Last October, Montenegro’s prime minister announced that an attempted coup had been foiled, but was this ‘fake news’?
Last October, the prime minister of Montenegro announced that an election day plot to overthrow his government had been foiled. Pro-Russia conspirators opposed to his aim of joining NATO were alleged to be responsible and had planned to assassinate the country’s leaders.
But was this a genuine coup attempt – a sinister effort to topple a democratically elected administration and take over the country by force? Or was it, as some claim, a carefully choreographed “fake news” event, designed to win sympathy for a controversial and allegedly corrupt politician on the verge of losing public support.
We sent filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka to investigate.
By Glenn Ellis and Katerina Barushka
Outside of the Balkans few people know where to find Montenegro on a map of Europe; fewer still have heard of Milo Djukanovic, the ex-communist turned pro-Western strongman who has ruled – in various guises – this pocket-sized republic for almost 30 years. But following an alleged election-day coup attempt last October by the pro-Russian opposition, supposedly intended to stymie Montenegro’s efforts to join NATO, this tiny country has moved to centre stage in the new cold war.
Rumours of arrests were rife when we arrived in the capital, Podgorica, so we seized the chance to interview Adreja Mandic, leader of the Democratic Front (DF), an alliance of opposition parties.
The DF claim that Djukanovic has for years plundered state assets for personal enrichment and that Montenegro has endured decades of state-sponsored human rights violations including the murder of government critics. Allegations of the opposition’s involvement in an armed plot to overthrow the ruling elite should thus be seen in the same light.
“Our political opponents will do anything to protect what they have stolen,” Mandic says. “This election was the most fraudulent we’ve ever had. First there was the traditional method of buying votes, bringing in foreigners to vote, but now we have a new method of fraud – namely, carrying out a fake coup.”
Twenty Montenegrins and Serbians had been arrested in connection with the coup – some of whom were said to have Russian ties.
The plot was quickly condemned by Montenegro’s putative allies in the West and equally quickly ridiculed as fake news in Russia. But the authorities weren’t yet offering much else in the way of convincing evidence.
Indeed the key prosecution witness, Mirko Velimirovic, an alleged coup-plotter, had already given wildly conflicting accounts regarding the weapon which was supposed to be used to assassinate Prime Minister Djukanovic.
To try to shed some light on the affair we had arranged to meet Vanja Calovic, celebrated anti-corruption advocate and a keen observer of the Montenegrin political scene.
Calovic also had her doubts about the alleged conspiracy and explained that it all had to be seen in context.
“Djukanovic portrays NATO and Russia as the major issue; and he’s succeeding because looking at Montenegro from London or Washington, of course you’re going to say this is more important than what’s actually happening in the country: the corruption and human rights violations. Montenegro is a haven for criminals and provides them with different kinds of support like money laundering. This is what Djukanovic is trying to hide from the West by putting NATO as the major issue.”
Djukanovic was once famously indicted by the Italian anti-Mafia unit and has been dogged by accusations of election rigging. Calovic believes, for example, that as much as 15 percent of votes cast in last October’s election were suspicious. “We are finding people without citizenship and even dead people being able to vote.”
We’d hoped to question Djukanovic about these issues, but as he has done before (only to return subsequently), he’d stepped down from office days after winning the election and installed former secret police chief Dusko Markovic as the new PM. When Prime Minister Markovic also pulled out of an interview we were offered Srdjan Darmanovic, Montenegro’s politically unaligned foreign minister. He insisted that Djukanovic was no longer running the country, contrary to what many people believe. “His party controls most of the positions in government. He’s the head of the party. He has serious influence. That’s normal. But executive power is in other hands.”
Regarding the election, the foreign minister was sanguine, “Turnout was 73 percent. Elections were competitive, free and fair, as confirmed in the OSCE audit report.” And as for the alleged coup, “It was not a video game. It was not just anybody’s invention. It was a serious business.”
When we handed him some police documents showing telephone intercepts of conversations between two of the alleged coup-plotters in which inexplicably both caller and receiver were using the same telephone number at the same time, he seemed unfazed: “I’m not an expert of that. I heard it was adjusted like that.”
It was time to leave Podgorica and head north to where we’d heard that people had been offered bribes to vote for Djukanovic’s party. A three-hour drive though snow-capped mountains brought us to Cokrlije, a remote hamlet where we met a farmer, Vukomir Rakocevic, who told us that he’d been promised a cow for his children if his family voted for Djukanovic. He said that although they kept their side of the bargain the family was still waiting for the animal. “My children so far live without this cow. They lied to us.” It was just one of many such stories we would hear.
The next day, another trip to the mountains took us to the town of Murino, where we hoped to get some insight into the deep anti-NATO feeling amid some Montenegrin communities. The most powerful explanation we heard came from a grieving middle-aged woman, Moma Knezevic. During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, NATO conducted a bombing campaign against Serbia, of which Montenegro was then a part. Moma lost her son, Miroslav, when a bridge in Murino, of no strategic importance, was targeted. Three adults and two girls also died.
“When the grandmother of these girls went to look for them, she found my Miroslav’s leg,” Moma told us, fighting back tears. “And the head of one of the girls.” No official apology or financial compensation has ever been offered to Moma.
We’d also heard of others who continue to pay a price for the NATO attacks. We headed briefly into neighbouring Serbia to meet Dr Danica Grujicic, a neurosurgeon at the Clinical Centre in the capital, Belgrade. She told us that the alliance’s bombs – many of which were coated with depleted uranium – had caused a massive increase in systemic cancers in Serbia and Montenegro, from where many of her patients come. “It’s higher incidents of all kinds of cancers, but the lungs and bowel cancers, they’re most prominent now, because we have an epidemic of lung cancers.” She added frostily: “I think that NATO is a criminal organisation and I believe that a lot of people in Montenegro believe so too.”
Back in Podgirica the mood was tense. Parliament had just voted to strip opposition leader Andreja Mandic of immunity from prosecution, citing alleged involvement in the coup. But when Mandic arrived at the building to await his arrest, he was joined by a large crowd of supporters.
To defuse a potentially explosive situation, prosecutors then announced that Mandic would not face immediate custody – but no one seemed under any illusions that the man leading the campaign to stop Montenegro joining NATO would soon be behind bars.
No referendum on NATO membership has been allowed by the government, despite the issue being so divisive that there have been widespread protests and repeated calls by the opposition for it to be settled by a direct vote.
Perhaps it’s because, as Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic made plain, the matter has now in any case been dealt with by the election and single issue plebiscites are “politically tricky”.
So, come what may, it seems inevitable that Montenegro will join the alliance – much to Moscow’s chagrin. Whether the result of last October’s election would have gone differently and delivered another answer to the NATO question had there not been an alarming polling-day announcement of a coup attempt, can only be a matter of speculation. But when the authorities eventually get around to fleshing out the evidence against the alleged coup plotters, it will do little to diminish the scepticism of those who believe it was all just a little too convenient.