Montenegrin authorities say two Russians carrying passports in the names of Eduard Shirikov and Vladimir Popov commanded the botched plot.
PODGORICA, Montenegro — After multiple but unproven accusations that President Vladimir Putin of Russia is working hard to destabilize America’s friends in Europe, a pro-Russia mercenary detained in Montenegro is slowly spilling his guts — and providing the first insider’s account of what 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 an 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.
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.
Montenegrin authorities say two Russians carrying passports in the names of Eduard Shirikov and Vladimir Popov commanded the botched plot. 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.
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The Montenegrin news media have reported that they are agents of Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the GRU. People close to the investigation said they were Russian intelligence officers, but 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 Russia directly of steering the actions of Popov and 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 (EU) and, in Montenegro’s case, 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 is awaiting 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.
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 U.S.
So when Djukanovic said that his government was the target of a Russian-backed plot in October, opposition politicians — pro- and anti-NATO — as well as much of the news media and many independent observers dismissed the claim as a fairy tale.
Since then, however, Sindjelic has begun talking. He was held for three weeks in the Spuz Correctional Facility, north of Podgorica, and released last 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 Oct. 16, shortly before polling began in an election that the pro-Russia opposition politicians had hoped to win. The results were inconclusive.
Sindjelic, a former convict who fought for a time with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, and Dikic have long ties with Serbian nationalist groups and militant supporters of Slavic solidarity.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has strongly denied any Russian role in fomenting trouble. Accusing Djukanovic of fanning anti-Russian hysteria, the Russian government has called for a referendum on NATO membership, a vote opinion polls indicate could easily reject the alliance.