Russian interference expected ahead of Montenegro’s presidential election

Russian interference expected ahead of Montenegro’s presidential election
By bne IntelliNews March 2, 2023

There are fears that Russia will try to create unrest in Montenegro ahead of the country’s March 19 presidential election in which rival candidates — including rightwing pro-Russian Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic — are trying to unseat incumbent President Milo Djukanovic. 

Gabriel Escobar, US deputy assistant secretary overseeing policy towards the countries of the Western Balkans, warned earlier this week that Russia will try to intervene in Montenegro’s presidential election, provoking internal tensions and clashes in the period until the March 19 vote.

Escobar said that Russia would use traditional channels for disinformation.

Russia’s influence strengthens

Russian intervention in Montenegrin politics strengthened after the 2020 general election when large pro-Russian parties became part of the ruling coalition, Milan Jovanovic, analyst at the Montenegrin Digital Forensic Centre, said as quoted by Radio Free Europe on March 2.

Jovanovic said that Russia has been trying to interfere with Montenegrin politics since 2014 but that strengthened after the change of power.

"[The Russian intervention has become stronger] since the 2020 election and the change of power, and since the predominantly pro-Russian and pro-Serbian structures participate in the executive power, which gives freedom to domestic proxies to act," Jovanovic told Radio Free Europe.

The pro-Russian Democratic Front (DF) is leading the largest of three coalitions that joined forces after the 2020 general election to oust Djukanovic’s long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS).

Jovanovic said Escobar's assessment is not surprising and Russian interference ahead of the vote is highly likely.

Mandic is seen as one of two candidates with a chance of forcing Djukanovic to a second round, with the other being the deputy-leader of Europe Now, Jakov Milatovic.

Milan Knezevic, another Democratic Front leader, has called on all political parties to support whichever candidate reaches the second round in the presidential election so that Djukanovic loses the vote.

2016 coup plot

Moscow was accused of staging a coup plot that aimed to oust the DPS, which is pro-Western, from power after the October 2016 general election and install the DF instead. Two Russians who were accused of organising the plot, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, who are believed to be members of the Russian security services, GRU, were given the heaviest sentences of 15 and 12 years in prison in absentia. Mandic and Knezevic got five years in prison each. Subsequently, the verdicts were cancelled by the appeal court.

Back in 2016, Djukanovic accused Moscow of trying to create unrest in Montenegro to prevent the country from joining Nato. 

Meanwhile, Montenegro, which has joined all EU sanctions against Russia, is on Moscow’s list of unfriendly states.

At the end of September 2022, Montenegrin specialised police raided numerous locations and the National Security Agency (ANB) arrested several Montenegrins under warrants issued by the special prosecutor. One of those arrested, reportedly a civil servant, is believed to have been working for Russian intelligence services for at least 10 years and was heading a group of spies.

30 Russian nationals with temporary residence permits and six Russian diplomats were detained. The other two arrested were Montenegrins.

At the time, six Russian diplomats were expelled. In response, Moscow banned Montenegrin politicians from entering Russia.