Can you pick out Montenegro on a map? (It’s a nation in Europe). If you’re American and you can, you’re probably a vet of our 1990s Balkan imbroglio, or at least someone who’s studied the mess that was once Yugoslavia, and before that was a bunch of fractious provinces in the Habsburg Empire, and before that was a bunch of fractious provinces under the Ottomans. The Montenegrins and their small province, which is Crna Gora (“Black Mountain”) in their own language, were swept up in 1918 into the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. They became one of the Provinces (later Republics) of Yugoslavia (a name that means the nation of the South Slavs, recognizing that its many people were related, but not identical). The Montenegrins have had generally friendly relations with their neighbors, even as those neighbors at times came to blows, or nearly so. Among other ethnic groups jammed into the Yugoslav micro-empire were Albanians (mostly in the Kosovo sub-province of Serbia) and Macedonians. Nowadays, these nations all have their own, well, capital-N Nations.
If you were alive in the 1990s (or took the US Institute of Peace’s course on Conflict Analysis), like Your Humble Blogger in both cases, you may have anything from a vague impression of fratricidal bloodshed, to a deep understanding of a war that didn’t need to be and that resulted from the decisions of particular, individual men. (Chief among them? Serb Slobodan Milosevic and Croat Franjo Tudjman). But the fact is that these former Yugoslav Republics and Provinces are nations now. Just as the wounds of the American Civil War healed, slowly and sometimes painfully, the wounds of the Wars of Yugoslavian Devolution are gradually easing. And most of them look to the West, even though the Serbs looked historically to Russia.
To Russia, losing the opportunity for Adriatic bases — with the small nation of Montenegro, and its 2,000 man military (which has already deployed volunteers on NATO missions), set to join NATO, and the other coastal Adriatic nations all NATO members already — changing the direction of the small state was a high-stakes game. An article by Damir Marusic in The American Interest argues that Russia did not take this lying down — but underestimated the canny mountain tribesmen of Montenegro.
On the day of Montenegro’s Parliamentary elections on October 16, a remarkable story emerged: Montenegrin security services had arrested some 20 Serbian nationals who were alleged to be preparing an attack on various state institutions that very evening, as the results were rolling in. Among those arrested was a retired Serbian general who was also the leader of a right-wing nationalist movement based in Novi Sad, almost 500 kilometers away in Serbia’s Vojvodina region.
The immediate reaction from Serbia was disbelief leavened with thinly-veiled contempt. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic demanded he be shown proof of the plot, and many in Montenegro’s opposition, who are in large part made up of Montenegro’s Serbian minority, claimed that Prime Minister Milorad Djukanovic’s security services had ginned up a false flag operation in order to help cement his victory.
Conspiracy theories are always current, of course, in the Balkans, but that is in part because the region exports conspiracies; as some wag said in the last century, “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” At this point, only Serbian extremists were implicated, but the Montenegrin investigator, Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic, then showed his cards.
[A]n “unprecedented massacre” had been prevented by the arrests. … The plan was for several individuals to enter the parliamentary building in the capital, Podgorica, wearing uniforms of Montenegro’s elite security services, and subdue the guards inside. They would then open fire on unarmed opposition supporters gathering outside the parliament awaiting election results. Finally, they would kidnap the Prime Minister, and either declare the election invalid, or somehow hope to throw it to the opposition.
Either some part of that plan is missing, or the former Serbian general was guilty of Underpants Gnome planning. Does anyone plan a coup with three question marks after they put the habeas grabbus on the Prime Minister they’re ousting? Or is something else going on? Something else was going on. A number of Russian “diplomats” across the region were suddenly PNG’d. (Declared persona non grata for violations of their diplomatic status. This usually, although not always, means that they were caught out as intelligence officers. As the alternate explanation is that the diplomat committed a crime inconsistent with his or her dip status, when a whole bunch are expelled at once, the host nation is discreetly accusing them of espionage or unconventional operations). And the Balkan officials had more to say.
[Serbian Prime Minister, and initially, coup-attempt skeptic] Vucic confirmed that there had in fact been a plot to assassinate Djukanovic. Another set of [Montenegrin] special forces uniforms and €120,000 in cash had been found in Serbia, Vucic said, and several other Serbian nationals had been arrested. He added that no politicians, in either Serbia or Montenegro, were involved in the planning, but rather he vaguely gestured at “foreign services, both from the West and from the East”, and said that those that have been arrested would be dealt with.
On Thursday [27 Oct 16], another bombshell landed… Serbia had secretly expelled several Russian citizens in connection with the Montenegro plot. … [T]he Serbs arrested earlier had in their possession several devices allowing for encrypted communication, as well as some unspecified sophisticated technology used to continuously track the location of Djukanovic. Some of the arrested Serbs had reportedly fought on the Russian side in Donbas, in Ukraine.
OK, but it’s not like Russians at high levels were involved in the coup, right?
It just so happened that Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the FSB and the current head of Russia’s Security Council, had just arrived in Belgrade. Could his visit be linked to the expulsions of what appeared to be Russian agents?
Russia has many interests in Montenegro, some commercial (the economy is driven in part by extensive Russian investment) and some political, although the cleft between the two in the Russian oligarchy is all but nonexistent. Previous Russian attempts to gain influence in Podgorica have been limited to funding, supporting and controlling the political parties and institutions of the pro-Russian ethnic Serbian political party, something which has been monitored by Western intelligence for a very long time. This operation seems to have been compartmented and to have used a separate group of irredentist Serbs; it was not only separate from, but unknown to Moscow’s ethnic-Serbian allies in Montenegro. That makes sense on several level. Given the normal level of intrigue in the Balkans, the experience level of Balkan security services, and the normal level of paranoia in a professional intelligence officer, the FSB Montenegro desk would have to consider their ethnic-Serbian Montenegrin operations almost certainly penetrated by the Montenegrin (and possibly other) intelligence agencies.
So their trade-off was this: use Serbs from Serbia or other complete foreigners, and protect the clandestine operation while insulating your controlled Montenegrin-Serb politicians from any possible blowback, while risking, if the operation blows up, unmistakeable (but deniable) Russian fingerprints on the operation. Serbs are useful because all the South Slav languages (Serb, Croat, Slovene, Montenegrin) are mutually intelligible, to a greater degree than, say, Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Frisian).
We would say than an American agency would not approve an operation with this level of risk. You might want to do it but your superiors, who spent their entire career, functionally, working 9-5 in HQ, would never let you. Maybe in Berlin or Cuba in 1966, but never today. In the end, Russia almost got away with it, and doesn’t face much in terms of diplomatic or political consequences. This means that this is not the last such bold clandestine operation we’ll see in that part of the world.