14 April 2020

A new confrontation in the informational warfare against NATO, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

Liviu Ioniţă

It is quite unusual for an academic research structure from a NATO state to elaborate a negative study on the situation of another NATO state. In the Western Balkans, however, even partnerships are special. And, if we also add that the two entities are located at the extremities of the former Yugoslav space, we have at least one explanation. But not the only one.

Image source: Profi Media

On March 29th, the Ljubljana International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies / IFIMES[1] published chapters from a complex study, dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, called „Security and intelligence actions during the COVID-19 pandemic[2]”. The English translation of this article came immediately after its emergence, on 02.04.2020[3].

The study has many chapters, and one of them refers to the supposed disinformation actions developed by the National Security Agency in Montenegro (Agencija za nacionalnu bezbjednost/ANB), the chapter beign called ”The infection of security-intelligence system – the ANB case”.

The main ideas of this chapter refer to two major topics: the NATO „infection” by ANB, with fake data on the religious protests from Montenegro, in January-March 2020 and the falsification, by the Montenegrin authorities, of the data on the COVID-19 epidemic in Montenegro.

On the NATO „infection” by ANB, with fake data on the religious protests from Montenegro, IFIMES states:

-In the functioning of secret services there is a practice of use of intelligence in the form of a virus aimed to infect security-intelligence system so that they serve the interests of those who had produced the intelligence virus;

- In the Balkans region, the best „infection” example is ANB, which infects the NATO security and intelligence system, mostly after the organization of mass litanies and prayers by the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral of the Serb Orthodox Church (SPC) in response to the adoption of the Law on freedom of religion or beliefs and legal status of religious communities in Montenegro on 27 December 2019. Since January 2020, the ANB started to intensively create and send untrustworthy and often false information/data on individuals and organizations that undermine and work against the state and statehood of Montenegro and the NATO organization. Experts believe these sheer imputations and untruths are forwarded to NATO security/intelligence system, but also partner security-intelligence agencies, with the intent to inflict damage on specific individuals and organizations, as well as protect the regime of the Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović;

-NATO must be more careful when checking and classifying the intelligence data coming from Montenegro and must warn the „M. Đukanović regime” and not take advantage of its NATO member status.

As for the falsification by the Montenegrin authorities of the data on the COVID-19 epidemic, IFIMES states:

- At the beginning of the pandemic crisis caused by the Covid-19 virus, Montenegro withheld information on the number of the sick/infected in the country  and, for a period of time, Montenegro presented itself as one of the few countries with no Covid-19 cases, which did not actually reflect the real situation in the country;

- then, it came out that Montenegro has the same number of infected people as Kosovo, although it is four times bigger than Montenegro and has a bigger Diaspora, especially in Italy;

- Montenegro launched, furthermore, a rumour on the forfeiture, by Serbia, of three medical ventilation devices, to distract everyone from the issues of the Montenegrin medical system, unable to combat the pandemic;

- analysts think that Montenegro need help to combat the pandemic, especially due to the fact that the Montenegrin state and the Montenegrin society would be deeply affected by corruption and crimes, the main responsible being the governmental party, the Socialist Democratic Party (SDP, led by M. Dukanovic);

Then, in the following chapter, they give three examples of actions belonging to ANB, coordinated by the “M. Dukanovic regime”:

- how Podgorica approached the Belgrade proposal on the appointment of a “Mini-Schengen” regime in the Western Balkans;

-the participation, together with the “regime of Edi Rama” and Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaci, to the overthrow of the legal Kosovar government, led by A. Kurti;

- the publication of the names of people who could be infected with COVID-19 (which violated the rights of self-isolated people).

“Conclusively”, the study IFIMES did, “shows” that:

- ANB is the typical example of how a modern security and intelligence agency should not be, as its supports a regime which is in power for decades and also the political-criminal structures;

-ANB is a “nest” that keeps the “M. Dukanovic regime” to power, which was confirmed by the fact that the current Montenegrin prime-minister, Dusko Markovic, was for years the ANB director;

-ANB creates continuously and spreads made-up information in NATO’s intelligence and security system about false dangers, and the Montenegro’ state institutions deploy diplomatic and intelligence activities against some individuals and organizations;

- the key objective of ANB is to keep “M. Dukanovic regime” to power, which is still in a good relation with Russia. Analysts think that, if M. Dukanovic is a symbol for NATO’s values in the region, then the results of the polls from the Western Balkans states are no surprise, which shows that the trust in NATO and Alliance’s prestige are decreasing, therefore NATO should be concerned;

-the difficulty of the COVID-19 pandemic is suggested by Montenegro’s official call for help to NATO’s institutions, on March 26th.

