After the Associated Press (AP) published on June 8 a statement from an unnamed NATO source that between 25 and 50 Montenegrin intelligence officers have close links to Russia, Montenegro became embroiled in controversy.
There were denials from the prime minister, challenges from the opposition and observations from analysts. There was also the question of how the state and its institutions could eliminate any question about intelligence officers with such ties.
The statement represents a clear warning that the West has realized that Montenegro has a problem, according to analyst Blagoje Grahovac:
“They [the West] have been monitoring Montenegro for some time, and they know a double game is being played in Montenegro. There is loud talk about European and Euro-Atlantic integration but, beneath that, Russian tycoons are quietly taking over state resources through a network of organized crime and corruption. That double game, though, is played by the ruling party. Unfortunately, the other part of the [ruling coalition]… the Social-Democratic Party, even though it sees it, has not been doing anything to clean up that game for years.”
However, Montenegro’s Prime Minister, Milo Djukanovic, rejected intelligence problems and said he never even heard insinuations that any intelligence agents had ties to Russia. At the same time, a member of the Security and Defense Committee and Social-Democratic Party MP Borislav Banovic told Radio Free Europe that NATO doesn’t have great confidence in Montenegrin security structures, but that warnings have not been heeded.
All this comes at a time that relations between Montenegro and Russia are cooling because of Montenegro’s decision to join in sanctions against Russia imposed by the European Union in response to the Ukrainian crisis. On that note, the Russian Gazette, a government daily, published a sharply critical story in late April saying that “Russians have been secretly pushed out of all spheres of life in Montenegro and that Djukanovic’s Government is busy cleansing the country of Russian influence”. Grahovac said he believes this is just a Russian intelligence trick:
“Those Russian warnings for Montenegro and claims that they [Russians] have been allegedly banished from Montenegro are tricks… This warning we are hearing now [from NATO] is actually a warning for Djukanovic… that we will be allowed to play this double game until the autumn. After that, all debts will be due. Why to Djukanovic? Well, because he is the most responsible. Because state security is his domain.”
The Montenegrin Assembly even discussed the issue of Russian spies during a session dedicated to the work of the Security Committee. Koca Pavlovic, a Democratic Front representative, stated that NATO claims should sound an alarm in Montenegrin institutions:
“I think that what they [AP] published would be a reason for alarm in any serious country. Not because they said that those 25 or 50 people, who work in our intelligence-security structures, are working for the Russians – but because those people are not working for us. It is not important whether they work for Russians, Americans, Turks or Albanians, but the fact they are in our agency and working for someone else should sound an alarm in any normal country. The fact that we have double agents in our services is unacceptable. They must be removed immediately, because that service must work to protect this country, not the DPS [Djukanovic’s party] election campaign, not for the protection of [mobsters like] Saric and his crew, not for protection of criminal structures, etc.”
What can Montenegrin institutions do?
Still, the question of how to clear any concerns that any Montenegro intelligence officers are working in the interests of Russia remains. Ljuidj Ljubo Skrelja, a member of the parliamentary Security Committee said that such information never passed through the Board, but the Board also does not have sufficient mechanisms to determine the truthfulness of such information.:
“I do not have information they [rogue intelligence officers] exist. Such information has never reached me, even though I regularly participate in Board sessions. But there may be a way for the Security Committee… [to] schedule a session at which we would address that topic in order to find out whether it is true or not, where they [claims] are coming from and such. Aside from that, I do not see any options or mechanisms for the Board to use, aside from parliamentary investigation or hearings,” said Skrelja.
Grahovac believes Montenegrin institutions cannot do anything if the source’s information is accurate.
“These institutions can do nothing. They are trapped… They are the ones responsible for this situation. They will now try to shed the blame and responsibility, but that is now impossible because they have been in power for so many decades,” notes Grahovac.