A scandal erupted in Montenegro at the end of March: the head of the Balkan country’s National Security Agency (ANB), Dejan Vukšić, was charged with revealing secret information during a March 19 closed-door session of the parliament’s (Skupština) Security and Defense Committee. Committee member Raško Konjević, who attended the meeting, later claimed Vukšić had violated the law on data secrecy and compromised classified information of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally by sharing secret data with parliamentarians (Slobodna Evropa, March 23).
The Montenegrin Prosecutor’s Office opened a preliminary investigation into the alleged leak. Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazović rushed to defend Vukšić, asserting that the ANB head simply “made a mistake” by revealing classified information. But several commentators regarded the incident as further evidence of growing Russian influence in the Balkans (Glas Amerike, March 19).
In the parliamentary elections in Montenegro, held on August 30 of last year, the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists for the first time since 1991 lost its majority, yielding to a coalition of opposition parties, some of them holding pro-Serbian and even pro-Russian positions. The most pro-Russian among them is the Democratic Front party; and one of its leaders, Milan Knežević, became the chairperson of the above-mentioned parliamentary committee on security and defense. Having won the elections in the Skupština, the coalition formed a government in opposition to the current President, Milo Đukanović.
Naming Vukšić to lead the ANB caused consternation among several observers even before last month’s incident in the parliament. Several sites published anonymous materials about his alleged Russian ties, including to the recently deceased former mayor of Moscow Yuriy Luzhkov (Aktuelno.me, February 19). And following the parliamentary information scandal, the rhetoric of Vukšić’s critics became even stronger. Some journalists called the director of the ANB a “Russian spy” and “a Trojan horse in NATO” (Odgovor.ba, March 20).
Russian media is adding fuel to the fire, openly bragging about Moscow’s successes in Montenegro. For example, pro-Kremlin business newspaper Vzglyad published an article entitled “Pro-Russian Forces Staged a Sweep of the Montenegrin Special Services.” In the piece, the author points out that in three months of 2021, Dejan Vukšić “managed to partially shake up, and partially and completely disperse the entire Montenegrin intelligence and counterintelligence services […] cleaning out” the supporters of President Đukanović (Vzglyad, March 22).
At the same time, several Montenegrin experts, including Vesko Garčević, a former ambassador of Montenegro to NATO and now a professor at Boston University, note that Vukšić really could have made a mistake, and there is no direct evidence of his ties to Russia. That said, Garčević believes that providing secret information to committee head Milan Knežević, the leader of the pro-Russian Democratic Front, almost certainly means that the disclosed information will ultimately turn up in Moscow (Author’s interview, March 25).
As for the real policies of the new government, in December, upon assuming power, Foreign Minister Đorđe Radulović declared that Montenegro would not be lifting its sanctions on Russia, as the country—a European Union aspirant—must respect EU rules (Balkan Insight, December 14, 2020). Nonetheless, some steps taken by the parliament are causing concern among pro-Western experts.
In particular, on February 3, the new parliamentary majority announced that it plans to repeal the existing Law on the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office and pass a new one, focused on the fight against organized crime and corruption. However, supporters of the incumbent president believe the real rationale for the initiative is the removal of Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnić, the main prosecutor in the 2016 “coup d’état” case (European Western Balkans, February 24). According to information from the Prosecutor’s Office, in the autumn of 2016 a group of Serbian and Montenegrin citizens, under the leadership of case officers from Russia, planned to seize Montenegro’s parliament and replace President Đukanović in order to prevent the decision for Montenegro to join NATO. Among the would-be coup participants, two leaders of the Democratic Front, Andrija Mandić and Milan Knežević, were sentenced to five years in prison for complicity in the conspiracy (Balkan Insight, May 9, 2019). However, on February 5, 2021, the Appellate Court scrapped all the guilty verdicts in the case, citing “significant violations of criminal procedure,” and asked the High Court to retry the case (Balkan Insight, February 5). This decision also raised concerns among local experts.
Following the alleged leaks of classified information to Montenegrin lawmakers last March, NATO initiated a special inspection to evaluate the information security protocols in the country as well as the level of existing threats. In this regard Ambassador Garčević pointed out that this is not the first time NATO has faced such problems from its newest members (Author’s interview, March 25). For example, in 2008, in Estonia, the former head of the department for the protection of state secrets of the Ministry of Defense, Herman Simm, was arrested on suspicion of espionage on behalf of Russia and subsequently sentences to 12.5 years of imprisonment. Then, in 2012, Estonian Security Police officer Aleksey Dressen was arrested, also for espionage on behalf of Russia (RBC, February 24, 2012). Most recently, in March 2021, Bulgarian authorities uncovered a spy ring involving several current and former members of the Ministry of Defense who were allegedly passing top secret military information, including pertaining to NATO, to the Russian embassy in Sofia (see EDM, March 31).
According to the expert, NATO is currently trying to establish whether Vukšić allowed the leak on purpose or inadvertently. If the investigation establishes that the declassification of information was deliberate, NATO structures may decide not to share sensitive information with Montenegro if they have serious reasons to believe that the leaks will continue (Author’s interview, March 25).
Garčević also noted that, although the Democratic Front is presently the strongest party in parliament, it still needs the support of other factions to maintain its coalition. He does not believe this group will be able to single-handedly achieve the departure of Montenegro from NATO, but Garčević fears that it will try to make sure that Russia has an ally inside the Alliance. It also cannot be ruled out that the current trends may be explained by domestic politics, but in any case, they are proving to be quite alarming for NATO’s information security custodians.