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Key Witness Identifies Russian Suspect In Funding Of Alleged Montenegro Coup Plot

Aleksandar Sindjelic arrives at court to give testimony at the coup trial in Podgorica on October 27.
Aleksandar Sindjelic arrives at court to give testimony at the coup trial in Podgorica on October 27.

Aleksandar Sindjelic, a key witness in the trial of 14 people who allegedly plotted to topple Montenegro's pro-Western government, has implicated a purported Russian secret-service agent in organizing the coup attempt aimed at blocking the Balkan country's NATO accession.

Over two days of court testimony ending on October 27, Sindjelic identified Eduard Shishmakov as a key organizer and financier of the alleged plot to overthrow the government during parliamentary elections in October 2016.

"A lot of money was given by Moscow. They had weapons, people from inside, special teams," Sindjelic testified, alleging that payments totaling some 200,000 euros ($235,000) were to be used to organize the plot and purchase weapons.

Prosecutors have argued during the trial that two Russian military intelligence operatives for the Kremlin, Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, organized and coordinated the coup attempt from neighboring Serbia. In addition to the charges handed down to the 14 defendants of creating a criminal organization with the aim of undermining Montenegro's constitutional order, Shishmakov and Popov have also been charged with terrorism.

The two remain at large and are being tried in absentia.

"Part of the plan was to eliminate [then-Prime Minister Milos] Djukanovic," Sindjelic testified during questioning by prosecutors.

Defense lawyers will get their chance to question Sindjelic on November 7, the court said after the October 27 session ended.

State authorities in Montenegro say Serbian and Russian nationalists plotted to occupy parliament during the country's October 2016 parliamentary elections, assassinate Djukanovic, and install a pro-Russian leadership to halt Montenegro's bid to join the Western security alliance.

The defendants include pro-Russian Democratic Front opposition lawmakers Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, nine citizens of Serbia, one other Montenegrin, and the two Russians.

Sindjelic, who has called himself a Serbian nationalist who is against any borders among Serbs, said he surrendered voluntarily to Montenegrin authorities, fearing he would be killed after the plot was uncovered.

The Kremlin has denied claims that "Russian state bodies" were involved in the alleged plot.

Montenegro became NATO's 29th member on June 5, marking a historic turn toward the transatlantic alliance amid protests from Montenegro's political opposition and Russia.

Analysts have warned that coup attempts in the region are likely to be repeated, and that Washington needs to do more to shore up "Europe's soft underbelly."

Damon Wilson, executive vice president for the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said in July that Russia was seeking to expand its influence, and undermine Western-leaning governments using "a nexus of corruption, organized crime, and underdevelopment."

"Prosperity is the antidote, as it increases the resilience of nations, particularly in Europe's east and southeast," he told a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that focused on the overall situation in the Balkans.

During a visit in August to Montenegro, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused Russia of working "to destabilize the region, undermine your democracies, and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe."

He also urged Balkan leaders to "be resolute and uncompromising in the face of [Russian] aggression."

Russia, which has long opposed any further NATO enlargement and has bitterly criticized Podgorica's accession to the alliance, denounced Pence's statements as "destructive" and a window on the Cold War mentality of the White House.