PODGORICA — In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Montenegro, once a close ally of Moscow, announced after a bit of foot-dragging that it was joining Western sanctions against the Kremlin. Shortly thereafter, Podgorica, a member of NATO and aspirant to join the EU, claimed that it had seized the assets of Russians who had been blacklisted by Brussels.
The move was heralded by the media, making headlines throughout the Balkan region, and included in an official report of the European Commission, the top executive body of the EU. There was only one problem: It wasn’t true.
Instead of dozens, Podgorica had only frozen the assets — an apartment and storage space — of one Russian national sanctioned by the EU, a former separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service has learned. The others were mistakenly included.
Moscow On The Adriatic
For years, Montenegro — in particular its beachfront on the Adriatic coast — has attracted well-heeled Russians looking to park some of their wealth in real estate. Even now, Montenegro’s backing of Western sanctions doesn’t appear to be deterring Russians from snatching up apartments, villas, and other buildings in Montenegro.
Russian nationals own some 19,000 properties in Montenegro, according to 2022 data from the Land Registry Administration, including oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has been sanctioned by the West.
In most cases, determining the actual owners is tricky as many of the assets may be in the name of family members or companies, as is the case of Deripaska. But in June 2022, then-Interior Minister Filip Adzic announced a major victory for Podgorica in cracking down on sanctioned Russian nationals holding property in Montenegro.
“For 44 properties, the Land Registry Administration issued rulings limiting the disposal of property in Montenegro. It applies to 34 Russian citizens who have been sanctioned,” Adzic said at the time.
That supposed success was included in the European Commission’s annual report on Montenegro issued four months later.
However, the initial enthusiasm was not warranted. After accessing and analyzing official documents, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service has learned that instead of 34, only one EU-sanctioned Russian national had his property in Montenegro frozen. The other 33 were not on any sanctions lists but just happened to share the first and last names of those who were. Their assets were temporarily frozen until the error was realized and then corrected.
In response to questions from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, the Montenegrin Land Registry Administration explained that it was an honest mistake, with no intention to deceive, and largely due to initial confusion and incomplete information on which Russians on the EU blacklist actually had assets in Montenegro.
The Interior Ministry, which had initially announced the wider asset crackdown on sanctioned Russians, did not respond to RFE/RL requests for comment.
The Land Registry Administration said in a statement it had examined the entire list of Russian nationals who, at the time, had been sanctioned by the EU, looking for possible matches with Russians who owned assets in Montenegro. That searched turned up 34 people whose first and last names matched those on the EU blacklist.
“Decisions were taken…to freeze access to property [in Montenegro] due to the assessed risk that the assets in question could be sold or used as collateral to secure bank loans,” the Land Registry Administration said in the statement.
Ines Mrdovic, an activist with Action for Social Rights, a Montenegrin NGO advocating for good governance, lays the blame for the mistake at the feet of the Montenegrin institutions at the center of the scandal. “It’s just wrong to provide the EU with information that does not reflect the situation on the ground,” Mrdovic told RFE/RL.
The identity of the one Russian national whose assets were correctly frozen in Montenegro was never made public. However, official documents seen by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service indicate that it was likely Marat Bashirov, a Russian political strategist who was a senior leader in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is partially occupied by Russia-backed separatists.
Bashirov has an apartment measuring 33 square meters in Becici on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. He is also a part owner with several other individuals of a storage space in the same building.
Montenegrin officials fumbled their handling of the whole affair, Mrdovic says, acting in a manner that was not sufficiently transparent neither to its own citizens nor European partners.
“We get ourselves into situations where someone says one thing and another something else. And then you wonder what is actually true. In any case, it is horrible that our European partners are not given complete and accurate information,” Mrdovic says.
Montenegro has strengthened ties with the West in recent years, joining NATO in 2017 and applying for EU membership in 2008. The country’s pivot to the West has irked Russia, its traditional ally. In 2016, the pro-Western government accused Russian-backed forces of a coup attempt on the eve of parliamentary elections.
In October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Montenegro, applauding its compliance with EU sanctions on Russia while also expressing concern over the large number of Russian citizens, including many oligarchs, who have settled in Montenegro. “We call on the Montenegrin authorities to ensure that the country does not become a hub for companies and individuals who want to circumvent sanctions,” the resolution states.
On a visit to Podgorica on October 31, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged Montenegro to push ahead with its European Union integration process. “Montenegro has been for a long time the most advanced Western Balkan country on the EU accession path, and I am happy to see that you are determined to keep the…position,” von der Leyen said after talks with President Jakov Milatovic.
Montenegro was given EU candidate status in 2010 but has only closed three of 33 accession chapters — areas of governance where EU hopefuls have to introduce new policies and reforms in order to align with the bloc’s standards.
The EU delegation in Podgorica did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for comment on the matter.
In 2023, Freedom House designated Montenegro as a hybrid regime rather than a democracy “due to a constitutional crisis caused by renewed political dysfunction, with the collapse of two governments in short succession, unconstitutional moves that obstructed electoral processes and the Constitutional Court, and a blockade to forming a new government.”
Source : RFERL