On October 31st, Montenegrin lawmakers formally approved a coalition government comprised of pro-European, pro-Russian and pro-Serbian parties. Immediately, Prime Minister Milojko Spajic declared his intention to ramp up Podgorica’s effort to join the European Union.
The coalition hinges on support from a party alliance called For A Better Montenegro. The bloc’s leader, Andrija Mandic, agreed to support Spajic’s government in return for the position of parliament speaker. Manfic’s alliance is overtly anti-Western in character, composed of parties that oppose international recognition of the breakaway Serbian province Kosovo as well as sanctions against Russia. They similarly oppose membership of the EU and NATO.
Nonetheless, Mandic has indicated that he and For A Better Montenegro are ready to “send some new messages” on these contentious issues, suggesting the bloc will dutifully line up behind Washington and London when asked despite the catastrophic legacy Western domination of Montenegro has wrought upon local politics.
The circumstances surrounding Montenegro’s 2017 induction into NATO brought tensions between its citizens and the West to the surface. As a result of NATO’s 1999 assault on Yugoslavia, much of the country’s population, and particularly its sizable Serb minority, harbored significant hostility towards the military alliance, which rained down banned cluster bombs during the illegal 78-day-long war. Despite this, the country’s leadership eagerly offered up the small Balkan nation of just 620,000 citizens to the NATO altar.
NATO’s interest in Montenegro is primarily driven by Podgorica’s outsized geopolitical significance. Its entry meant the alliance secured effective control of the entire Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, and all the region’s ports. Similarly, it deprived Russia, one of Podgorica’s largest foreign investors, of a longtime alliance built upon centuries of historic, cultural, and religious ties. Moscow has at points sought to leverage this relationship to access the country’s ports for refueling and maintenance of its navy, provoking NATO’s ire.
Enrolling Podgorica in NATO was thus of paramount importance to Western powers. To achieve that locally-despised end, it was necessary for public opposition to membership to be undemocratically crushed, and for Russia to be demonized in domestic media. An apparent attempt to overthrow the Montenegrin government in October 2016, allegedly orchestrated by the Kremlin, serendipitously went some way to achieving both aims. The event also fed into longstanding NATO narratives about the vital need for a hostile, belligerent stance towards Moscow.
However, as this investigation will reveal, the “coup” appears to have been a ruse concocted by British and U.S. intelligence in order to foment anti-Russia hysteria among the Montenegrin population. The findings illustrate the sinister methods NATO and its member state spying agencies readily employ to maintain global hegemony.
They also make a mockery of NATO’s oft-repeated claim that member states are free to choose their own security arrangements—while demonstrating that NATO’s continued existence is fundamentally dependent upon making the world a more dangerous place.
Central to NATO’s annexation of Podgorica was its longtime leader, Milo Djukanovic. Having risen to the office of Prime Minister in 1991 as an ally of socialist Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, by 1996 he was covertly coordinating his political agenda with British intelligence. The next year, his reelection campaign posters proudly displayed his chummy handshake with U.S. President Bill Clinton. The subsequent vote—like every other he won—was marred by allegations of rigging and foreign meddling, as well as brutal crackdowns on protests after the polls closed.
Over three decades in power, Djukanovic ran Montenegro as his personal fiefdom, vastly enriching himself and his family along the way via the privatization of state industry and black market alcohol and cigarette trafficking. He complemented his looting spree with a de facto seizure of Montenegro’s legal system and media, while openly relying on support from local mafia and drug barons. Despite an official monthly salary of just $1,700, estimates place his wealth in the tens of millions of dollars.
Journalists and civil society actors critical of Djukanovic or members of his ruling clique were targeted with intimidation, street beatings, assassination attempts, car bombs, and attacks on their homes and offices. Witch hunts, bogus prosecutions and arbitrary detention of the regime’s political and commercial adversaries were commonplace. Yet Western officials turned a blind eye to this reign of terror, while major news outlets and press freedom organizations were also markedly indifferent.
