Balkan Gambit: Part 2. The Montenegro Zugzwang

Montenegro, July 2016

On July 14 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted what appeared to be a series of messages threatening the tiny republic of Montenegro:

These vague threats came from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova as reaction to Montenegro’s prime minister statement that “people from the lowest classes in the Balkans falling prey to Russian propaganda.” This remark, in turn, was precipitated by increasingly hostile Russian rhetoric in the months following Montenegro’s decision to orient itself westward, and to accept NATO’s invitation to join the alliance – a political decision that was controversial from a popular perspective (between 40% and half of the population is estimated to be opposed to membership in the military alliance).

On December 2, 2015, Kremlin spokesman Peskov threatened that Russia would take “retaliatory measures” in case Montenegro accedes to NATO, and Russian parliament threatened to freeze all cooperation projects with the small Balkan country. Ignoring these Russian warnings, Djukanovic signed an accession protocol with NATO in May 2016, permanently depriving Russia of its only potential ally with naval access to the Mediterranean.

Despite all the warning signals, when on October 16th 2016 – the day of general elections in Montenegro – Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic announced that a day earlier, the republic’s special services had arrested twenty Serbian citizens who had been planning a paramilitary plot to throw the mountainous republic into chaos – and potentially have him assassinated. Global reaction was skeptical. The alleged plot, described over the next several days by prosecutors, ministers, and local media, in at-times contradictory renditions, sounded too cartoonish to be reported on seriously. The authorities alleged that two dozen Serb and Montenegrin conspirators, acting under foreign guidance, conspired to purchase arms, infiltrate parliament on election day dressed as policemen, initiate a false-flag police attack on crowds of protestors gathering outside the building, arrest – or possibly even assassinate the Prime Minister, and install a government led by the Democratic Front – the staunchly anti-NATO, pro-Russia opposition alliance. The story barely registered in the global news flow.

It was not until Serbia – initially just as skeptical of Montenegro government’s claims – on October 24th arrested two Russian citizens who – Serbian police said – were in possession of counterfeit Montenegro special-police uniforms, €122,000 in cache, and sophisticated encrypted telecoms equipment – that global media started paying attention to this story. On October 26th 2016, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev travelled to Belgrade on a previously scheduled visit. In early November, the Guardian quoted an undisclosed source close to the Serbian government as saying that Patrushev had apologized to the Serbian government for what he described as “unsanctioned rogue operations”, an assertion that Russia later publicly denied and called a provocation.

Read full text of Balkan Gambit: Part 2. The Montenegro Zugzwang here