The Serbian Orthodox church has requested the release of three Serbian citizens accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the Montenegrin government in return for guarantees that they will not be allowed to leave the country and will be available to attend court summonses. The highly unusual request, which was condemned by the Liberal Party, which forms part of Montenegro’s governing coalition as “scandalous” is just the latest headline to emerge from a court case that has divided the nation and spun a web of intrigue throughout the region.
The three Serbians are among 14 people, including two Montenegrin opposition politicians, who were arrested after an alleged coup attempt was foiled by security services in October 2016, on the day of Montenegro’s parliamentary elections.
Two Russian military intelligence officers accused of being part of the plot are being tried in absentia.
According to prosecutors, the conspirators had planned to recruit a small group of Serbian nationalists, who were to disguise themselves as Montenegrin police and assassinate then Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and open fire on crowds at the national parliament. The apparent aim of the coup attempt was to put an end to Montenegro’s NATO accession talks by toppling the pro-Western government and replacing it with the pro-Russian opposition. However, just hours before the plan was due to be carried out, Montenegrin police, operating from a tip-off by one of the alleged plotters, arrested the suspects.
Milivoje Katnic, the Montenegrin Chief special prosecutor, pointed the finger of blame at Vladimir Putin, who is vehemently opposed to Montenegro joining NATO and previously said that Russia would take “retaliatory action” if it did so. During the trial, which began in July, photos were presented which appear to show the two Russian defendants being tried in absentia, Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, meeting with Aleksandar Sindjelic, the leader of the “Serbian Wolves”, a paramilitary group which claims to have ties to the Russian secret service. Sindjelic reportedly confessed to his role in the plan and said that he was given 200,000 euros by the Russian agents to finance the operation. The Kremlin has strenuously denied any connection to the alleged putsch, describing the accusations as absurd. The Montenegrin opposition argue that the alleged coup attempt is just the latest maneuver by the government to discredit them. One of the accused lawmakers, Andrija Mandic, called the charges “a staged political process” designed to scare the electorate into voting to keep the government in power. Djukanovic has served as either Prime Minister or President of Montenegro since 1991 and has long been accused of corruption and connections to organised crime, belying his democratic facade.
In the final tally, a pro-Western coalition did carry the day and Montenegro became NATO’s 29th member in June.
The High Court of Montenegro has not yet announced its decision regarding the request by the church for the Serbian defendants to be released. If they were to be let go, it is expected that the church would accommodate them in one of its monasteries in Montenegro for the duration of the trial.