As a 2015 American Interest op-ed put it, the West considered Montenegro “most manageable” under the cosh of Djukanovic’s gangsterism. Following Podgorcia’s formal independence in 2006, he set his nation on the path to NATO membership. In 2007, he signed an agreement permitting the free transit of NATO troops and vehicles on Montenegrin soil. The following month, he began destroying Montenegro’s Yugoslav-era weapons stockpiles and military equipment to make way for the arrival of exorbitantly priced British and American-made replacements—all financed by U.S. taxpayers.
Yet despite NATO and Djukanovic’s government unleashing a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to promote the benefits of membership, public attitudes toward the alliance remained stubbornly unchanged. And when Montenegro was formally invited to join NATO in December 2015, it triggered a protracted political crisis that nearly toppled him from power.
Thousands hit the streets in opposition to NATO membership on a regular basis, and his coalition partners eventually jumped ship, depriving him of a parliamentary majority. When the government was caught publicizing falsified polling data suggesting citizens actually favored joining NATO, even typically pliant local media and members of Djukanovic’s administration began to turn on him.
With his ruling party’s approval ratings in freefall and Montenegro’s October 2016 parliamentary vote fast approaching, the prospect of the opposition at last dislodging Djukanovic seemed increasingly possible. Yet on election day itself, something strange happened.
Mayhem erupted throughout the day as sirens endlessly rang out in the capital; popular messaging apps and the internet went dead, and the website of leading opposition outlet, Vijesti, was rendered inaccessible even outside the country. By the time polls closed, a group of 20 Serbs and Montenegrins had been arrested. Despite no official statement on the chaos, a sense of dire national emergency prevailed. And Djukanovic was declared winner yet again.
Dubious narrative concocted
Following Djukanovic’s 2016 victory, Montenegrin officials sketched a disturbing and frequently contradictory account of the day’s events. They claimed “a powerful organization” of roughly 500 armed Russians, Serbs, and Montenegrins had planned to storm parliament, open fire on lawmakers, and assassinate Djukanovic before seizing power. Nonetheless, authorities initially alleged while “Russian nationalists” had organized the failed coup, there was no evidence the Kremlin was directly involved in the plot.
That all changed in February 2017, when anonymous “senior” British government sources informed the reliably stenographic Daily Telegraph that the botched putsch “was directed by Russian intelligence officers with the support and blessing of Moscow.” Two reports mapped out the plot in detail, framing it as just the latest addition to a pattern of Kremlin-backed assassinations and acts of destabilization across Europe dating back over a decade.
Moscow flatly denied the charges. Meanwhile, Montenegro’s entire opposition declared the events of October 2016 to be a false flag engineered by Djukanovic and his allies in order to cling to power. Demanding an election re-run, the opposition moved to boycott parliament altogether. This meant when Montenegrin lawmakers voted on NATO membership in April 2017, it passed unopposed while angry crowds burned alliance flags outside.
That same month, Montenegrin prosecutors filed an indictment against 14 supposed coup conspirators that was heavily dependent on evidence supplied by Sasa Sindjelic, a mentally ill fantasist and career criminal initially believed to be a prime suspect in the plot. Though he became a protected witness once he started telling investigators what they wanted to hear, he was promptly deported to Croatia following the trial’s October 2019 conclusion to serve a 21-year sentence for murder.
Among those indicted were two Montenegrin opposition politicians, For A Better Montenegro chief Andjira Mandic, and a retired elite Serbian police force commander, as well as a pair of alleged Russian spies to be tried in absentia. A 62-year-old woman, young waiter, local fisherman, and other unlikely insurrectionists also filled the prosecutors’ docket. Meanwhile, Sindjelic’s account of who was involved and what they planned evolved wildly, growing ever-more unhinged over time.
Even Montenegrin authorities struggled to keep their story straight. The lead prosecutor spent much of 2017 claiming to possess evidence that Russian intelligence agencies were directly implicated in the coup, even alleging that elite GRU commandos were stationed on a mountain resort in neighboring Serbia on election day, prepared to overrun Montenegro. Yet by November of that year, he bizarrely denied ever having accused Russian state actors of involvement in the plot.
