After 19 months, the long-awaited verdict in the trial of 14 people accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Montenegro and assassinate its prime minister has arrived. Two Russians, who prosecutors said were intelligence officers, were convicted in absentia, and others are beginning long prison sentences following a volley of guilty verdicts that have caught many people in the Balkan state by surprise.
Such are concerns over the case, opposition members from the Democratic Front have expressed fears that the verdict risks “irremediably destabilising” the country. Given what we know about politics and the rule of law in Montenegro, however, perhaps the outcome is really not such a surprise.
Long before the case even reached the courts, many were concerned that the coup had been fabricated; a plot by the ruling party to win the 2016 legislative election – one that their opposition had been confident of taking – and to retain power.
Opposition leaders have claimed that sponsoring a coup was a convenient way for Milo Djukanovic, the target of the assassination plot, to take advantage of a “wave of anti-Russian hysteria to attack” his rivals and to win friends in the West.
Regardless of the verdicts, the trial has failed to get to the bottom of what really happened. Personally, I have no confidence in the veracity of the allegations, and even after the trial, details of the coup remain unclear.
The idea, according to the prosecution, was for the plotters to storm parliament on 16 October, 2016 – election day – and kill Djukanovic, then the prime minister and now president of the country. This, it was claimed, would have prevented the country from joining Nato, an issue that has deeply divided Montenegro. The authorities claimed they were warned about the plot by an informant a few days earlier and police were able to arrest the group.
Clearly, any violent attack on the government would have had terrible and bloody consequences. But, as with so many aspects of the claims made by the prosecution, the story of the plot doesn’t wholly add up.
During the trial, the weapons that were supposedly going to be used that day were never shown in court and one of the prosecution’s key witnesses reversed his testimony, first claiming Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front was financed by Russian money, then saying that there had been no “plan of violence in Podgorica”, its capital. Prosecutors said the plotters had Kremlin support. Altogether 25 people were implicated in the plot, among them a tailor, a waiter and a 62-year-old woman.
Judging by recent protests in Podgorica and the tone of media reports this week, the guilty verdicts have failed to give Milo Djukanovic the clear boost of public sympathy he might have hoped for. Since February, protests over Djukanovic’s government have grown in size and now involve tens of thousands of people marching through the streets of the capital.
They started after Dusko Knezevic, a former ally of Djukanovic, accused him of corruption, cronyism and abuse of office, and further protests in the coming weeks are planned. Djukanovic has denied the accusations, and claims that pro-Russian opposition parties and “foreign factors” were behind the protests.
Djukanovic has been in power in one way or another since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, earning him the title of Europe’s longest-serving leader. The opposition has claimed that in all likelihood, it would have won the 2016 election had reports of an alleged coup not surfaced.Regardless of the verdict, the lingering scepticism over the case shows the high level of distrust in Montenegrin institutions.
In a 2017 report, the US state department took apart Montenegro’s lack of judicial independence, police corruption and threat to press freedom. The recent protests reflect the history of many Balkan states that have been in transition from former regimes but never fully moved into true democracies. French president, Emmanuel Macron, has kicked Balkan hopes for immediate EU accession into the long grass, saying they needed to get their houses in order first.
Certainly, for any real progress to be made, the coup attempt must be investigated by a body that is independent of the Montenegro authorities. The next step is to compel Djukanovic, and all politicians, to register their business interests. It is the very least they can do to demonstrate full transparency.
When news of the alleged coup first emerged, foreign leaders, including the UK government, rushed to show solidarity with Montenegro. The same leaders now need to come forward to ease public unrest in Montenegro, and ensure that corruption is tackled. A failure to do so can only be damaging for the stability of the Balkans.
Steven Kay QC is a leading UK-based criminal lawyer who has acted for heads of state in landmark international trials.
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