Serbia deports Russians suspected of plotting Montenegro coup
Plotters were allegedly going to storm Podgorica parliament, shoot Milo Ðjukanović and install a pro-Moscow party
Diplomatic sources told the Guardian the Belgrade government quietly deported the Russians after the intervention of the head of the Russian security council, Nikolai Patrushev, who flew to Belgrade on 26 October in an apparent effort to contain the scandal. The country’s interior minister, Nebojša Stefanović denied the government carried out any deportations connected to the plot.
A source close to the Belgrade government said Patrushev, a former FSB (federal security service) chief, apologised for what he characterised as a rogue operation that did not have the Kremlin’s sanction. In Moscow, a Security Council official told Tass that Patrushev “didn’t apologise to anyone, because there is nothing to apologise for”.
Reconstruction: The full incredible story behind Russia's deadly plot to stop Montenegro embracing the West
Even by the standards of Balkan intrigue, the conspiracy that Mirko Velimirovic revealed to Montenegrin police days before the country’s parliamentary elections seemed dangerous.
Soon after walking off the street and demanding to speak to the police chief, the former policeman began to outline a plot that, if true, risked sending Montenegro into chaos months before it was due to join Nato.
The 45-year-old told officials he had been hired to buy weapons and rent a hideout for a gang of Serbian nationalists who were to launch a bloody attack on the Parliament.
The resulting massacre by the gang, who boasted of powerful backing from abroad, could tip the country into bloody civil war and derail any hopes of the country entering the Western fold.
Days after Velimirovic’s revelation, and as the world sat enthralled by the US presidential election, the news that around 20 Serbian nationalists had been arrested, and an attempted coup in Montenegro foiled, attracted little attention elsewhere.
Yet senior Whitehall and Nato sources have now told The Telegraph that not only did the foiled plot appear to have been genuine, but it was directed by Russian intelligence officers with backing from Moscow.
The attempted coup would have killed the then pro-West Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, and replaced him with a pro-Russian government, after years of warnings from the Kremlin that Montenegro should not join Nato.
Montenegro's Nato courtship angers Russia
The tiny Balkan nation of Montenegro, with a population of only 600,000, has been determined in recent years to join the West and by this summer it is expected to become the 29th member of Nato. Membership of the European Union is expected to follow early next decade.
But the movement towards Nato has provoked anger in Moscow. The Kremlin sees itself hemmed in by an expansionist Nato and had hoped to secure access to the Adriatic port of Bar for itself.
Montenegro’s accession to the military alliance would be the final piece in a puzzle seeing Nato members stretching right across the northern Mediterranean, from Portugal to Syria. Russia’s leaders also see no reason why a Slavic country sharing its Orthodox religion should cosy up to the West rather than them.
The country’s largest opposition bloc, the Democratic Front, has campaigned vehemently against joining the military alliance, capitalising on Serb resentment at civilian casualties from Nato’s 1999 Kosovo campaign.
The Democratic Front is believed to have received millions of dollars in backing from Russia and last year ran a surprisingly slick and costly campaign during Montenegro’s parliamentary elections.
It was against this backdrop that Russia is alleged to have backed a plot led by two intelligence officers to recruit a band of Serbian nationalists and provoke the violent overthrow of the government.
In the three months since the coup was foiled, testimony from Velimirovic and another plotter-turned-prosecution witness, Aleksandar Sindjelic, have revealed the planning behind the conspiracy.
Montenegrin officials have also called on their Nato intelligence allies, including Britain and America, for high-tech assistance to help crack encrypted calls and emails between plotters.
Milivoje Katnic, the special prosecutor tasked with bringing the culprits to justice, has avoided alleging Russian state involvement, but senior Whitehall sources said they believe the plot was carried out with the knowledge and blessing of Moscow.
Predrag Bosković, defence minister, told The Telegraph: “There is not any doubt that it was financed and organised from different sources or different parts of Russian intelligence, together with some Montenegrin opposition parties, but also under the strong influence of some radicals from Serbia and Russia.”
Russian agents arrive in Serbia
Sources familiar with the investigation said the plot began months before the election, with the arrival in neighbouring Serbia of two Russians, Eduard Shirakov and Vladimir Popov.
The two men, who are now wanted by Interpol, were both officers with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, and arrived in the Balkans with access to large sums of money and sophisticated, encrypted mobile phones.
The man they allegedly appointed to do the groundwork for the plot was Sindjelic, a veteran anti-Western activist from Serbia.
The former convict had fought with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, had links to Serbian nationalist groups and had in the past boasted to associates of his ties with the Russian defence ministry.
Sindelic has reportedly testified he was drawn into the plot by "two nationalists from Russia" he had met while in eastern Ukraine.
Sindjelic in turn approached Velimirovic to organise the logistics. He gave him €30,000 (£25,600) to buy 50 rifles and three boxes of ammunition.
He was also told to rent a house in the capital, Podgorica, and liaise with a man codenamed Nikola, who turned out to be Bratislav Dikic, a former head of Serbia’s elite Gendarmerie police anti-terrorist police unit.
