Montenegro starts ‘coup’ trial but alleged Russian agents are absent

Kremlin and Montenegrin opposition dismiss case as a hoax

Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic (right) stands next to a supporter in front of a court in Podgorica  on Thursday. Photograph: Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic (right) stands next to a supporter in front of a court in Podgorica on Thursday. Photograph: Savo Prelevic/AFP/Getty Images

 

A court in Montenegro has started hearing evidence against 14 people accused of planning a coup last October, in what prosecutors describe as a plot led by Russian agents to kill the country’s then prime minister and stop it joining Nato.

The indictment states that Russian intelligence operatives Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov recruited people in Montenegro and neighbouring Serbia to seize parliament in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, on the night of national elections.

The Russians allegedly provided encrypted telephones and paid for guns that would have been used to murder the country’s veteran leader, Milo Djukanovic, and help install a government that would end Montenegro’s integration with the West and forge close ties with the Kremlin.

Mr Shishmakov and Mr Popov are believed to be in Russia and are being tried in absentia, but among the accused in Podgorica are Montenegrin opposition leaders Milan Knezevic and Andrija Mandic.

They say the entire story is fabrication that helped Mr Djukanovic’s allies retain power while giving the security services a pretext to suppress the opposition and those who are against Nato membership. Montenegro became the alliance’s 29th member earlier this year.

“I state with full responsibility that I was not aware of the existence of a criminal organisation . . . I don’t know any Russians,” Bratislav Dikic, the former leader of a Serbian special police unit, told the court.

Visiting a monastery

The plan allegedly unravelled after Mr Dikic was arrested the night before the election as he entered Montenegro from Serbia. He said at the time that he was on his way to visit a monastery, and was framed by police who planted evidence in his car.

“This is impossible,” he told the court of the alleged plot.

“This was done with some aim, but not to carry out a coup. A bunch of people can’t just show up overnight and stage a coup. In 99 percent of cases, the army does it.”

The Kremlin has also dismissed the case as nonsense, and supporters of the accused say the case against them is full of holes.

Several intriguing elements of the story are yet to be fully explained, however.

After reacting with scepticism to the coup claims, within a few days Serbia announced that it had made arrests and seized “irrefutable evidence” in the case.

Then media in Serbia reported that it had quietly deported several Russians around the time that Nikolai Patrushev – a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and secretary of the country’s security council – paid a previously unannounced visit to Belgrade.

Leaked surveillance photos emerged recently which allegedly show Mr Shishmakov in a Belgrade park last year meeting Aleksandar Sindjelic, a Serb nationalist who is accused of being a key figure in the coup plot.

Mr Sindjelic – who is now a prosecution witness after apparently striking a plea bargain – fought with Russian-led separatists against government forces in eastern Ukraine.