“Serbia and the rest of the Balkans are a pawn in a great game of powers between Russia, the EU, and the US.”
– Former Serbian economy minister Saša Radulović.
Early on October 16 2016, the day of the Montenegrin parliamentary election, the Montenegrin police and security services arrested about 20 Serbians and Montenegrins whom they described as attempting a coup and intending to assassinate the prime minister, Milo Djukanović. Those arrested included Bratislav Dikić, former head of the Serbian Gendarmerie. In due course others, including two Russian citizens, would be charged with what the special prosecutor for organised crime and corruption would call “a powerful organisation” of some 500 plotters. Moscow backed the plot, according to the prosecutor, with the intent of forestalling the country from joining Nato.
In response, there were warnings that 2017 would see further meddling by Moscow in the Western Balkans, with Donald Tusk pointing to “unhealthy external influences… destabilising several countries” and US vice-president Mike Pence telling the countries of that region that Russia was trying to destabilise them, undermine their democracies, and divide them from the rest of Europe. That year, however, saw little evidence of a systematic campaign to assert its influence in the region, let alone a successful one. For several reasons, though, 2018 may be rather different. Federica Mogherini has warned that “the Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played”, but the 2016 coup attempt suggests that this game has already started.
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