Russian-Backed Coup Plotters Convicted by Montenegrin Court

(Bloomberg) -- A Montenegrin court found 14 suspects, including opposition leaders and Russian and Serbian nationals, guilty of staging a failed plot to overthrow the government during the country’s 2016 parliamentary elections.

The 19-month trial closed a chapter in the geopolitical tussle in eastern Europe, where Russia and the West continue a struggle for influence that began with the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain. While Moscow made gains with the 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, it has lost ground in the former Yugoslavia, with NATO granting Montenegro membership and giving Macedonia a green light, while the entire region clamors to join the European Union.

Authorities in the former Yugoslav republic said in 2016 they’d foiled the plan to assassinate then-premier Milo Djukanovic, a staunchly pro-Western politician who’s held power almost continuously for nearly 30 years.

The court in the capital Podgorica delivered the verdicts Thursday against two leaders of a pro-Kremlin, anti-NATO opposition party, two Russians and a group of Serbian citizens to terms ranging from a one-year suspended sentence to 15 years in jail, state broadcaster RTCG reported, citing judge Suzana Mugosa.

“Every member of the criminal organization had a predetermined task and role,” RTCG cited Mugosa as saying. “There was readiness to use force and intimidation.”

Intercepted Calls

Authorities said they made arrests on the October election day after intercepting phone calls between the plotters. According to the ruling read by Mugosa, a sizable group of people from Russia, Serbia and Montenegro had prepared to overthrow the government, take over parliament, and kill Djukanovic. Authorities said they’d seized weapons and other materials.

The two leaders of the opposition Democratic Front, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, were sentenced to five years each. They denied wrongdoing, saying the government made the accusations to smear its opponents during the elections.

Also convicted was the retired head of Serbia’s gendarmerie, Bratislav Dikic. The court handed, in absentia, terms of 15 and 12 years in jail to Russians Eduard Sismakov and Vladimir Popov. Russia has denied any involvement. The sentences can be appealed.

If the coup had succeeded, it may have prevented the Balkan country of 600,000 from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Pro-Russian activists had demanded a referendum on the issue that never took place. Djukanovic won in 2018 presidential elections, returning to the top post after serving three terms as premier.

“The failed coup attempt against Montenegro in 2016 was one of the most outrageous examples of Russia’s attempts to undermine European democracy,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a statement. The GRU Russian intelligence service’s “brazen attempt to interfere with Montenegro’s national elections and undermine Montenegro’s application to join NATO is yet another example of destabilising and aggressive Russian behaviour over the last decade.”

Also on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned of security risks in Moscow, amid rising tensions with the U.S. over a potential new arms race. He spoke as his army showed off its military might, including nuclear missiles and tanks, in the annual Victory Day parade.

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