Was the Montenegro coup “fake news”?

Last October, on Election Day, Montenegro’s authorities claimed to have thwarted a coup and a terrorist act against Montenegrin independence and its “lifelong” leader Milo Djukanovic. Western media reported that Russia was behind the whole thing. History may help to understand more about this strange “coup”, so let’s take a look at the last 27 years of Montenegro’s history and its “monarch” Milo Djukanovic.

He has been in power for 27 years and was listed the 20th richest world leader by the British newspaper The Independent, in spite of being the leader of a country that has the total population of a medium-sized town. His pragmatism is best shown by his political evolution. He started as a young Communist, he then played the Serbian nationalist card and had close ties with the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, supporting Montenegro staying in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a dual federation between Montenegro and Serbia. However he ended up turning his back to the Milosevic regime and started to take the country to the path to full independence, which was accomplished with a referendum in 2006. Switching political alliancies and an authoritarian style of government are common features of many Eastern European strongmen after the fall of the Iron Curtain, especially in the Balkans, but none of the them survived so many changes and for so long.

At one point, it looked like Djukanovic had retired from politics, but after a criminal court from Italian port city of Bari accused him of being involved in the lucrative business cigarette smuggling in the 1990s, he returned to the position of Prime Minister. Charges were later dropped. He switched between the roles of Prime Minister and President numerous times. After the election in 2016, his party won, once more, but he did not take any government role; there is speculation that he will run again for the Presidency in 2017. In Montenegro, however, power seems to be attached to the man, not a political position, as it can be argued it has been the case with Vladimir Putin in Russia.

The alleged coup happened on election day last October. These election were important because for first time the opposition had some real change of coming out victorious, even though the practices of fixing elections through buying votes or political pressure are widespread in the country. This year, for reasons which remain unclear, the popular apps Viber and Whatsapp were downed on Election Day. There had been numerous protests against Djukanovic’s rule and his party Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) throughout the whole of 2016. The opposition was against Montenegro’s joining NATO, after the application to the join the Atlantic Alliance was finally accepted in May. Montenegro too suffered from the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, so there are still fresh wounds: the country’s Parliament ratified the agreement to join the pact last summer nonetheless.
Montenegro’s official authorities claim to have prevented a violent coup aimed at Prime Minister Djukanovic, in order to forcibly remove him from power, even kill him, orchestrated by Russian and Serbian nationalists. Charges were made, followed by some arrests. Western media seemed to allege that coup was backed by some very powerful elements in the Russian government, although the Montenegro’s authorities in charge of the investigation refused to point the finger directly at Russia.

Montenegro and Russia have had close relationship for centuries, but now this special relationship seemed to be endangered by Djukanovic, whose government joined the EU and the United States in imposing sanctions on Russia and its decision to join NATO. Arguably the sanctions affected more the Montenegrin economy then the could harm the Russian finances. Russian tycoons are said to command a large share of the luxurious properties in the coastal region of Montenegro.

A few days after the plot was thwarted, the leader of the coup, Aleksandar Sindjelic, accepted to cooperate with the investigation. He listed numerous names of those involved in its organized, and other charges were made following his testimony. Footage from the arrest shows Mr. Sindjelic being escorted by the police, but strangely without handcuffs. Mr. Sindjelic spend three weeks in a special detention facility but has meanwhile been released as a “protected witness”. Another man, Mirko Velimirović, who also stood accused of terrorism as one of the leaders of the coup, was released on parole, after reaching an agreement with the local Special Prosecution Office. It seems unusual, to say the least, for two men who have been accused of plotting terrorist acts against the highest levels of the government to find themselves out of prison only a few weeks later. Whether or not this “coup” was in reality a piece of theater staged by the Montenegrin intelligence services for the all too credulous European and American audiences, the result remains the same: Milo Djukanovic’s grip on power in Montenegro is as firm as ever.

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