The tiny Balkan country of Montenegro may be best known for its stunning coastline on the Adriatic sea — and as a setting for the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale.
But in February, news broke that sounded like a twist right out of a 007 thriller.
Montenegro’s special prosecutor, Milivoje Katnic, announced that “Russian state bodies” had backed a plot to overthrow the government and kill the prime minister during elections last October.
“Russian nationalists wanted to remove the government,” Katnic told reporters. “They believed that this wasn’t possible through elections so they had to do it by force.”
Two Russian men, wanted by the international police organization Interpol, are accused of organizing the plot from Serbia, directed by Russian intelligence. Montenegrin authorities are holding another 21 suspects who are awaiting indictment later this month.
Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic says it’s no secret Moscow was trying to block Montenegro, which has been a sovereign country for only 11 years, from joining NATO.
“Russia supported the anti-NATO opposition in Montenegro,” Darmanovic said in his office in Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital. “Not only the [political] parties, but anti-NATO NGOs, anti-NATO media. But being involved in staging the coup in the country? It was too far.”
U.S. senators including John McCain have pushed for expanding the Western military alliance to include Balkan countries such as Montenegro in order to protect the region from moves like Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
Just before the Senate approved Montenegro’s NATO membership last month, McCain explained what was at stake.
“I think that this is more than the accession or non-accession of a small, 650,000-person nation,” McCain told the Senate. “It is a test in this contest that we are now engaged in with Vladimir Putin.”
A Kremlin spokesman strongly denounced the coup accusations as absurd and denied that it interfered in Montenegro’s internal affairs. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the charges were unsubstantiated.
Russia has had good relations with Montenegro for years, and about a third of businesses there are owned by Russians.
According to the Russian embassy, at least 5,000 Russians permanently reside in Montenegro, a nation of about 620,000. Many live in the coastal town of Budva, which is sometimes called “Moscow by the Sea.”
Marat Gelman, a gallery owner and art collector, lives in a seaside condo here. The founder of the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art in Russia, Gelman left Moscow in 2015 after growing weary of government censorship. He now directs the Dukley European Art Community that attracts Russian artists such as Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina.
“Montenegrins love Russians and Russian culture,” Gelman says, “but they don’t want to be aligned with Russia politically.”
Ljubomir Filipovich, a former vice mayor of Budva, says most Russian residents he knows here don’t support the Kremlin and don’t want it meddling in the affairs of other countries.
“Most of them that I’m meeting — because my family is Russian, my wife is Russian — they don’t support these kinds of actions by the Russian government,” he says. “They don’t want to bring the problems where they’re coming from with them.”
The pro-Moscow Democratic Front, Montenegro’s main opposition party, says the allegations of a Russian-backed coup have been fabricated by the Montengrin government as a way to imprison political opponents.
Some lawmakers, including Milan Knezevic, have been implicated by the special prosecutor.
“I’m only being accused because I oppose us joining NATO without considering that most Montenegrins don’t actually want this,” Knezevic says. His Podgorica office is decorated with Russian Orthodox icons and a painting of Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov. “We want to hold a referendum. So we are being portrayed as enemies of the state.”
Pollsters say Montenegrins are actually divided on NATO membership. Many who oppose it cannot forgive NATO for bombing their country during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, when it was in union with Serbia.
Sreten Zujovic says he was driving to Podgorica with his pregnant wife when a NATO bomb hit.
“At the moment I was about 500 meters from that,” he says. “And I remember that moment today, like it was yesterday.”
Political analyst Daliborka Uljarevic says many Montenegrins also view the pro-NATO former prime minister — Milo Djukanovic, the one allegedly targeted for assassination — as corrupt and nepotistic.
“It is actually pretty awkward that the best lawyer in the country is the former prime minister’s sister, that the best businessman is his brother, that the rising new businessman is his son,” she says.
Uljarevic says NATO membership could be an antidote to the corruption and organized crime that plague the country.
Maybe NATO leaders can talk to the government “and try to point out what should be reformed and what are some of the behaviors that are not so acceptable or welcomed,” she suggests.
Azra Karastanovic of the Atlantic Council in Montenegro says NATO also wins in this deal.
“In geostrategic terms, NATO will have total control in the Adriatic Sea area,” she says. “And geopolitically, they will have an easier path to stability in the Balkan region.”
Uljarevic says she wants NATO and the European Union to fill what’s been a power vacuum in the Western Balkans.
“Russia is simply stepping in because the others are not active or they are not at all there,” she says.
The trial related to the alleged coup is expected to begin this fall — and, by then, Montenegro should formally be a member of NATO.