Montenegro's pro-Russian opposition parties have rejected charges by the country's chief prosecutor that Russian nationalists organized an alleged October coup attempt aimed at assassinating pro-Western leader Milo Djukanovic over his efforts to join NATO.
"It is obvious that the special prosecutor has become a servant of the [ruling] Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS)," Milutin Dukanovic, leader of the opposition Democratic Front, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service on November 7.
He called the charges that two unidentified Russian citizens organized an allegedly foiled coup attempt on the eve of the country's parliamentary elections on October 16 "part of the contrived and fabricated...coup d'etat affair."
The Democratic Front is one of the leading pro-Russian opposition parties in Montenegro, all of whom have refused to participate in the parliament since the October 16 national election. The vote gave Djukanovic's ruling DPS a large majority but not enough seats to govern on its own.
The pro-Russian parties say the government's announcement of the arrests of 20 alleged coup plotters the night before the October 16 election unfairly influenced voter behavior by suggesting that opposition parties sought to overthrow the government.
Chief prosecutor Milivoje Katnic said on November 6 that the aim of the alleged coup was to assassinate the prime minister during the election to help an opposition party take over the state. He did not name the party in question.
He also said two unidentified nationalists from Russia were the organizers and sought a professional sharpshooter to carry out the assassination. He added that there was no evidence of Russian government involvement.
Moscow has said it had no official role in the alleged coup attempt.
"We, obviously, categorically deny a possibility of official involvement into arranging any illegal actions," Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters on November 7.
The lack of details about the alleged plot have added to the murkiness of an affair that leaves many observers asking whether Montenegro narrowly averted a foreign-organized coup attempt or whether, instead, the government is conducting an investigation whose main purpose is to discredit the country's pro-Russian opposition.
"There is a certain plausibility to claiming that [Russian nationalists] are behind this," says James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London School of Economics. "We know that Russia has been trying to extend its soft-power influence in the Western Balkans...so all of this lends credence to the idea that this is another attempt by Russia to get involved."
But he says that the timing of the announcement of the allegedly foiled plot lends equal plausibility to opposition charges of a political ploy.
"The other argument, of course, is that the timing came right at the moment when Montenegro was going to elections," says Ker-Lindsay. "These were the first elections in decades where there was a real chance the ruling party might be defeated...and suddenly the day the elections come up there is a conspiracy, Russia is trying to overthrow the government."
Many experts say that to provide a convincing case for a foiled coup, the government will have to present additional evidence.
"It is very hard to really judge whether this is a serious investigation," says Bodo Weber, a Balkans expert at the Democratization Policy Council in Berlin. "There has been no hard evidence presented by the chief prosecutor, including with his statement about the involvement of two Russian citizens, of Serbian and Montenegrin citizens, and allegations of the involvement of individuals from within the opposition ranks without [naming] either those individuals or their party affiliations."
Since the October arrest of 20 Serbian and Montenegrin suspects, six have been released. Three are under investigation for terrorism and have been named. The other 11 still in detention are under investigation for establishing a criminal organization but have not been named.
Montenegrin politics have been in turmoil since pro-Russian parties began mounting a strong campaign last year to try to keep the country out of NATO. Pro-Russian protesters took to the streets of Podgorica to demand Djukanovic's resignation in the run-up to NATO's announcement in December that it would start accession talks with Podgorica.
Since falling short of a majority in the October legislative poll, Djukanovic has sought to build a ruling coalition with the small Social Democracy party and a handful of tiny parties representing Bosniak, Croat, and Albanian ethnic minorities. But that would still give it only a slender majority.
As the alleged investigation goes forward, some analysts say its main impact may be to encourage some of the more moderate pro-Russian opposition parties to distance themselves from the more radical ones and make a deal with Djukanovic.
"The [ruling] majority, even with the ethnic minority parties, will still have a very thin majority so [it] might want to break up the opposition bloc currently boycotting the parliament and try to win over at least one of those parties," says Weber.
The most radical pro-Russia opposition parties oppose NATO membership because many members are ethnic Serbs angry over NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999. The bombardment forced the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, to stop operations by security forces that were driving hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, which was still part of rump Yugoslavia.
Less radical pro-Russia parties emphasize economic losses they say will come from redirecting Montenegro westward after decades of Russian trade and investment based on strong historical ties between Serbs and Russians.
NATO's deputy secretary-general, Rose Gottemoeller, who visited Montenegro on November 3, said she expects the country to become a member next spring after all 28 NATO member states ratify the agreement in their respective parliaments.