Russian and Chinese influence”, Montenegro’s President Milo Đukanović told Reuters on Wednesday, a day before the verdict.

Moscow, through politics, and Beijing, via loans, aim to “prevent NATO and EU expansion in the Balkans,” Đukanovic said.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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