In the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Montenegro, once a close ally of Moscow, announced after some hesitation that it would join Western sanctions against the Kremlin. Soon after, Podgorica, a NATO member and EU accession candidate, claimed it had seized assets from Russians blacklisted by Brussels.
The decision was announced by the media, made headlines across the Balkan region and was included in an official report by the European Commission, the EU’s highest executive body. There was only one problem: it wasn’t true.
Instead of dozens, Podgorica had only frozen the assets – an apartment and a storage room – of an EU-sanctioned Russian national, a former separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, Radio Free Europe’s Balkan Service has learned. Others were included by mistake.
Moscow on the Adriatic
For years, Montenegro – especially the Adriatic coast – has attracted wealthy Russians looking to invest some of their assets in real estate. Even now, Montenegro’s support of Western sanctions doesn’t seem to be stopping Russians from snapping up apartments, villas and other buildings in Montenegro.
According to the Land Registry for 2022, Russian nationals own around 19,000 properties in Montenegro, including Western-sanctioned oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
In most cases, identifying the actual owners is complicated, as many of the assets are in the names of family members or companies, as in Deripaska’s case. However, in June 2022, the then Minister of Interior Filip Adzic announced a major victory for Podgorica in the crackdown on sanctioned Russian nationals who own property in Montenegro.
“For 44 properties, the Land Registry issued decisions restricting the ownership of property in Montenegro. This applies to 34 Russian citizens against whom sanctions were imposed,” Adzic said at the time.
This alleged success was included in the European Commission’s annual report on Montenegro published four months later.
However, the initial enthusiasm was not justified. After inspecting and analyzing official documents, Radio Free Europe’s Balkan Service learned that instead of 34, only the property of one EU-sanctioned Russian citizen in Montenegro was frozen. The other 33 were not on any sanctions list, but happened to have the first and last names of those who were on the sanctions list. Their assets will be temporarily frozen until the mistake is recognized and then corrected.
In response to questions from Radio Free Europe’s Balkan Service, Montenegro’s Land Registry Administration said it was an honest mistake, not intended to deceive, and mainly due to initial confusion and incomplete information about which Russians on the EU blacklist actually had assets in Montenegro.
The Interior Ministry, which had initially announced a broader crackdown on sanctioned Russians, did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment.
The Land Registry said in a statement that it had checked the entire list of Russian nationals sanctioned by the EU at the time and searched for possible matches with Russians who owned property in Montenegro. This search found 34 people whose first and last names matched those on the EU blacklist.
“Decisions were made … to freeze access to real estate [in Montenegro] as it was assessed that there was a risk that the real estate in question could be sold or used as collateral for bank loans,” the administration said in a statement from the land registry.
Ines Mrdovic, an activist with Action for Social Rights, a Montenegrin NGO that campaigns for good governance, blames Montenegrin institutions.
“It is wrong to provide the EU with information that does not reflect the situation on the ground,” Mrdovic told Radio Free Europe.
The identity of a Russian citizen whose assets were effectively frozen in Montenegro has never been made public. However, official documents seen by Radio Free Europe’s Balkans Service indicate that it was probably Marat Bashirov, a Russian political strategist who was a senior leader in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, which is partly occupied by Russian-backed separatists.
Bashirov has a 33 square meter apartment in Becici on the Adriatic coast of Montenegro. He also co-owns a warehouse in the same building with several other people.
The Montenegrin officials bungled the whole affair, says Mrdovic, and proceeded in a way that was not transparent enough for either the citizens or the European partners.
“We get into situations where one person says one thing and the other says something else. And then you wonder what is actually right. In any case, it is terrible that our European partners do not receive complete and accurate information,” says Mrdovic.
Orientation towards the west
Montenegro has strengthened its relations with the West in recent years, joining NATO in 2017 and applying for EU membership in 2008. The country’s move towards the West has angered Russia, its traditional ally. In 2016, the pro-Western government accused Russian-backed forces of attempting a coup ahead of parliamentary elections.
In October, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Montenegro in which it welcomed compliance with EU sanctions against Russia, but also expressed concern about 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 seeking to circumvent sanctions,” the resolution reads.
During a visit to Podgorica on October 31, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, called on Montenegro to press ahead with its integration process into the European Union. “Montenegro has long been the most advanced country in the Western Balkans on the road to EU accession and I am pleased that you are determined to maintain this position,” said von der Leyen after talks with President Jakov Milatovic.
Montenegro was granted EU candidate status in 2010, but has only completed three of its 33 accession chapters – areas of government where EU aspirants must introduce new policies and reforms to meet the bloc’s standards.
The EU delegation in Podgorica did not respond to Radio Free Europe’s requests for comment on the matter.
In 2023, Freedom House defined Montenegro as a hybrid regime rather than a democracy “due to a constitutional crisis caused by a new political dysfunction, with the fall of two governments in quick succession, unconstitutional movements that obstructed electoral processes and the Constitutional Court, and a blockade to the formation of a new government”./The Geopost/