Politico: Indictment tells murky Montenegrin coup tale

Trial will hear claims of Russian involvement in plans to assassinate prime minister and stop Balkan country’s NATO membership.

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5/23/17, 4:05 AM CET, Updated 5/24/17, 5:11 AM CET

PODGORICA, Montenegro — It has the plot of a thriller, even if it doesn’t read like one.

In long, tangled sentences, an indictment filed by the chief prosecutor in Montenegro lays out a story of Russian agents recruiting mercenaries to storm parliament on election day and stop the small Balkan state from joining NATO.

The 135-page indictment will be tested in a trial that gets under way in the capital Podgorica on Wednesday. But if there was a plot to thwart NATO membership, it failed. The country of 620,000 people will become the alliance’s 29th member by early next month. Nevertheless, Montenegro remains deeply divided over joining NATO and about whether the plot was real or fake — or at least manipulated by the ruling party to help it win the election and retain power.

According to the government’s telling, on October 15 last year, a group of Serbs crossed into Montenegro on the eve of a decisive general election with a plan to storm the parliament and assassinate Milo Đukanović, the country’s dominant politician who was then prime minister. But the authorities say an informant had warned them about the plot days earlier and police arrested members of the group at various locations before they could carry out their plan.

Đukanović had put Montenegro on a path to joining NATO but if he had lost the election, or been overthrown, there is a strong chance the country would have abandoned its membership bid, which did not have the support of several opposition parties.

The opposition and independent NGOs have accused Đukanović and his party of widespread corruption and cronyism.

“Had it been executed, this scenario would have had irreparable consequences,” Montenegrin Chief Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić said in his office in central Podgorica, a stone’s throw from where he says the violence would have unfolded.

Katnić said that according to the plan he uncovered, after the voting closed on October 16 the alleged plotters planned to take the parliament by force while a second group would impersonate police officers and fire on a crowd that had gathered outside the building.

Opposition on trial

The indictment, obtained by POLITICO, charges 14 people, including two alleged members of Russian intelligence services (who are being tried in absentia), two Montenegrin opposition leaders, a retired commander of an elite Serbian police force, and a motley band of Serbian nationalists who sound more suited to opera buffa than espionage. It accuses them of having conspired with the aim of a “violent overthrow of the government and proclaiming victory of the [opposition bloc] Democratic Front, and preventing of Montenegro’s accession to the NATO alliance.”

Senior Western politicians appear convinced that there was a plot to overthrow the government.

If all of the Montenegrin allegations are true, the coup attempt would be by far the most spectacular example of Russia’s efforts in recent years to flex its muscles in the Balkans, especially Montenegro, Serbia, and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska — all of which Moscow views as part of its traditional sphere of influence because of shared Christian Orthodox faith.

After declaring independence in 2006 following a narrowly won referendum, Montenegro initially courted Russian investment and tourism and sold off its main aluminum plant to Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Moscow reportedly also hoped to have a military foothold in the Balkans by purchasing the port in the southern town of Bar. But Montenegro slowly turned its back on Russia and when it was invited to join NATO in 2015, a furious Russia promised “retaliatory actions.”

Leaders of the Democratic Front (DF), Montenegro’s main opposition bloc, most of whom favor increased cooperation with Russia, say the trial amounts to political persecution — and is taking place because they were on the verge of doing something unprecedented: inflicting an election defeat on Đukanović’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), which has ruled the country for nearly three decades.

The opposition and independent NGOs have accused Đukanović and his party of widespread corruption and cronyism, as well as links to organized crime — allegations they generally deny, although one senior DPS politician, Svetozar Marović, was convicted last September of high-level corruption.

The notion of Moscow sponsoring a coup in Montenegro, opposition leaders say, is a convenient way for Đukanović to win friends in the West, where concern about Russia is extremely high as a result of its annexation of Crimea, its military role in eastern Ukraine and allegations it tried to influence the U.S. and other Western elections.

The indictment cites communications intercepts and travel records but centers on the testimony of Aleksandar “Saša” Sinđelić, a Serbian convicted murderer with a history of mental illness. He says he was groomed by Russian intelligence agents starting in May 2015, when he took a five-hour polygraph test in Moscow, and that in April 2016 he received the first indications from his handler of a plot to overthrow Đukanović.

Prosecutor Katnić said he had also opened an investigation on suspicion that Russia spent €15-€17 million to influence the election.

Last September, he says, he flew to Moscow where he received orders to purchase weapons and uniforms and to organize the assassination of Đukanović, who has at various times served as prime minister and president of Montenegro.

Sinđelić says he was given €200,000 to organize everything. When investigators checked his bank account, they seized €125,000. He was also in possession of three $100 bills whose serial numbers showed that they had been processed in Moscow, first at Bank of America and then at Sber Bank.

According to the indictment, Sinđelić engaged Bratislav Dikić, a former head of the Serbian gendarmerie police unit, to put together a group of operatives while the two Russian agents oversaw the plot from Belgrade, the capital of neighboring Serbia.

Sinđelić’s testimony and evidence obtained through wiretaps and travel records of the two alleged Russian agents — such as a money transfer in September to Sinđelić in Belgrade from a Western Union on the same street as the headquarters of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency — suggest a direct connection to Moscow. But the Kremlin denies any involvement and it is unclear whether the Russians were acting on their own or with official backing.

Prosecutor Katnić said he had also opened an investigation on suspicion that Russia spent €15-€17 million to influence the election.

Protected witness

Sinđelić, who had initially been indicted in the plot, became a “cooperating witness” in late November and is under police protection in Montenegro. He is currently not facing any charges related to the alleged coup plot.

