A Montenegro court has sentenced 14 people including two Russian military intelligence officers, two Montenegrin opposition leaders, nine Serbian citizens and another Montenegrin to up to 15 years in prison after they were found guilty of attempting to overthrow the Montenegrin government in 2016.
In a first instance court ruling, Russian agents Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were sentenced in absentia to 15 and 12 years respectively, convicted of “attempted terrorism” and “creating a criminal organisation”.
Two leading ethnic Serb opposition politicians of the Montenegrin Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, were sentenced to five years each.
Bratislav Dikic, the former commander of a Serbian police unit, the Gendarmerie was also sentenced to eight years in prison.
The court found the group intended to take over parliament on election day on October 16, 2016 and assassinate then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic in order to set up a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership.
However Montenegro’s police successfully thwarted the attempt, after being tipped-off by Western spy organisations.
Djukanovic has led the country for three decades either as prime minister or president and has set the country on a Euro-Atlantic course.
Montenegro subsequently joined NATO in June 2017, becoming its 29th member, despite strong opposition from Russia, which views the country as a historic Orthodox Christian, Slav ally.
Moscow has denied any involvement in the coup attempt, calling the allegations “absurd”.
The prosecution claimed that “Russian state bodies” had played a key role in the plot.
According to the ruling, the Russians – said to be members of the Russian military secret service agency GRU – coordinated the attempted coup from neighbouring Serbia.
Chief judge Suzana Mugosa said the agents provided at least 200,000 euros for purchasing rifles and guns, Reuters news agency reported.
The two Russian agents tried to “change the electoral will” and “prevent Montenegro from joining NATO”, Mugosa said, as reported by Reuters.
Mugosa said that Mandic and Knezevic made several trips to Moscow on the eve of the election where it’s believed they received instructions from GRU operatives.
“Each member of the criminal organisation had a task and role that had been previously determined and the criminal organisation was ready to implement violence and intimidation,” Mugosa said.
Mandic and Knezevic vehemently rejected the verdict and said they will appeal.
Addressing local media on Thursday, Mandic called out the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic as well as Milorad Dodik, current chairman and Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency to break off communication with Djukanovic.
“I’m inviting them not to support an enemy of the Serbian people in this region… We expect solidarity and brotherly support,” Mandic told local media.
NATO expansion, a ‘provocation’
The region of former Yugoslavia is a geopolitical front line between NATO and Russia.
In the Balkans, the only countries that have not joined NATO are North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia.
Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at Democratization Policy Council, a Berin-based think tank told Al Jazeera that the ruling, particularly the conviction of two Russian intelligence officers, “underscores the level of engagement Moscow will undertake in its efforts to prevent further NATO enlargement in the region” and also highlights “the depth of polarisation in Montenegro’s political scene”.
Bassuener noted that Moscow’s disposition against NATO and later EU enlargement became clear after the invasion of Crimea and the inducement of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
“[Russian] Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s characterisation of the NATO aspirations of Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as a ‘provocation’ that year highlight this,” Bassuener said.
According to Vesko Garcevic, professor at Boston University, Russia will continue “meddling in the Balkans”.
“It’s not a big deal for them. They have many local actors willing to cooperate. It’s been historically present in the region,” Garcevic told Al Jazeera.
Since Montenegro is already a NATO member and North Macedonia is well on its way following its name change deal with Greece, many have noted that the frontline is shifting to Bosnia, an “easy target for Russia” according to Garcevic.
“In Montenegro local actors were not able to come to power and change trajectory. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Dodik in and the EU, US in retreat, they are in control.”
“Furthermore Kosovo is a good playground for them to enhance the influence and project power,” Garcevic said.