On the day of Montenegro’s Parliamentary elections on October 16, a remarkable story emerged: Montenegrin security services had arrested some 20 Serbian nationals who were alleged to be preparing an attack on various state institutions that very evening, as the results were rolling in. Among those arrested was a retired Serbian general who was also the leader of a right-wing nationalist movement based in Novi Sad, almost 500 kilometers away in Serbia’s Vojvodina region.
The immediate reaction from Serbia was disbelief leavened with thinly-veiled contempt. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic demanded he be shown proof of the plot, and many in Montenegro’s opposition, who are in large part made up of Montenegro’s Serbian minority, claimed that Prime Minister Milorad Djukanovic’s security services had ginned up a false flag operation in order to help cement his victory.
Two days later, Montenegro’s special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, insisted that he would be happy to share the evidence that his investigators had gathered, and that an “unprecedented massacre” had been prevented by the arrests. More details of the plot were revealed: The plan was for several individuals to enter the parliamentary building in the capital, Podgorica, wearing uniforms of Montenegro’s elite security services, and subdue the guards inside. They would then open fire on unarmed opposition supporters gathering outside the parliament awaiting election results. Finally, they would kidnap the Prime Minister, and either declare the election invalid, or somehow hope to throw it to the opposition.
By that point, Djukanovic’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) had won a convincing plurality of the votes and was settling in for the negotiations necessary to cobble together a governing coalition. Western journalists by and large stopped paying attention. Crazy conspiracies are a fact of political life in the Balkans. And though there were reports of voting irregularities, DPS’s margin of victory more or less corresponded to pre-election polls. Nothing more to see here.
But the story was far from over.
This past Monday, the Serbian PM held another presser. Looking shaken, Vucic confirmed that there had in fact been a plot to assassinate Djukanovic. Another set of special forces uniforms and €120,000 in cash had been found in Serbia, Vucic said, and several other Serbian nationals had been arrested. He added that no politicians, in either Serbia or Montenegro, were involved in the planning, but rather he vaguely gestured at “foreign services, both from the West and from the East”, and said that those that have been arrested would be dealt with.
On Thursday, another bombshell landed: the daily newspaper Danas, citing highly-placed sources in the government, reported that Serbia had secretly expelled several Russian citizens in connection with the Montenegro plot. Furthermore, the paper reported that the Serbs arrested earlier had in their possession several devices allowing for encrypted communication, as well as some unspecified sophisticated technology used to continuously track the location of Djukanovic. Some of the arrested Serbs had reportedly fought on the Russian side in Donbas, in Ukraine.
It just so happened that Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the FSB and the current head of Russia’s Security Council, had just arrived in Belgrade. Could his visit be linked to the expulsions of what appeared to be Russian agents? An almost-forgotten story about electoral intrigue in a small Balkan country of 600,000 all of a sudden involved its larger neighbor, and even implicated Russia in a plot with potentially global ramifications.
The Montenegrin elections were framed by the long-serving Djukanovic as a referendum on his decision to pursue further euroatlantic integration for his country. And the vote was more than just an attempt at getting a symbolic mandate: Montenegro completed its accession negotiations with NATO in May of this year, and now needs its own parliament to ratify the treaty. If the opposition had won, Montenegro’s NATO bid would have been dead in the water. (NATO member states are, in turn, expected to ratify Montenegro’s accession by Spring of next year.)
NATO’s calculus for admitting Montenegro, a state that is anything but a paragon of transparency and press freedom, is obvious: Albania and Croatia are already members, and admitting Montenegro de facto closes off the Adriatic to Russia’s military. Djukanovic, himself a problematic character who has clung to the levers of power for the better part of two decades, is alleged to have direct links to various smuggling rings and mafias that operate out of his country. Of course, as a defensive alliance, NATO is primarily concerned with reforms tied to aspirant countries’ armed forces, and here Montenegro appears to have made the required progress. Presumably, the thinking goes, the larger-frame corruption will be dealt with as the country strives to work its way into the EU. NATO accession for Montenegro, apart from serving immediate strategic interests, will also put the country on the path to eventual virtue.
For its part, Russia has been particularly irked by the country’s westward lurch, and especially its NATO aspirations. Its irritation has two facets—one broadly strategic and one broadly economic.
As far as strategy goes, Russia sees its competition with NATO in more zero-sum terms. Though Moscow has made no measurable progress in getting Montenegro to cooperate on security matters, NATO accession forecloses even the possibility of Russia having a friendly outlet on the Adriatic at some point in the future. This feels like a slap in the face to the Kremlin. And it blames the West for delivering it.
Montenegro’s westward drift also sets a kind of uncomfortable precedent for Russia’s best ally in the region, Serbia. Prime Minister Vucic has been playing a careful double game on this count, quietly telling Western audiences that he intends to steer his country their way, while publicly maintaining good relations with Moscow. Serbian public opinion remains icy on NATO and warm on Russia. But with time, the Kremlin is surely calculating, that could change.
Financial interests, too, play a role in Russian frustrations. The above-mentioned lack of transparency makes Montenegro an attractive destination for Russian money, much of which is of murky provenance to say the least. Many Russian expats have made summer homes for themselves in Montenegro—25 percent of all tourists to Montenegro are Russians, and by some estimates, Russian citizens own 40 percent of the real estate in the tiny Balkan country.
Oleg Deripaska, one of the richest men in Russia before the 2008 financial crisis and still a well-connected Kremlin insider, is an outsize player in Montenegro. The saga of Deripaska’s involvement with Montenegro’s aluminum smelter KAP is lengthy and full of intrigue. Djukanovic had personally negotiated with Deripaska over the initial privatization of KAP in 2005, and Deripaska’s En+ holding company is currently suing the government for around €700 million, a hefty chunk of the country’s $4.25 billion GDP. Beyond commodities, Russian capital totaling more than a hundred million dollars continues to flow in to the country every year, much of it into real estate or the development of massive hotel and casino complexes. Deripaska himself is a key investor in the Porto Montenegro marina project, which is being designed specifically to cater to the superyachts of the world’s mega-rich. Russian money accounts for about a third of the foreign direct investment flowing into Montenegro.