Seven days after Sinđelić was released, Mirko Velimirović, a Serb from northern Kosovo who allegedly alerted the Montenegrin authorities to the plot on October 12, pled guilty, confirmed the key elements of Sinđelić’s testimony and was released after paying a fine of €100.

Things then got even murkier.

On his return to Serbia, Velimirović swore in an affidavit that his testimony in Montenegro was given under duress and that it was false. He later stated that he was under pressure to make that second statement.

While the indictment contains references to ample connections between Sinđelić and the alleged Russian agents, there is less direct evidence implicating the two opposition leaders, Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević. In the indictment, Mandić is accused of giving permission for a driver to use his official car to drive to Belgrade where another indictee tried to recruit personnel for the plot. The indictment also mentions that Mandić “flew to Moscow many times.”

As for Knežević, the indictment says the Russian agents gave him a secure phone, whose calls could not be intercepted, and one of his girlfriends apparently contacted him on this number.

The indictment also claims that “he crossed the state border on numerous occasions during 2016, and that, among other places, he traveled to Moscow, as well as to Belgrade many times.” It further mentions a speech he delivered on Podgorica’s central square on October 14, two days before the election, in which he declared that Đukanović would be sent to the capital’s Spuž prison. “This dictator will kneel in Spuž while he cleans the floors,” he reportedly said.

The indictment also cites a statement attributed to Brian Scott, the CEO of Patriot Defense Group, a defense contractor based in Orlando, Florida. It says he recounted being approached through a chain of individuals, on behalf of a “Canadian-Israeli political adviser” to the DF, to provide services including “counter-surveillance, as well as evacuation and planning of extraction of manpower sometime after October 6, 2016.” But Scott told POLITICO he had not spoken to the Montenegrin authorities.

However, he said someone had contacted one of his staff some time ago, saying they knew the firm did bodyguard work for VIPs and wanted to know if Patriot was interested in some work. “But we … don’t do that kind of work,” he said by telephone. “We only work with people if they’re fighting and arresting terrorists that advances American interests. We focus on defending those that serve America.”

Milan Knežević leaves the prosecution building in February | Boris Pejovic/EPA

Aron Shaviv, a British-Israeli campaign consultant for the DF who seems to be the person referred to in the indictment, said he engaged a risk analyst for himself but never sought the services mentioned in the indictment for the DF. He told POLITICO that he believes the charges against the opposition are political theater.

“The idea that a coup was masterminded in Russia and carried out by some farm boys in Montenegro who wanted to get some U.S. private firm involved is just crazy,” he said in a phone interview. “It does not add up.”

He also asked why the witnesses and those who pled guilty have already been freed if they were dangerous terrorists plotting to overthrow the state, as the prosecution claims.

‘Simple people’

Nine out of 25 people implicated in the plot have so far pleaded guilty and been released for time served. Other than Dikić, the former gendarmerie commander, most of those who remain in prison seem unlikely militants, said Goran Rodić, a defense attorney for opposition leader Knežević.

“We are talking here about simple people: a tailor, a waiter, fisherman, and a woman who is 62 years old,” Rodić said. “But when you look at what the game is here, and whose interests this case serves, it is obvious that the ruling elites have an interest in this story.”

Even some people who accept there was a plot of some kind believe the government sought to manipulate it to its advantage. Although the indictment says Velimirović told authorities about the plot several days before the election, there was no mention of it in the media until election day itself, when the arrests of several alleged conspirators were announced. Internet communication services such as WhatsApp and Viber were cut off for hours during the day. All of these elements contributed to the sense that the country was in danger — a sense that may have persuaded some voters to rally behind the ruling party.

Accountability watchdogs warn that even though Montenegro will be a full-fledged NATO member, it is far from a fully functioning democracy.

“The lack of communication and the fact that the 20 people arrested were brought one by one to the prosecutor’s office with police sirens blaring throughout the city was disturbing and led to heightened tensions on election day which certainly affected the outcome,” says Daliborka Uljarević, the director of the Center for Civic Education, a Podgorica-based NGO.

Đukanović’s DPS won 36 out of 81 seats in the parliament and was able to form a majority government with parties representing the country’s Bosniak, Croat, and Albanian minorities. The DF won 18 seats but has been boycotting parliament because of complaints over vote-rigging and the tension on election day.

“Seven months after everything, we still don’t know what really happened on election day,” said Uljarević.

On April 28, Montenegro’s parliament voted 46-0 to join the alliance, while several hundred protesters burned NATO flags outside. A poll in December 2016, found that 39.5 percent of Montenegrins supported NATO membership, while 39.7 percent were against. (In the same poll, 63 percent supported joining the EU.)“Clearly, you cannot dismiss it totally, as something was planned, but the link to the opposition politicians is not clear and it is very important that we have this clarified. This reflects a level of distrust in the institutions which should guarantee rule of law, which is not the best for the country joining NATO.”

But accountability watchdogs warn that even though Montenegro will be a full-fledged NATO member, it is far from a fully functioning democracy.

“The fact that the opposition is boycotting parliament should be a red alert for the European Union and others that not everything here is perfect,” said Dejan Milovac, deputy director of MANS, an NGO based in Podgorica.

“The perception here is that membership is a decision of the great powers, not local citizens,” said Milovac. “But maybe now that we will be a NATO member we can finally end this topic that is dividing us and deal with the many problems our country is facing: corruption, organized crime, nepotism and poor economic growth.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the opposition leader alleged in the indictment to have been given a secure phone. The indictment says it was given to Milan Knežević.

Read the story on Politico.

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