Sindjelic and Velimirovic later told the Montenegrin prosecutor that the plotting was conducted on three encrypted phones believed to have been delivered by Shirakov and Popov.
During his trial, where he received a suspended sentence for cooperating, Velimirovic said he had one of the special phones, which had two pre-programmed numbers on speed dial.
One was for Sindjelic and he was told not to use the other. When he did by accident, he claimed it was answered by a Russian.
Other members of the gang are alleged to have included Nemanja Ristic, another Serb nationalist and right wing agitator, who had fought in Ukraine. Ristic was allegedly involved in recruiting a team in Serbia to travel to Montengro for the coup.
As well as weapons, the plot involved finding Montenegrin police uniforms.
The plot to kill the Prime Minister
Days before election day, the Democratic Front had said it would hold a rally outside the Parliament building as the results were announced on the evening of October 16.
According to the special prosecutor, the conspirators would infiltrate the rally and as Democratic Front leaders took the stage, they would storm the Parliament to hold a sit in. But at the same time, other plotters dressed in the police uniforms would then open fire on the crowd. The bogus police would wear blue ribbons on their shoulders so they could be told apart.
The prosecutor said early inquiries found the gang wanted to seize the Prime Minister, Mr Djukanovic, but detectives later found “evidence that the plan was not only to deprive of liberty, but also to deprive of life the then Prime Minister”.
Assassin turns informant
With days to go, Velimirovic says he had second thoughts about being involved in such a bloody plan.
He told his trial he had two choices, to give the money back, or go to the authorities. Reckoning that if he gave the money back someone else would still do the job and he could end up dead anyway, he chose to approach the police and cut a deal.
He told the judge: “I should be given Montenegro’s highest honours, not standing a trial. I've saved your people... saved your country.”
With an informant in the plot, the Montenegrin police let it proceed until the eve of the election, then arrested more than 20 people in the country, while Serbian authorities held others over the border.
Adding to the suspicion the plot was coordinated in Russia, Nikolai Patrushev a former director of the Russian FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB, flew to Belgrade within days of the coup being foiled. Mr Patrushev, now secretary of Russia’s security council, reportedly made the visit to smooth over any scandal after the failed plot and Montenegrin authorities believe Shirakov and Popov flew back to Moscow with him.
In another incident which raised eyebrows in Podgorica, Ristic, who is wanted for extradition from Serbia for his role in the plot, was in December pictured standing next to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, during an official visit to Belgrade.
So is the Kremlin involved?
The trial of the plotters is now being seen as a test case for whether Montenegro’s justice system has improved since the notorious corruption and gangsterism of the 1990s.
The plotters face charges of criminal association, attempted terrorism and “preparing acts against the constitutional order and safety of Montenegro by way of enticement”.
But despite his Nato allies’ belief Moscow was behind the attempt, the special prosecutor has been clear not to implicate the Russian government.
His office told The Telegraph the organisers were “two Russian nationals, for who an international wanted notice has been issued by the Interpol”, but stressed it had “never mentioned” official involvement of Russia.
The Kremlin has said it categorically denies "a possibility of official involvement into arranging any illegal actions", while the Democratic Front says the “fake plot” was a ruse to discredit them and sway voters on polling day.
Andrija Mandic, leader of the party, risks being dragged into the trial himself after his driver was arrested on suspicion of having ferried one of the Russians around.
Mr Mandic told the Telegraph: “The biggest proof [that the coup was fake] is that the state prosecutor does not have any proof. The state prosecutor has only a few unfortunate people with whom he is making some deals so that they admit that they are members of some criminal group.”
He points out that the prosecutor has produced no weapons supposed to be used in the plot and says the whole plot was confected by Mr Djukanovic and “Nato security structures”.
Despite Mr Mandic’s protestations, Mr Bosković, the defence minister says he doubts the country has seen the end of Russian attempts to keep it from Nato.
He said: “For sure they will still try. They are trying almost every day. Almost on a daily basis some of the opposition politicians are in Moscow, or in Chechnya, or in other parts of Russia, trying to get financial support, trying to get some other support for making problems here.
"They would like to show Montenegro is incapable of being a stable country. I am pretty sure we are in the last phase of our accession so that will be one more defeat for Russia here.”
Montenegron parlamentti vahvisti liittymisen Natoon – Venäjä varoitti seurauksista Valtion erikoissyyttäjä pitää Venäjää vastuussa vallankaappausyrityksestä Nato-jäsenyyden estämiseksi viime lokakuun vaalien yhteydessä.
Venäjä moitti päätöstä. Enemmistö Montenegron noin 620 000 asukkaasta on eteläslaavilaisia ortodoksikristittyjä, ja maa on Venäjän ja Serbian perinteinen liittolainen.
”Moskova joutuu harkitsemaan tämän askeleen strategisia seurauksia. Niinpä pidätämme oikeuden päätöksiin, joiden tavoite on turvata intressimme ja kansallinen turvallisuutemme”, Venäjän ulkoministeriö ilmoitti AFP:n mukaan.