By contrast, Western officials never expressed any doubts about the Kremlin’s guilt. During a fiery speech to the U.S. Senate that June, the late war hawk John McCain boldly declared that “every American should be disturbed” by Russia’s “heinous plot” in Montenegro, branding it “an indication of how far Vladimir Putin is willing to go to advance his dark and dangerous view of the world.” He repeatedly cited the dubious indictment as proof.
In the manner of The Daily Telegraph’s reports earlier that year, McCain linked the incident to a variety of alleged Muscovite meddling operations overseas, including now utterly discredited claims of Russian cyberattacks targeting France, and intervention in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. He ominously warned similar subversion would inevitably take shape elsewhere. Two months later, Vice President Mike Pence echoed McCain’s paranoid remarks during an address in Podgorica.
Information operation convicts before verdicts
The coup trial was a Western media circus from start to finish. Over its two-and-a-half year span, transcripts of incriminating discussions between the indicted individuals were leaked by authorities at regular intervals. Such prejudicial actions, and other flagrant prosecutorial bias, elicited such “shock” in defense lawyers that the trial was repeatedly adjourned.
Despite prosecutors begrudgingly admitting the leaked transcripts may have been “inaccurate”–or at least, “half-accurate”–foreign-funded media assets in Montenegro and the wider region eagerly seized on their contents. The website Balkan Insight—a product of the U.S. government sponsored National Endowment for Democracy—was particularly gripped by the trial, producing dispatches that English language outlets the world over recycled. Such media coordination ensured that long before any verdicts had been reached, the defendants and by extension, the Russian government, had been comprehensively convicted in the court of Western public opinion.
Enter Bellingcat, the NATO member state-funded “open source” collective, and its frequent collaborator, The Insider. These two outlets swiftly escalated the information warfare campaign with three lengthy probes “unmasking” the indicted Russians as GRU operatives, thus seemingly confirming the Kremlin’s role in the coup. The bombshell findings reportedly relied on the same corpus of hacked material that magically identified the failed assassins of exiled double agent Sergei Skripal, as well as “exclusively obtained” audio and video recordings.
Early mainstream accounts of the October 2016 events often referenced the fact that Western spy agencies had begun furnishing their Montenegrin counterparts with extensive information on Russian involvement “immediately” after the alleged coup failed. Prime Minister Dusko Markovic made clear “security services of NATO member countries…helped us to put all [the] pieces together.”
Montenegrin prosecutors also reportedly received “high-tech assistance from British and American intelligence services” to access emails, phone recordings, and other material stored in heavily encrypted servers, allegedly used by the plotters to keep their conversations secret and tracks covered. These disclosures indicate Western spies knew of the October 2016 plot in advance and intensely monitored the individuals involved while collecting sensitive intelligence, yet curiously failed to alert Podgorica until after the ruckus was thwarted.
More bizarre still, four FBI veterans and two CIA journeymen were suspects during the investigation. They caught the attention of authorities for assisting Aron Shaviv, an Israeli political consultant to the opposition during the 2016 election campaign. At one stage, prosecutors claimed to have uncovered detailed evidence proving Shaviv received 1.5 million euros from a Russian-founded company based in Czechia. A portion of those funds were reportedly wired to a bank account linked to Joseph Assad, one of the accused CIA operatives.
Though Assad claimed to be a humble security consultant tasked with crafting contingency plans for Shaviv’s evacuation from Montenegro in the event of an emergency, local prosecutors charged he was in fact responsible for exfiltrating coup operatives once their planned killing spree was over. They filed a warrant for Assad’s arrest in August 2018.
Speaking with Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake that month, Assad complained he was “being set up,” asserting Podgorica’s real goal was to get “a former CIA official to say derogatory things about the opposition.” Authorities in Abu Dhabi briefly detained Assad the following month, yet released him after a local counterterrorism judge ruled the case against him was insufficient to warrant his extradition.