Informational war on the background of Montenegro’s internal political confrontation

The presentation of this chapter in the study mentioned on IFIMES’s website is a surprise, as the institute is known for being an analysis centre with a western orientation. Moreover, this chapter seems written directly by the Kremlin's propaganda structures.

Immediately after being presented on the site in the "local" language, common to the former Yugoslav space[4], this fragment of the study emerged in a series of electronic media in Serbian[5], but not on the national Serbian television site. The chapter is also mentioned in the Serbian language version of the Russian press agency "Sputnik". Surprisingly, this denies a thesis presented in the article, on the current good relations of "M.ukuković regime" with Russia.

In this context, some clarifications are needed on Montenegro’s real situation, from our point of view and departing from an analytical perspective.

The theses in this chapter have many real elements, but they are out of context or no details are provided to explain the context. Several real elements are presented, though, in the study. Montenegro is criticized by the EU for slow justice reform and difficulties in establishing the rule of law. There were masses and processions organized by the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral, and the authorities did not consult with the representatives of the main church in Montenegro before adopting the law, just as, in mid-March, Montenegro seemed to be the only state to have no infected people with COVID-19, but ...

As for the first topic, it would have been useful to present the fact that, following the protests, the Government of Montenegro and the Serbian Orthodox Church (through the Metropolitanate Church of Montenegro and the Littoral) started a dialogue, regarding the implementation of the contested law’s provisions. Moreover, the Serbian church has stopped mass services and processions during the efforts to combat the pandemic with COVID-19 and the priests, in general, follow the recommendations of not holding public service (but cannot prevent the churchgoers from coming to church or in the church yard).

In terms to the second major theme addressed in this chapter of the study, it is possible that, at the beginning of the crisis, the Montenegrin medical system was caught on the wrong foot, without (sufficient) tests and without a clear methodology for tackling the fight with the new coronavirus, and this will be the main cause of the country's initial information on virus’s non-existence in Montenegro. Subsequently, the authorities took the major risks and addressed the EU and NATO-enabled institutions for support.

Conclusively...

... there are no data on Podgorica authorities’ interference in the overthrow of the Kosovo government led by A.Kurti. In this case, however, we are talking about a US-EU confrontation. Thus, analysts agree that the overthrow of this cabinet (on 25.03.2020, less than two months after installation) is the result of Prime Minister A.Kurti's constant refusal to comply with the Washington recommendations regarding the immediate and complete abolition of Kosovar taxes for imports of goods from Serbia and BIH. On the other hand, the EU (through Berlin and Paris) has called on to maintain this government at least during the COVID-19 crisis, but the political leaders in Phristina have rejected the Europeans' request. The collapse of the Kosovo government is, in fact, the result of its confrontation with Washington, not the involvement of ANB ...

There was, in fact, a public incident related to three ventilation systems, intended for Montenegro and seized or blocked by Serbia. The Serbian authorities, however, denied such a request from Serbia and offered to donate three such devices to Montenegro. Montenegrin officials in the second echelon, however, refused this assistance. It is possible that those systems have been diverted through a market competition, strictly commercial, given the lack of market of these products. But this incident must also be placed in an appropriate context: the already "traditional" tensions between the political and cultural elites in Serbia and Montenegro regarding the Montenegrin national identity (whether or not to put the Serbian-Montenegrin equality sign or rather, rather, "Kinship ties"?), the rising tensions between Serbia and Montenegro and between Serbs in Montenegro and power in Podgorica, starting in late December 2019, following the adoption, in Montenegro, of the law of religious freedom, Montenegro's general fears about Western support for any initiative that would remove Montenegro from the EU and attracting this state (temporarily or not) in a form of superstate organization in the Western Balkans area (as the "Mini-Schengen" initiative in the Balkans).

