Russian nationalist militiamen plotted to overthrow the Montenegrin government and assassinate Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic to stop the Balkan country joining the NATO military alliance, a top prosecutor said on Sunday.
Montenegro, the last state to break off from Serbia, which constituted the heartland of what was once the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, has been pivoting towards the West since voting for independence in 2006.
Last year, the country received an invitation to join NATO as the North Atlantic bloc continues to expand into territory that was previously under the Soviet sphere of influence.
Chief Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, who is leading the investigation into an alleged coup plot during last month’s parliamentary election, told reporters that evidence points to "nationalists from Russia" as being behind the bid.
"We don't have any evidence that the state of Russia is involved in any sense ... but we have evidence that two nationalists from Russia were organisers," Katnic said.
Fourteen out of 20 Serbian and Montenegrin citizens arrested in the country during parliamentary elections on Oct. 16 remain in custody as the investigation continues. Some of those being held have reportedly fought for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
But the whereabouts of hundreds of other Russian nationalists who were planning to infiltrate the country from neighbouring Serbia and cause chaos are unknown.
"Special prosecution of Serbia had those persons under its supervision ... and prevented them from realising their plan," said Katnic, who is working in cooperation with Serbian authorities on the case.
"Those persons are not on the territory of Serbia any more. I don't know where they are now, in Russia or somewhere else," Katnic added.
Katnic said around 500 people were on standby to carry out the plot, which included hiring professional sharpshooters to kill Prime Minister Djukanovic, who days later stepped down despite his party winning the election.
The allegations come amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West, with some suggesting that differences over Syria and Ukraine are leading to a second Cold War.
New Cold War
Yugoslavia, which served the purpose of a pro-Soviet satellite state during the Cold War, provided the Communist Eastern Bloc with strategic access to the Adriatic Sea.
After its gradual dissolution which started in 1992, the states born out Yugoslavia’s collapse set out on a process of integration with the West. Although landlocked Serbia is still considered a Russian ally, it too has been a candidate nation for European Union membership since 2014.
Russia has been the subject of EU sanctions since Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine after pro-EU demonstrations forced the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee Kiev. The EU has also accused Russia of supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine against the new Kiev government.
Fearing the war in Ukraine’s east could trigger similar clashes across eastern Europe, NATO has been building up its presence in the Baltic region. Russia has called these moves “confrontational” and “aggressive.”
As tensions continue to escalate, society in the deeply divided Balkans region is becoming increasingly polarised. Earlier this year, long-lasting protests in Macedonia brought the country to a standstill, with Russia blaming foreign interference and accusing the Macedonian opposition of becoming “an instrument for escalating conflict.”
Russia has denied involvement in the alleged coup bid in Montenegro, but at the same time has made no secret of its support for what it calls "patriotic" parties that stand opposed to the country’s NATO membership.
Montenegro is expected to join NATO next spring after all 28 member states ratify the agreement in their respective parliaments, NATO's Deputy Secretary-General Rose Gottemoeller said in a visit to the country last week.