Montenegro to open coup plot trial

Two pro-Russian opposition leaders in Montenegro and 12 other suspects will go on trial Wednesday over their role in an alleged attempt to overthrow the government.

Former Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic
Former Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic (AFP)

Two pro-Russian opposition leaders in Montenegro and 12 other suspects will go on trial Wednesday over their role in an alleged attempt to overthrow the government.

Montenegrin police arrested a group of Serbian nationals on the eve of a general election in October, accusing them of planning to storm parliament and target the then prime minister, pro-Western Milo Djukanovic.

Authorities allege that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the conspiracy in a bid to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.

The 14 suspects, who risk lengthy jail terms, include Democratic Front leaders Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic and two Russian nationals who will be tried in absentia.

Montenegro opposition leaders Andrija Mandic (right) and Milan Knezevic attend a protest in Podgorica on February 15, 2017
Montenegro opposition leaders Andrija Mandic (right) and Milan Knezevic attend a protest in Podgorica on February 15, 2017 (AFP)

The two Russians -- identified as Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov -- were organisers of the foiled coup, the indictment says.

But Mandic insists the affair was staged to discredit his party and has denied any criminal wrongdoing.

Judicial authorities have never explained how they got wind of the conspiracy, and the defence for the accused note that police have never produced the weapons intended for use in the attack.

"I will personally present my defence... to unmask the rigged political process and fake indictment created for the needs of the regime that wants to settle accounts with the main opposition party," Mandic told AFP.

Djukanovic dominated Montenegro's politics from the 1990s onwards, when late strongman Slobodan Milosevic installed him at the helm of the former Yugoslav republic.

But he proclaimed Montenegro's independence in 2006 and made a strategic decision to turn towards the West. The predominantly Slavic Orthodox nation joined NATO last month and is a candidate for EU membership.

Djukanovic's close ally Dusko Markovic succeeded him as premier last November.

He has kept Montenegro on a pro-Western path, even though that direction of travel has proved unpopular among some sections of the population of 660,000.

'Serious test'

"The state institutions, notably justice, face a serious test" with the process, said former justice minister Dragan Soc ahead of the trial in Podgorica.

The prosecutors have testimonies from nine people who have already been sentenced to short jail terms over the coup bid after agreeing to testify and striking a deal.

Lawyer Goran Rodic was supposed to defend Knezevic but he said his phone and computer had been seized by prosecutors and he is no longer performing the role.

"I'm not certain that the process will reveal the whole truth but many things will come to the surface," he said.

"Many other interests are involved here, various intelligence services, various countries... politics is without any doubt involved in the case."