Djukanovic’s government appears to have concluded that being so tightly dependent on a single source of foreign capital is not a smart long-term development strategy. And while wealthy Russians have no problems continuing to park their money in both NATO and EU countries, a pivot westward for Montenegro does (eventually) mean increased scrutiny. It’s not an insurmountable problem by any means for Russia’s quasi-gangster elites, but the status quo is certainly preferable. And Russian foreign policy is always attentive to the needs of its kleptocrats.
Whatever its roots, the Kremlin has made no secret of its displeasure at Montenegro’s NATO pretensions. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called Montenegro’s accession an “openly confrontational step, fraught with further destabilizing consequences for the Euro-Atlantic security system.” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was more direct and menacing: “Moscow has always said that the continued expansion of NATO, of NATO military infrastructure in the east, cannot but lead to a response from the east, that is from Russia,” he said.
According to polls trumpeted by Djukanovic’s government, support in Montenegro for NATO accession appears to have grown this year. Nevertheless, splits on ethnic lines persist: Ethnic Bosniaks and Albanians—small minorities—support entrance overwhelmingly, the majority ethnic Montenegrins grudgingly support accession, and ethnic Serbs are mostly opposed. Djukanovic has accused the Serbian opposition parties of taking Russian money, a charge which opposition leaders deny. At the same time, the opposition parties have unabashedly supported the Russian line on NATO, and have echoed the anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments of the more nationalist politicians across the border in Serbia.
That Serbian irredentist forces in Montenegro would be cooperating with paramilitaries in Serbia proper barely raises an eyebrow for anyone even passingly acquainted with the Balkans. Similarly, that the Russians would be tempted to exploit ethnic divisions for their own ends should surprise no one at this point.
That Russia may have been plotting a coup against a country weighing its options on NATO accession, however, is a new and troubling development—if true.
But how likely is it that Russia was actually behind the failed coup? The available evidence, though circumstantial, is suggestive.
It’s well known that Russian intelligence services have operated with a fairly long leash in Serbia for some time now. Less well known is that the leash had started to fray recently. A colleague with intimate knowledge of the Balkans tells me Russian spies are aggressively tailing foreigners in and around Belgrade, using techniques until recently only visited upon diplomats in Moscow. While Prime Minister Vucic is not said to have authorized the new behavior, up until now he has done nothing to try to curb it either.
The true nature of Patrushev’s visit to Belgrade is at the heart of the matter. Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic claimed that the trip was not a surprise—that it had been planned well in advance, and was a routine state visit for a high-ranking Russian official. The official reason for his trip, according to Stefanovic, was to discuss the signing of a proposed memorandum for security cooperation.
The most authoritative publication to dispute that claim, perhaps surprisingly, was the Russian business daily Kommersant, which reported that the true purpose of Patrushev’s “unexpected” visit was to “discuss the ‘Montenegro case'” and to “prevent the scandal from roiling Serbo-Russian relations”. Kommersant noted it was suspicious that Patrushev held separate closed-door meetings with Stefanovic, the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister, and even the President, Tomislav Nikolic, over a proposed agreement that had already been discussed, and was in itself completely non-binding. Citing unnamed sources in Belgrade, Kommersant concluded that Patrushev’s intervention appears to have been successful.
How successful the intervention was—if it was an intervention in the first place!—remains to be seen. For example, while Stefanovic has been denying that any Russians were expelled, Vucic was more circumspect when pressed by media about the reports of expulsion, and their linkage to Montenegro. “Not everything in your question is correct, one part is false,” the PM answered gnomically, before adding he could not legally say more. The Russian Foreign Ministry, for its part, called the reports of Russian spies being declared persona non grata an “absolute fiction”.
Taken together, all the evidence is still inconclusive, and given the sensitivities involved, may stay that way. And like all stories having to do with spies, speculation can lead down endless rabbit-holes. However, one very recent development, which occurred as this piece was being written, is worth mentioning: yesterday evening, a large cache of weapons, including an RPG, several hand grenades, and ammunition for automatic weapons and a sniper rifle, were found in the woods near Prime Minister Vucic’s residence. The stash was located near a bend in the road, where the Prime Minister’s armored car would have had to slow down as it made its way to Belgrade’s center. Vucic was reportedly spirited away to a safe-house by his bodyguards, and is awaiting the results of the investigation into the incident.
So while the facts remain murky, something definitely appears to have happened. Vucic looked rattled at his press conference last Monday when he first revealed that the plot against Djukanovic was real, so perhaps he didn’t know exactly how much freelancing was going on within his country’s borders up until that point. He had certainly been tolerating Russian activities until then, and if Russian agents were in fact expelled this past week, it would indicate that he had concluded that things have gone too far. He may have realized in a blinding flash that his delicate dance, of edging Serbia ever closer to the West while publicly flirting with Russia, could have ended in catastrophe had there been bloodshed in Montenegro. Perhaps whatever power struggles Vucic’s moves have triggered have yet to play out fully in Serbia—violently, as is tradition.
But more broadly, if the story, as I’ve tried to reconstitute it, is true and the Russians were in fact involved in a failed coup against a sovereign country trying to align itself with the West, it should give pause to those pundits who still think that a workable equilibrium with the Kremlin is somehow attainable. At the Valdai conference this past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he increasingly saw talking to Washington as pointless. With old spies running the Russian state, the conversation appears to be going back into the shadows, where these men are most comfortable.