PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Two alleged Russian secret service operatives were described as the main organizers of a foiled bid to overthrow Montenegro's government last year as the trial of 14 suspected coup plotters opened in the small Balkan country on Wednesday.
The defendants are charged with "creating a criminal organization" with the aim of undermining Montenegro's constitutional order and thwarting the pro-Western government's bid to join NATO.
The two Russians are additionally charged with terrorism. The pair, identified as Eduard Shishmakov and Vladimir Popov, allegedly coordinated the Oct. 16 coup attempt from neighboring Serbia. They were allowed to leave Serbia for Russia and are being tried in absentia.
The prosecutor alleged the two were military intelligence operatives for the Kremlin. Shishmakov was a deputy military attache at the Russian embassy in Warsaw, but was declared persona non grata in June 2014 because Polish authorities believed he was involved in spying.
Russia has denied involvement in the alleged plot. Montenegro joined NATO in June 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 twice-delayed trial began at a high court in the capital, Podgorica, with the reading of an indictment. It alleged the defendants, most of them Serbs, planned to take over parliament on election day, assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and to install pro-Russian, anti-NATO leadership.
The indictment also alleges the two Russians organized and coordinated the group, supplying encrypted cellphones and 200,000 euros ($239,000) that went partly toward the purchase of 50 machine guns, 50 pistols and "a large quantity of ammunition."
The Russians "have organized a criminal organization, with the intent to conduct criminal acts," the indictment said. "Each member of the organization had a specific role, and the organization was ready to conduct acts of violence and intimidation, knowing that their actions are completely illegal. "
The plan reportedly failed after one of the defendants, who later became a protected witness, changed his mind and decided to speak to Montenegrin authorities.
Former Serbian special police commander Bratislav Dikic pleaded not guilty to the charges that he was a key plotter who collaborated with the two Russians.
"I state with full responsibility that I was not aware of the existence of a criminal organization," Dikic told the court. "I don't know any Russians."
The defendants also include two pro-Serb Montenegrin opposition leaders who denounced the proceedings as a "staged trial."
"Someone at the prosecutor's office will be held responsible for this charade one day," Andrija Mandic, one of the indicted opposition leaders, said as he entered the courthouse.
About 100 opposition supporters gathered in front of the court on Wednesday to protest the trial.
AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.