Montenegrin opposition leaders face arrest in coup plot probe

Montenegrin opposition leaders face arrest in coup plot probe
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia February 15, 2017

Montenegro’s parliament decided on February 15 to strip two leaders of the pro-Russian Democratic Front (DF) of their parliamentary immunity, and allow their arrest by special prosecutors. Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic are suspected of playing a key role in an alleged coup plot with the aim of seizing power in the country.

The DF was established with one main goal - to oust the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) from the power it has enjoyed since before Montenegro gained its independence. The DF has always used nationalist and extremist rhetoric, calling for protests and a forceful takeover of power from the DPS. The party has also been linked to Russia, whose relationship with Montenegro has deteriorated sharply since the tiny Balkan country was invited to join Nato. 

On February 13, the parliament’s administrative committee recommended that MPs strip Mandic and Knezevic of their immunity, and allow their arrest, as requested by chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic. However, in an attempt to ease the political tension, the prosecution said earlier on February 15 that they do not plan to take the two suspects into custody at present.

Local media previously reported that the special prosecution has gathered evidence and witness testimonies claiming that Mandic and Knezevic agreed to stage protests in front of the parliament building on the eve of the October 16 general election and to provoke clashes with the aim of entering the building and declaring victory in the election.

“We cannot allow this to remain un-investigated. Despite the inflammatory statements of the Democratic Front and other opposition members that we have heard in the past days we will not hesitate to find out all details on what has been planned for the election night,” Branimir Gvozdenovic of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) said during the short debate. He added that the “immature behaviour” of the DF members has confirmed his doubts.

“This [decision to lift the immunity] does not mean that we prejudge the court’s decision,” said Nedzad Dresevic of the Bosniak Party, which is a member of the ruling coalition.

Although the opposition did not participate in the debate and did not vote, DF MPs and supporters gathered in front of the parliament building, waiting for the decision. This provoked tensions and police were deployed to guard the building and prevent clashes.

DF leaders and MPs, who have boycotted parliament sessions since the October 16 general election, entered the parliament building shortly after voting had ended. A live broadcast by news outlet CDM showed that they started insulting MPs from the ruling coalition. According to broadcaster RTCG, Mandic and Knezevic said they will wait to be arrested in the parliament.

The DF and several other opposition parties claim the 2016 election was not fair or transparent. The lifting of immunity was not well accepted by any of the opposition parties, who claim that this move aims to weaken them and help the DPS to remain in power. 

For the moment opposition parties seem unwilling to call protests or cause unrest in the country. However, the DF has a history of provoking clashes. In autumn 2015, protests staged by the party turned violent and two of its leaders - Mandic and Slaven Radunovic - were arrested and accused of provoking the violence. In November the same year, the parliament agreed to strip the immunity of both leaders and of Knezevic, who was accused of attacking a policeman.

Following the October 16 general election, the DF initiated talks with other opposition parties and asked President Filip Vujanovic to give it a mandate to form the government even though the DPS gained more votes in the election. After Vujanovic refused, the DF said it would boycott the parliament until the new government, led by Dusko Markovic of the DPS, agreed to resign and to call early elections. reported earlier this week that Mandic and Knezevic are suspected of plotting a criminal coup. The plot was reportedly masterminded and financed by two Russians, Eduard Sirokov and Vladimir Popov. 

There were plans for the DF to enter the parliament, while other armed members of the criminal group were supposed to provoke clashes on the streets of Podgorica and prevent the police from getting into the parliament building to restore order.

Katnic said previously that two Russian nationalists planned the alleged coup attempt and the assassination of Montenegro’s then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.

On the night of October 15, Montenegrin police arrested 20 Serbian paramilitaries suspected of planning to disrupt the general election the next day.

Recently, prosecutors have been closing in on the DF leaders as they investigate the alleged plot. Earlier this year, the prosecution arrested Mandic’s driver Mihailo Cadenovic on suspicion that he had also been involved in the plot. The prosecutor previously summoned Mandic and fellow DF leaders Nebojsa Medojevic and Slaven Radunovic for questioning at the end of December.

Local media have also reported that the investigation had found a link between the Russians and a member of the DF, though the party has denied any involvement in the plot and claimed it was cooked up by the DPS to increase its share of the vote.

Following the committee’s decision on February 13, Mandic told reporters in Podgorica that the goal of this move was to threaten the DF, which is currently the largest opposition party in Montenegro. He also claimed that there was no coup plot at all and that the chief prosecutor is the one who should be arrested.