On 16th October 2016, parliamentary elections were held in Montenegro. On the same day, Montenegrin police detained 20 Serbian nationalists and two Russians, who were allegedly planning a coup against the incumbent Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Djukanovic then accused Russia of organizing the coup in response to his plans to join NATO.
Hromadske interviewed British reporter and political analyst Tim Judah, who specializes in Serbia, and more recently in Ukraine.
There are two ways to explain what happened in Montenegro last year. On the one hand, it could be a real anti-governmental plot, organized by the “Democratic Front”. On the other hand, it could have been organised in the interest of Milo Djukanovic. What do you think is more likely?
There is nothing clear about this at all. There are many informed people in Montenegro and in Serbia who are completely divided. The one side thinks the whole thing was a plot mounted by Milo Djukanovic to gather more votes in the middle of the elections. This happened right on election day, so the idea was that this sort of theatre was mounted by him, that people have been paid to do this. Many people may not even have known what they were involved in. They try to get people out to vote, because essentially the election on 16th October 2016 was about NATO. Montenegro is about to join NATO, but decided not to have a referendum on this question – so the election turned into that question.
Half of the people I know think that this whole thing was a complete fake. On the other hand, there was something genuine here and they point to the fact that some 20 people who came from Serbia were arrested. More significantly, two Russians were arrested in Serbia and some days later Nikolai Patrushev – a former Russian senior intelligence operative, who still occupies an important post in the administration – came to Belgrade and allegedly those two people were taken away with him.
The Montenegrins always said that those two Russians were involved, but they never said that they were doing this on behalf of the state, but now on 17 February the state prosecutor said they were working for the state and that he wants them arrested and there are Interpol warrants for their arrest. It’s quite possible of course that the story is carved somewhere between the two. There was some Russian involvement, that’s possible. It seems a bit like a strange plot, because a lot of the people were quite amateurish, they weren’t very serious people. But it’s quite possible that the Montenegrin authorities knew something was happening and it was just convenient to arrest them and to make a show on election day. That’s what we know.
If we leave this story aside, who are the main agents of the Kremlin in Montenegro?
Montenegro is historically quite a divided society. I’ve always said so in the last 20 years. Leaving out Muslim minorities, most of the people in Montenegro are orthodox. The difference is that some of those orthodox people identify as ethnic Montenegrins and some as ethnic Serbs. What happens is that Montenegrins always perceived a kind of threat from Serbia. For example, they say that they have to join NATO, because in the future they could be like Ukraine. Serbia might be a friend but who knows, in the future it might attack us, as Russia attacked Ukraine and therefore we must join NATO. Serbs, on the other hand, tend to be those who opposed the independence of Montenegro and are therefore also against NATO.
Because of their history, Serbs look more towards Russia as a friend, while Montenegrins perceive it more as a possible threat. Then, you’ve got of course, close church links, NGOs, of course there are always allegations that parties are paid for or supported somehow by Moscow, but these thing haven’t been proven.
For example, the “Democratic Front” now, but we don’t know whether this is true. It’s just an accusation. The most important “agents” are news agencies like “Sputnik”, which are widely picked up in Serbia and Montenegro, and then you have a whole series of strange websites in Serbian/Montenegrin which glorify Putin, the Russian military, Soviet heritage, orthodoxy and, in some ways, also promote divisions within the Balkans. They are always addressing Albanians with derogatory names, Putin is always punching the Croats, and the West is always trembling before Putin and Russia. So, it’s really these kinds of websites and news agencies which are the biggest source of influence. There are also traditionally old links between Montenegro and Russia, which go back 200 years, in which the Montenegrins always looked to Russia as a kind of saviour from the Ottomans. Even during the times when Yugoslavia’s leader, Tito was in conflict with the Soviet Union, it was Montenegro where the most “Stalinist” communists were. That reflected a kind of older, pro-Russian tradition. Anyway, Montenegro is divided on this question now.
There is an investigation going on about this. I heard that there is a problem with trust in the justice system in Montenegro.
Well I think that's the case throughout the Balkans, that people believe there is political interference in courts. Especially if it's something important that the courts will always do what the authorities want them to do. So in this case, if you believe there was a plot, you believe the courts are fine, and if you believe that this is all a big theatre, which was mounted for the sake of Mr Djukanovic and for his political expediencies, then you won't believe in justice in Montenegro.
Montenegro is close to a NATO membership right now, maybe also the EU membership in a few years. Do you personally believe in this view of the whole situation in the region, that now Russia tries to do anything possible to hinder integration? I'm interested in the plot as such.
Clearly Russian officials have said openly that they would regard it as a threat if Montenegro joined NATO. The rest of the region – or what remains of it – is not becoming a member. Don't forget that former Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia are already members. Albania is a member. That leaves Bosnia, where Serbs will block Bosnia from joining. In Serbia itself 64% - according to a recent survey - regard NATO as a threat. That's because the country was bombed in the Kosovo War in 1999 and Macedonia as well. Those are the countries which remain, and Kosovo as well, but that's another story. As you said, Montenegro is on track for joining, with only a few more countries to ratify its treaty and it will join very soon, unless something unexpected happens. Clearly Russian officials have said that their aim is that this area remains militarily neutral. They don't want this gravitation towards NATO to continue.
But I'm not quite sure that after Montenegro much is likely to happen. Having said that, something else is happening, let's look at a survey which is the biggest and most important in the remaining countries. Two or three times a year Serbia will do military exercises with Russian soldiers, with Russian troops, either in Serbia or in Russia. And also with troops from Belarus. This plays very well with the electorate. It's pretty well publicised in the media. What most people don't know - and it is not very well publicised in the media - is that Serbia does infinitely more exercises every year with NATO and with US and Western countries. There is a very high level of cooperation with NATO. There is a lot of cooperation and they do a lot together. No one is pushing Serbia to join NATO, but sometimes you might think, it's not important anyway, because they do a lot with NATO anyway.
His surname you mentioned (Sindjelic), he testified that he fought in Donbas for the separatists. What is known about his role in this plot?
From what we understand, from what's been reported, there were two local leaders of this or domestic leaders. There was a man called Dikic - a former Serbian policeman - who was sacked for one reason, because of the connection to his brother, who was allegedly quite close to the Mafia. I don't know for sure but that's, what was reported. And then there was a Sindjelic - like Dikic, a Serbian nationalist - and he allegedly went to Crimea in the beginning and then to fight in Donbas. Presumably that would have put him in touch with people in Russian intelligence, and the story goes that he went for meetings in Moscow, to help organise this plot and that he was given 200 thousand Euros. That's the Ukrainian connection. That one of the key organisers already had good connections to Russian intelligence, because he had been fighting in Donbas.