BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A Serbian court has rejected an extradition request by Montenegro for a suspect in an alleged pro-Russia plot to overthrow the small Balkan country's government.
Nemanja Ristic, the suspect whose extradition was rejected on Thursday by the Special Court in Belgrade, appeared in a group photo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his visit to Serbia in December.
The court said Ristic, a supporter of a pro-Russian far-right group in Serbia, cannot be extradited because Montenegro suspects him of committing the alleged crime by acting from the territory of Serbia and not inside Montenegro.
Montenegro also has issued extradition requests for another Serb and two Russians for alleged plans to kill the then-prime minister and take over parliament on election day in October. Another Serbian court ruled earlier this week that the other Serb sought by Montenegro could be handed over after an appeals process.
The two Russians, reportedly members of the Russian military intelligence agency, allegedly coordinated the whole operation from Serbia and tracked the movements of Montenegro's then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic with sophisticated spying equipment. They have been allowed to return to Russia.
Montenegro has arrested around 20 people in the alleged plot, most of them Serbian nationals.
The Kremlin has denied involvement, but has actively supported local groups that oppose having Montenegro become the 29th member of NATO. Montenegro expects to wrap up the process by May.
Djukanovic, who stepped down after the October elections when his ruling party won most seats in Montenegro's parliament, has accused the Kremlin of standing behind the alleged plot.
"That was an attempt by the current Moscow politics which is seeking to boost its influence in the Balkans," Djukanovic said earlier this week.
With uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump's stand toward NATO, which he has described as an "obsolete" organization, and his warming of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the prospects of further Russian expansion in southeastern Europe seem more likely.
So far, 22 of 28 NATO members have approved Montenegro's accession protocol, but not the U.S. Senate.
Russian officials, opposing further NATO expansion in Europe, are urging a referendum on Montenegro's membership in the Western military alliance. The pro-Russian opposition in the Adriatic state pledged to organize the plebiscite if the ruling pro-Western majority keeps insisting the decision should be made in parliament.
Such a referendum, which Montenegro's officials say is unconstitutional and illegal, could trigger major tensions in the state of 620,000 people which is evenly split between those supporting NATO membership and those who want close ties with traditional Slavic ally Russia.