PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — A key witness in the trial of 14 suspected plotters to topple Montenegro's government on Thursday directly implicated an alleged Russian secret service operative in organizing the coup attempt by supplying money and defining goals in order to prevent the small Balkan nation from joining NATO.
Aleksandar Sindjelic testified in court that the Russian, Eduard Shishmakov, gave him money to organize about 500 people to trigger disturbances in the capital, Podgorica, on the day of last year's parliamentary election.
Sindjelic said that Shishmakov "asked no questions about how much money would be spent" as long as the then Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, is removed from power, "dead or alive."
"I could have asked Shismakov for a million or two million (euros), he wouldn't have asked a question," Sindjelic said. "The goal had to be accomplished, now or never."
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 14 defendants, mostly Serbs, 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 trial opened in September.
Two Russians, believed by prosecutors to be operatives of the Russian military secret service, are additionally charged with terrorism. The pair, identified as 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.
Shishmakov and Popov haven't made any public comments about the case.
Sindjelic, who is a Serb national, said that he first met Shishmakov at a gathering of pan-Slavic nationalists in Russia in 2015, when he "offered me cooperation, claiming he is a Russian monarchist who wants to help my nationalist activities."
"In 2016, I received a strange message from Edi (Eduard) when he said 'enough of this, the people should go to streets and overthrow Djukanovic, that criminal gang,'" Sindjelic said. "In September, he invited me to come to Moscow, saying he will cover all the expenses."
Sindjelic said Shismakov told him that "we have information that Montenegro wants to enter NATO, and if the opposition doesn't win the election, the parliament will vote for the country's membership and there will be no way back."
"He showed me photos of the American Embassy in Podgorica, telling me that Djukanovic should be prevented from entering that embassy, or a local police station, or to escape anyhow, by helicopter, at the airport . and that anyone who captured him should be rewarded," Sindjelic said.
Sindjelic has reached a deal with the prosecutors to become a cooperating witness in exchange for dropped charges.
Defense lawyers have questioned Sindjelic's credibility as a witness, demanding a psychiatric evaluation.
AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.