Finger Pointed at Russians in Alleged Coup Plot in Montenegro

PODGORICA, Montenegro — After multiple but unproven accusations that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is working hard to destabilize America’s friends in Europe, a pro-Russian mercenary detained in Montenegro is slowly spilling his guts — and providing the first insider’s account of what the authorities in this tiny Balkan nation say were Russian efforts to sow mayhem.

The man, Aleksandar Sindjelic, a veteran anti-Western activist from neighboring Serbia, has become a key informant — and a suspect — in a sprawling investigation into an alleged plot orchestrated by two Russians to seize Montenegro’s Parliament building last month, kill the prime minister and install a new government hostile to NATO.

Mr. Sindjelic’s account of the events includes a visit to Moscow in September to plan the operation and details of the encrypted phones he was asked to use to avoid eavesdropping. He has not directly implicated any Russian officials but has raised questions about the links between state agencies and a murky network of Russian nationalists active in the Balkans and in eastern Ukraine.

The Montenegrin authorities say two Russians carrying passports in the names of Eduard V. Shirikov and Vladimir N. Popov commanded the botched plot. But both men, who oversaw preparations for the operation from Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, are back in Moscow, and it is unclear whether they were traveling under real or fake identities and for whom exactly they were working.

The Montenegrin news media has reported that they are agents of Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the G.R.U. People close to the investigation said that they were Russian intelligence officers but that their precise affiliation was unclear.

The prosecutor’s office, in a statement this month, said the Russian pair had orchestrated plans in Montenegro, Serbia and Russia to carry out an “undetermined number of criminal acts of terrorism and the murder of highest-ranking representatives of Montenegro.”

In public, Montenegrin officials have avoided accusing the Russian state directly of directing the actions of Mr. Popov and Mr. Shirikov.

“Obviously, there are people with more power who are behind them,” Montenegro’s minister of justice, Zoran Pazin, said this month in an interview in Podgorica, the capital. “Is it the Russian state or Russian nationalist groups? We don’t know yet.”

After the early-1990s breakup of Yugoslavia, of which Serbia and Montenegro were parts, the Balkan region has been a zone of dark and often lethal intrigue.

To Moscow’s dismay, Serbia and Montenegro, both traditionally close to Russia, have increasingly tilted toward the West, applying to join the European Union and, in Montenegro’s case, even NATO.

With a few thousand soldiers, a handful of tanks and only 600,000 residents, Montenegro — whose application to join NATO was accepted in May and now awaits ratification — is hardly a military powerhouse. But it controls the only stretch of coastline where warships can dock between Gibraltar and eastern Turkey not already in the hands of the alliance.

“There is a big struggle going on,” said Ranko Krivokapic, an opposition leader who has lobbied for years for Montenegro to join NATO. “We are the last piece of the Mediterranean that is not already in NATO, the last piece in a big puzzle.”

Russia has campaigned furiously to keep Montenegro out of the alliance, supporting pro-Moscow political groups in the country and Orthodox priests who view NATO as a threat to Slavic fraternity and faith.

“NATO is an occupying force, and I am absolutely against it,” said Momcilo Krivokapic, an Orthodox priest and an estranged relative of the pro-NATO politician. His church in Kotor, an ancient fortress town, is just a few yards from Kotor Bay, a deepwater haven long coveted by both Russia and the West for its strategic location.

In early October, Father Krivokapic presided over a ceremony in Kotor for the foundation of the Balkan Cossack Army, a Russian-led grouping of Pan-Slavic nationalists bitterly hostile to NATO. The priest described the gathering as “just folklore,” featuring men in fur hats and imperial-era costumes.

Yet it was also attended by members of the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle gang whose leader is a friend of Mr. Putin’s, and mercenaries who have fought in eastern Ukraine on the side of Russian-backed separatists.

The anti-NATO clamor has succeeded in weakening already lukewarm public support for the alliance, which even some pro-Western voices view as a needless provocation of Russia and a ploy by Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro’s longtime and notoriously devious leader, to cement his power with help from the United States.

So when Mr. Djukanovic announced that his government was the target of a Russian-backed plot in October, opposition politicians — both pro- and anti-NATO — as well as much of the news media and many independent observers dismissed the claim as a fairy tale.

Mr. Djukanovic and his officials initially provided no evidence to support their allegation of a foiled coup attempt on Oct. 16, the day of national elections. They said only that 20 Serbs — some of whom turned out to be elderly and in ill health — had been detained just hours before they were to launch the alleged putsch. Nonetheless, Mr. Djukanovic insisted it “is more than obvious” that unnamed “Russian structures” were working with pro-Moscow politicians to derail the country’s efforts to join NATO.
Since then, however, Mr. Sindjelic, has begun talking. He was held for three weeks in the Spuz Correctional Facility, a red brick detention center north of Podgorica, and then released this past week as a “protected witness.” . He has told investigators about his visit to Moscow, about sophisticated encrypted telephones and about the more than $200,000 he says he was given as a down payment for his role as a recruiter of muscle for the operation, people close to the investigation said.
Also talking is another central figure in the alleged plot, a former Serbian gendarmerie commander named Bratislav Dikic. He initially denied any involvement after his arrest on Oct. 16 shortly before polling began in an election that the pro-Russian opposition politicians had hoped to win. The results were inconclusive.