After his release, Assad told The New York Times that if Russia were truly backing Russia’s opposition, he would have refused to provide security services to Shaviv. He insisted:
I would not do anything against the interests of the United States. I would certainly not work in the interests of Russia.
Clues point to CIA and MI6 involvement
In May 2019, 13 individuals were convicted of planning to commit “terrorist acts” and “undermine the constitutional order” in connection with the events of October 2016. The judgment stated their aim was “to change the electoral will” of the country and “prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.” The Russians received 12 and 15 years in absentia; the opposition politicians each received a five year sentence.
Western media and officials feasted on the ruling and have since cited the puzzling Podgorica putsch as a definitive example of Russia’s troublemaking in Europe. Montenegro’s appeals court overturning all verdicts in the case in February 2021 after judges identified “significant violations” of the law both in authorities’ investigation of the coup and the subsequent prosecution, however, generated zero interest outside the country.
A retrial is currently underway. Though little about proceedings has been made public so far, in April 2023 accused opposition politician Milan Knezevic claimed that a newly-uncovered document provided explosive evidence:
[Prosecutors] wrote the questions and answers to the potential witness Joseph Assad. He was supposed to learn them and thus accuse [Andrija] Mandic and me of hiring him for the so-called plot coup. Since Assad refused to do so, [they] issued an Interpol red notice for him.
If true, the revelation would mean the allegedly intercepted intelligence turned over to Montenegro by British and U.S. spying agencies did not implicate Knezevic—and perhaps other defendants—in the events of October 2016. And given none of the U.S. intelligence veterans or their Israeli employer are suspects this time round, it would seem evidence incriminating them was questionable too. London and Washington’s apparent willingness to falsify evidence also raises obvious questions about the veracity of other material they supplied to Podgorica.
For example, “European intelligence agencies” reportedly captured the widely publicized photos and videos of Sasa Sindjelic meeting with two alleged GRU operatives in a Belgrade park. Bellingcat and Western media framed the images as depicting the alleged conspirators plotting the imminent coup. Though all three individuals were evidently under surveillance, no audio of the meeting was recorded. In other words, the images could depict a totally innocuous and perhaps even random rendezvous.
For his part, Sindjelic eventually claimed Western intelligence had in fact infiltrated the Montenegrin opposition. Meanwhile, Serbian authorities alleged spies “from both the East and the West” were active and causing trouble in Belgrade prior to the coup.
Were individuals like Sindjelic mere patsies, unwittingly lured into a trap laid by British and U.S. intelligence? Was the “coup” always intended to fail, while discrediting the anti-NATO opposition, maintaining Djukanovic’s reign, and ensuring Podgorica’s NATO accession?
Montenegro can’t be anti-Russian enough
NATO’s mission to democratize Montenegro finally paid off in August 2020–but not in the way the alliance hoped. That month, citizens brought an end to Djukanovic’s 30 year rule, electing predominantly East-leaning parties and sparking Western outcry. Continued NATO membership was a major election issue, with even U.S.-run surveys indicating that only one third of Montenegrins wished to remain in the alliance. Even so, the new government’s coalition agreement promptly ruled out any discussion of the subject.
The ensuing Ukraine proxy conflict intensified Podgorica’s struggle to balance the forces of East and West. To date, Montenegro has imposed sanctions on Russia, closed its airspace to Russian flights, banned RT and Sputnik, and blamed Moscow for conducting a massive cyberattack on its government headquarters. The country’s new President Jakov Milatovic, who defeated Djukanovic by landslide in April 2023, has condemned Russia’s invasion as an unprovoked act of aggression and repeatedly met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In response, Russia added Podgorica to its formal enemies list.
Yet many in the West continue to regard Montenegro as pro-Russian and stoke hysterical fears that its government and population are acting as Kremlin puppets to destabilize the EU and NATO from within. The country’s leaders nonetheless appear content to sing from the Atlantacist script in the meantime. After all, they may quite reasonably fear that a very real coup–far more dangerous and bloody than what transpired in October 2016–will take shape should they step a foot out of line.