Montenegrin government rides coup plot storm

Montenegrin government rides coup plot storm
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia March 7, 2017

Montenegro’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) is using its political savvy, honed over more than two decades in power, to see off new challenges from a restive opposition and clean up after an apparent Russian-backed coup attempt.

Since the October 16 general elections, the opposition parties, frustrated by their inability to unseat the DPS, have boycotted the parliament. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic is currently trying to calm the situation in the country by inviting opposition parties to share power. The move is intended to restore stability and reduce political tensions that have been brewing since the election.

Markovic’s predecessor Milo Djukanovic employed a similar tactic in the run-up to the October general election, allowing three opposition parties to enter the government and take five ministerial seats.

Whether a new deal can be signed will depend on what the opposition parties decide they want in the coming weeks. They have already initiated a series of meetings to discuss joint demands to be presented to the ruling party.

The latest DPS initiative follows a series of attempts by Markovic to end the constant increase in political tensions in the Adriatic country, which currently remains anything but calm. Analysts say the party has been playing a clever game since the events of last October. While it is reaching out to the opposition, its prosecutors are investigating the largest opposition party over the alleged coup plot.

In February, two opposition leaders were stripped of their parliamentary immunity at the request of the special prosecution. Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic – two of the leaders of the pro-Russian Democratic Front (DF) – were suspected of playing a key role in the alleged coup plot with the aim of seizing power in the country and assassinating the former prime minister Djukanovic.

Police initially arrested 20 Serbian paramilitaries suspected of planning to disrupt the general election on October 16. More recently, the investigation has closed in on both the DF leaders and several Russian nationals. However, prosecutors stopped short of ordering the arrest of Mandic and Knezevic even after their immunity was lifted.

“The decision of the chief prosecutor not to arrest the DF leaders (after their immunity was lifted by parliament) lowered the political tension, but the political situation in the country can hardly be characterised as normal considering the severity of the accusations and the fact that the DF is boycotting the work of the parliament,” political analyst Ivan Vukovic told bne IntelliNews.

DPS treads carefully 

Other analysts believe that if the accusations against Mandic and Knezevic are proven in court, this will not provoke political instability, despite the threats from the DF that the arrest of their leaders could lead to civil war.

“The authorities are dealing with the political crisis quite well – the decision not to place the two DF leaders under arrest was wise and probably defused the situation. If the DF leaders are sentenced to jail, most Montenegrins will accept it if evidence is presented openly. The civil war threat was part of DF’s rhetoric, aiming to increase their importance,” Michael Taylor, senior analyst for Eastern Europe at Oxford Analytica, told bne IntelliNews.

He added that violent provocations or further coup attempts are unlikely as the government seems to have detected and arrested the most dangerous potential plotters. 

By stopping short of locking up two prominent opposition leaders, the authorities have cleverly managed to avoid accusations of a clampdown on their opponents that could have fuelled further unrest.

Cvete Koneska, analyst at Control Risks Group, commented that the alleged coup plot has slightly destabilised the government, but will not have serious consequences for democracy in Montenegro. “I don’t think that we are seeing a serious threat to democracy, at least not democracy in the form it has been in Montenegro, which is deficient in its own way – with one party being in government for more than 20 years,” she told bne IntelliNews.

Moreover, Koneska says that the government in Podgorica still seems popular among citizens, and therefore will not need to respond to the political crisis and potential unrest among DF’s supporters by limiting democracy. “The government’s response is more likely to be to get closer to the West and become better integrated with Nato and, if possible, with the EU, which would mean the opposite – investing more in strengthening democracy, at least until they join the EU, rather than authoritarianism,” she added.

In fact it is the DF that could lose some of its supporters due to its nationalistic and provocative rhetoric, especially if the accusations against its leaders are proven in court. The party strongly objects to the government’s plan to join Nato and had asked for a referendum on this. In February, it pledged to hold a ‘civil referendum’ on Nato membership, although a legitimate referendum cannot be organised without the parliament’s approval.

According to a recent Gallup poll, most Montenegrins do not care much about the country’s prospective membership of the Nato alliance with 29% seeing it as a threat and 21% seeing it as protection.

“The Gallup poll shows clearly that Montenegro is not as violently anti-Nato as Serbia (where 64% see it as a threat and 6% see it as protection) and I think DF have exaggerated the anti-Western sentiment,” Taylor said, adding that the party doesn’t seem to have so many supporters anyway and is not likely to provoke serious instability.

“There was not a big crowd of DF supporters outside parliament the day they [Mandic and Knezevic] were stripped of their immunity,” he added.

Coup plot accusations

According to the prosecution, the two DF leaders were members of the organisation that planned the coup along with two Russians – Eduard Sirokov and Vladimir Popov. Moreover, the chief special prosecutor Milivoje Katnic has said that Sirokov is a member of the Russian security services, which suggests that Moscow was involved in the plot. Such a connection has been confirmed by British security officials. A Bulgarian security expert has claimed that Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was involved in the coup plot.

However, if this is the case, the coup also seems to have backfired against Russia. Despite the increase in tensions since the election, it did not result in a serious destabilisation of the country or a backlash against Nato accession. While Djukanovic, the primary intended victim of the coup plot, stepped down as prime minister following the election, there is speculation he will make a comeback as president in the 2018 election.

On the other hand, the exposure of suspected Russian links to the coup plot by officials in both Montenegro and the UK has revealed that Moscow appears to be ready to intervene violently in European countries in addition to using other weapons such as propaganda and cyber warfare. This will give additional weight to those who argue Russia is a growing threat to European democracy.

“It is… interesting how the UK seems to be leading the information campaign over this Montenegrin coup. Likely, coming around this Munich security conference, and the visit by various Trump team members to Europe, it is meant to further impress on them the real and present danger to European and Western security and democracy coming from the East,” Tim Ash from Nomura Securities wrote in a February 19 analyst note.

Russia has many times denied these accusations, but Montenegro’s prosecution claims it has proof and will issue arrest warrants for Sirokov and Popov by mid-April, when the investigation should be completed.

Russia’s relations with the current Montenegrin government are already broken. Not only has Podgorica defied Moscow by seizing its chance to join Nato, the biggest Russian investment in Montenegro also ended disastrously. Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska is fighting Montenegro through the international courts after claiming his investment in the Podgorica Aluminium Smelter (KAP) was expropriated.

"Having rich people come along and buy up property is not a great way of making friends and the Deripaska/KAP experience was unfortunate: an aluminium smelter that once provided a big slice of GDP and local employment is no longer working, and that must have damaged Russia’s standing in Montenegro,” Taylor says.

Not only that, but the repercussions from the alleged coup plot go beyond Montenegro - to Serbia, whose security forces reportedly helped foil the plot, and to other Balkan countries whose leaders may become increasingly wary of involvement with Russia in light of the Montenegrin experience.