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Montenegrin Coup Verdict A Wakeup Call To EU On Russia's Rising Role In Balkan Instability

Opposition leaders Andrija Mandic (left) and Milan Knezevic (right) were among those convicted and sentenced to prison for an attempted coup in Montenegro.

If the European Union has hit the snooze button since allegations of Russian state involvement in a coup plot in Montenegro surfaced two years ago, a verdict convicting two alleged Russian military intelligence agents may be the final wakeup call.

The High Court in Podgorica sentenced a group of 14 people on May 10 on terrorism charges and creating a criminal organization as part of an October 2016 attempt to overthrow the government and scupper the country's NATO membership bid.

Among the convicted were two alleged Russian military intelligence agents – Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov – who were tried in absentia.

Analysts say the 19-month trial has revealed one of the Kremlin's most-audacious gambits for influence to blunt the Balkans' integration into Western structures such as NATO and the EU at a time when the bloc has been accused of losing focus on the region.

"We now have a court ruling in a NATO member state that Russian and Serbian proxies attempted to execute a coup in that state," said Jasmin Mujanovic, a U.S.-based Balkans analyst.

"And no matter how botched or unlikely their attempt was to succeed, it has significantly contributed to a worsening security climate in Montenegro and across the region," Mujanovic, author of Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy In The Balkans, added.

Assassination Plan

The court found that the group of Serbs, Russians, and Montenegrins had plotted to occupy the country's parliament during 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership.

Dukanovic, who staunchly supported NATO accession and is currently president, has been the most powerful man in Montenegro since 1991.

Senior Russian officials have dismissed allegations of involvement as "absurd."

But British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the plot "another example of Russia's outrageous attempts to undermine European democracy."

For almost 16 years the EU has been holding out the prospect of membership to the countries of the Western Balkans, their main foreign policy goal since the fall of communism and the subsequent bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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But after an initial push that included bringing Croatia into the bloc, many critics say the EU has lost its focus on expanding in the region as it deals with internal issues such as Brexit and immigration.

Adding to the lack of impetus are upcoming European elections that are expected to be hotly contested by right-wing populists who oppose many issues facing the Balkans, including the acceptance of new members and visa liberalization.

"The lack of any sustained, long-term policy toward the Western Balkans will play into the hands of Russia and China, as if EU leaders are not already aware of that possibility," according to Judy Dempsey, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.

"Thankfully, these countries can still count on NATO to extend security and stability.... Without the alliance, the region would be in a very sorry state and even more vulnerable to Russian interference."

U.S. Role

Not all analysts see the Balkan-Russia glass as half empty.

Milan Nic, a Berlin-based expert on Central Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations, says some EU states have learned their lesson and reshaped their Balkan policies accordingly to counter Russian "hybrid threats in the region."

He uses the recent example of the referendum over Macedonia changing its name to North Macedonia where Russian interference and propaganda campaigns were seemingly kept in check.

Still, Djukanovic says the EU needs to do more in a region where internal and external conflicts are constantly on simmer.

"Third parties, such as Russia and China, are making gains due to a lack of a concrete EU activity in the region," he told Reuters in an interview on May 8 ahead of the verdict.

For its part, the United States says it's working with the EU to thwart Russia's moves in the Balkans with Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Bosnia at various stages of membership talks.

Matthew Palmer, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. State Department, told RFE/RL that the West needs to remain vigilant as the Kremlin will continue to see its interest in the Balkans advanced by a region that is "struggling with disorder, distrust, friction, and an element of chaos."

"Fortunately, the vision of the United States, the vision of the European Union, is consistent with the vision that the countries of the Western Balkans have for themselves," Palmer told RFE/RL's Balkan Service in an interview after the verdict.

"We want the same thing. But the Russians will continue to look to make trouble, as they did in the Prespa Agreement [on naming North Macedonia], as they did in Montenegro in 2016, as they are doing across the region."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service