PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) – A Montenegro court on Thursday sentenced 13 people, including two Russian secret service operatives, to up to 15 years in prison after they were convicted of plotting to overthrow the Balkan country’s government and prevent it from joining NATO.
Chief judge Suzana Mugosa said the two Russians, identified as Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, were convicted of “attempted terrorism” and “creating a criminal organization.” The two were tried in absentia.
Shishmakov received a 15-year prison term while Popov got 12 years. Two leading ethnic Serb opposition politicians, Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, were sentenced to five years each.
The verdict said the group planned to take over parliament on election day on Oct. 16, 2016, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership.
Montenegro joined NATO in June 2017 as the Western military alliance’s 29th member despite strong opposition from Moscow, which considers the small Adriatic country a historic Slavic ally and is opposed to NATO’s enlargement.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in the coup attempt. Montenegro’s police thwarted the action after receiving tips from Western spy organizations, authorities said.
The Russian pair, said to be members of the Russian military secret service agency GRU, coordinated the attempted coup from neighboring Serbia, the verdict said. They were allowed by Serbia’s pro-Russia authorities to leave for Moscow despite reports that they operated with sophisticated spy equipment.
The judge said that the Russians provided at least 200,000 euros for the purchase of rifles and guns.
She said two tried to recruit “as many people as possible to come to the protest” and try to “change the electoral will” and “prevent Montenegro from joining NATO.”
The judge said that the two ethnic Serb politicians made several trips to Moscow on the eve of the election where they were believed to get instructions from the GRU operatives.
“Each member of the criminal organization had a task and role that had been previously determined and the criminal organization was ready to implement violence and intimidation,” she said.
The United States and its allies have accused the GRU of involvement in the 2018 nerve agent attack on a Russian ex-spy in Britain, hacking the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and disrupting anti-doping efforts in world sports. Russian authorities have rejected the accusations, calling them part of a Western smear campaign.
Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.