Thus, we can consider this article as part of Montenegro's internal political struggle, "exported" in the works of a regional institute of studies and research, which uses real elements, as well as "traditional" themes in Montenegro.

Alongside the real issues, some already mentioned, two other "traditional" topics in Montenegro are: the "M.Đukanović regime" facilitation of the acquisition of Podgorica Aluminium Combined (KAP) by the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripska and the holding company En + Group and the involvement of the same "regime" in cigarette smuggling, from 1995-1998, from Yugoslavia (Montenegro) to Italy.

Regardless of what was before, it is certain that, in July 2013, the Montenegrin state first declares the insolvency and then the KAP bankruptcy, which, eventually (July 2014), becomes the property of a Montenegrin investor ("Uniprom" from Nikšić), and the Russian group is suing the Montenegrin state. Moreover, since 2014, Montenegro has consistently joined Western sanctions against Moscow, and this excludes good relations between the leaders of the two countries. In 2015-2016, some Russian politicians even warned Podgorica that if they join NATO, Moscow will direct nuclear missiles to Montenegro. And Montenegro joined NATO in 2017.

Regarding the allegations of cigarette smuggling, M.Đukanović himself presented himself to the Italian court for questioning, and he was not charged or judged or convicted. This thesis, however, appears frequently in "hot" political moments in Montenegro, being highlighted more and more as a "lever of the West", to get the "compliance" of Podgorica’s authorities, led, practically since 1998, by the SDP, ahead with M.Đukanović.

A new episode in the series of corruption allegations against Montenegrin leader M.Đukanović is related to the disclosures of a close relative of his, Duško Knežević, owner of the holding company "Atlas group", and a refugee in London (with Montenegrin and British citizenship). Podgorica has recently started his extradition procedure from the United Kingdom, to prosecute corruption charges, and several indictments have been filed against him. He, in turn, threatens (new) incendiary disclosures on corruption within the high circles of Podgorica. In fact, his disclosures in the press were the basis of the organization of several protest demonstrations in Montenegro, intensified in 2019, against the alleged corruption of the authorities, carried out in the main villages of Montenegro, under the catchphrase "Oppose - 97,000" (symbolizing 97,000 of reasons to oppose the "M.Dukuković regime").  

Above all, there is also a negative image of Serbia in Montenegro, considered by Montenegrin officials and the West as a vector of Montenegro's projection of "Russia’s evil influence".

Conclusion to a... conclusion

During the last period, Podgorica power and NATO officials have repeatedly highlighted the "hybrid war" started against this country by Moscow and the Montenegro collaboration with the Alliance to combat these Russian threats. On how seriously the Montenegrin authorities take these threats we have examples such as meetings and training offered to Montenegrin-enabled structures in Montenegro by specialized NATO teams in combating hybrid threats, as well as President M.Đukanović's (March 2020) visit to the NATO centre of excellence in the field of cooperative cyber defence, from Tallinn (Estonia). Furthermore, Montenegro is currently part of the centre, already signing the Memorandum of Accession.

The abuse of power allegations in Podgorica, within the COVID-19 epidemic framework in Montenegro, are also eased by the fact that, in Montenegro, no state of emergency was instituted, although the government and the National Coordinating Body for Combating Contagious Diseases (NKT) have adopted almost all the measures specific to such a state (except for traffic restrictions). Against this background, the opponents of Podgorica power argue that the use of the Montenegrin Army in fighting the epidemic is exaggerated, as this institution is not mentioned among those to have tasks in combating contagious diseases. Or, they say, if the army needs to be hired, then the state of emergency should have been instituted first ... The last meeting of the Podgorica leadership that analyzed the state of emergency issue was on March 20, 2020, the Defence and Security Council (consisting of the president of the country, the president of the parliament and the prime minister), considering that it is not yet the case for such measure. Two days before, in a meeting convened by video conference, the Council ordered the hiring of Montenegrin army personnel in guarding the quarantine locations of people suspected of COVID-19.

So, are the Russian hybrid threats, which would have culminated with the coup attempt, from Montenegro, at the October 2016 parliamentary elections, real or just an excuse to manipulate the public opinion and NATO, to keep the SDP in power? Should we trust the saying that "no smoke without fire"? Or is this chapter in the IFIMES study a battle in the "hybrid war" against Montenegro?