Both Mr. Sindjelic, a former convict who fought for a time with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, and Mr. Dikic have long ties with Serbian nationalist groups and militant supporters of Slavic solidarity, a cause that many Russian nationalists also embrace and that has murky links to Serbian and Russian secret services.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry, which warned of unspecified “negative consequences” when Montenegro announced it wanted to join NATO, has strongly denied any Russian role in fomenting trouble. Accusing Mr. Djukanovic of fanning anti-Russian hysteria, Moscow has called for a referendum on NATO membership, a vote that opinion polls indicate could easily reject the alliance.

Milivoje Katnic, the Montenegrin prosecutor handling the coup case, told reporters in early November that there was no solid proof yet that the Russian state had been involved. He blamed “Russian nationalists” who wanted “to stop Montenegro on its Euro-Atlantic path, especially to prevent its accession to NATO.”

But Russian nationalist groups in Moscow say they had no knowledge of any men named Popov and Shirikov.

The official version of what happened in October still contains many holes, including the failure by the authorities in Montenegro to produce any of the weapons they say were to be used in an Election Day attack on Parliament in Podgorica by conspirators disguised as police officers.

The release of the prime suspect, Mr. Sindjelic, also raised eyebrows. The main pro-Russian opposition party, the Democratic Front, denounced it as proof that “all the masks have finally dropped in that cheap, staged and performed vaudeville ‘coup’”

Probably the only people who know the full story of what was planned and by whom exactly are the two Russians, Mr. Popov and Mr. Shirikov. But they have vanished. They had been in Belgrade but were allowed to return to Moscow after a visit to the Serbian capital late last month by Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Mr. Putin’s security council and a former head of Russia’s F.S.B. security service.

Moscow has insisted that Mr. Patrushev’s visit had been planned long before news of the Montenegro plot broke, but it was announced only shortly before his arrival. This prompted speculation in the Serbian and Russian news media that he had rushed to Belgrade to try to contain the fallout from the unraveling of the plan.

Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, who has struggled to balance strong pro-Russian sentiment in his country with his own policy of shifting cautiously toward the West, was outraged to hear that Russian citizens and Serbian nationalists had been working together under his nose in Belgrade to stage a coup in Montenegro.

He swiftly announced a shake-up of Serbia’s intelligence services, many of whose members have traditionally leaned toward Russia and view the West as an enemy, a feeling that intensified with NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign.

There has also been a small shake-up in Moscow with Mr. Putin’s abrupt and unexplained dismissal of Leonid Reshetnikov, a former Soviet intelligence officer, as head of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, a research group that works for the Kremlin. The institute had been in the forefront of Russian efforts to derail Montenegro’s NATO membership and has extensive links to pro-Russian groups in the Balkans.

After initially dismissing Montenegro’s claim of a coup plot, Mr. Vucic, Serbia’s prime minister, announced that there was “incontrovertible evidence” that “certain people” had placed Mr. Djukanovic, Montenegro’s leader, under close surveillance using “the most modern equipment” and were reporting to co-conspirators who “were supposed to act in accordance with their instructions.”

Several people “who were acting in coordination with foreigners” had been arrested in Serbia, he said.

Among those arrested was Mr. Sindjelic, who was swiftly transferred to the Spuz detention center in Montenegro.

Adding to a fog of fearful foreboding, the Serbian authorities then announced they had uncovered a cache of arms near Mr. Vucic’s family home in Belgrade, a stash that Serbian news media outlets said had been put there in preparation for an assassination attempt against the Serbian leader, too.

Mr. Sindjelic has told investigators that he is uncertain about the exact affiliations of Mr. Popov and Mr. Shirikov. He said only that when he visited Moscow in September to discuss the Montenegro plot, he was hosted in a luxury apartment and was warned that he was dealing with dangerous people and should take care not to step out of line.

But there are now so many Russians who have a stake in Montenegro’s future — including tens of thousands who vacation each year on its glorious coast, anti-Kremlin figures who have sought refuge in its proximity to the West, shady investors looking for a place to stash their money, and a murky cast of intelligence operatives and nationalists who want to keep NATO out — the country, too, has to tread carefully.

Montenegro, said Ljubomir Filipovic, a former deputy mayor of Budva, a coastal town that is particularly popular with Russians, “is the new Casablanca.”