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analysis 24 Feb 17

Montenegro Coup Claims Leave Russian Media Dumbfounded

The media in Russia have been following the latest dramas in Montenegro with intense interest – though most see it as little more than a slur campaign.

Dusica Tomovic
BIRN
Podgorica
A screenshot of the Telegraph story on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry plan to combat an avalanche of hostile “fake news” about Russia by setting up a new section on its website designed to counter and “expose” foreign media lies.

It comes after Russia accused the Montenegrin government of running an anti-Russian information campaign supported by the West, following the extensive media coverage of an alleged Russian-backed plot last October to overthrow the government in Podgorica.

Russian media reported the foreign ministry’s response after Moscow denounced reports on the front page of Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper, which claimed the Kremlin had had a direct hand in a plot to kill Montenegro’s former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and stop the country from joining NATO.

A screenshot of the Telegraph story on Montenegro stamped with a red “fake” sign can be seen on the ministry’s website, along with several other articles from Western media about Russia’s alleged meddling in the upcoming French presidential election.

The new section on the ministry site is described as containing “examples of publications retranslating false information about Russia”.

The ministry said it would collect such “fake news” from the foreign media, expose them by publishing the original sources and data, and so “prove that the Russian side has already responded to the specific issues in question”.

Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the authorities in Montenegro of being behind the anti-Russian information campaign in that country.

“This campaign is not new. It is simply going through a new stage of its development,” Zakharova said on Wednesday.

“Montenegrin PM Dusko Markovic could not help getting involved in the use of a thesis widely spread in the US and the EU countries and has accused Moscow and Russian special services of interfering in the election processes in that country,” she added.

Zakharova noted that Montenegro’s Special Prosecutor Milivoje Katnic had gone even further by developing the claim that Russia Security Service, FSB, special forces, had been active on the territory of Montenegro.

In the past few months – with a pick-up in recent days, Russian mainstream media have widely covered the accusations that Moscow supported an opposition-backed coup attempt aimed at overthrowing the elected government in Podgorica.  

The Russian media have called the accusations absolutely unfounded, with some leading outlets ridiculing Podgorica’s claims that its intelligence and security agencies narrowly prevented a Russian plot to install a pro-Moscow government.

State-run media such as Sputnik and Russia Today, but also the Tass news agency, have almost daily published state official and analysts’ reactions after Montenegrin Prosecutor Katnic on Monday accused “the Russian state” of orchestrating the attempted coup.

According to Katnic, the head of the group plotting the coup was a Russian citizen known as Edward Shirokov but whose real name was Edward Shishmakov - and who was a former deputy military attache at the Russian embassy in Poland, expelled in 2014 for espionage.

In an article called “Keep Calm and Blame Russia” published on Tuesday, Sputnik cited political analyst Vladimir Kireyev as questioning the version from Podgorica and wondering “did this [coup] attempt happen at all?“

“They will most likely prove nothing but will go ahead with their allegations,” he predicted.

Even the more liberal online newspaper Lenta, considered less pro-Kremlin than other mainstream media, in an article published on Tuesday compared the story coming out of Podgorica to “a theater of the absurd”.

Mainstream media have cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissing Katnic's allegations as irresponsible. Montenegro had failed to support those allegations with reliable information, Peskov said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called Katnic's allegations "unsubstantiated".

Sergey Kozlovsky, BBC correspondent in Russia, said the coverage of Montenegro in the Russian media had been extensive because no allegation of this kind has been made before.

“Modern Russia has never been accused of a coup attempt in a European country.  I guess you can call it one of the major stories in Russia, to say the least,” he told BIRN.

However, Kozlovsky noted that some Russian media outlets were only covering this story in terms of “fake news” - presenting it as another piece of anti-Russia propaganda and as nonsense.

Many Russian journalists continue to point out that there is no solid proof of Russian involvement in the coup attempt, only media speculation and statements by Montenegrin officials.

The situation changed, he said, when Katnic named Russian intelligence officer Shishmakov as involved in the coup attempt, and when he claimed “Russian state” bodies had also been involved “at a certain level”.

Montenegro and the Balkans remain an important region for Russia, tied to it by historic ethnic, political and religious links, continued Kozlovsky.

“There is a lot of interest in the events happening in Kosovo and Serbia. The issue of the possible accession of Montenegro to NATO is a big deal in Russia, where many people don't appreciate ‘Slavic brothers’ joining a Western military alliance seen by them as hostile to Russia,” he said.

On the other hand, one of the most influential portals in Russia, fontanka.ru, in an article published on Tuesday, noted that Russians remain the most numerous foreign tourists in Montenegro, despite the disputes over the alleged coup and over the tiny Adriatic nation’s aspirations to become a NATO member.

The article said that the “coup” had not only failed to stop the flow of Russian tourists coming for the summer but might even be a kind of advertisement for Russians when choosing their holiday destinations.

“According to the observations of the Russians living there, Montenegrins know how to count money and do not mix private business with politics.,” it noted.

“However, traces from the scandal, despite the friendship which has lasted since forever, are still there,” the article concluded.

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