AP Interview: Montenegro leader: Russia wants to destroy EU

Montenegro's former prime minister called on the European Union on Tuesday to stop Russia's "destructive" influence in the Balkans — including a disinformation campaign — following what prosecutors said was a thwarted attempt to overthrow its pro-Western government and kill the tiny country's most influential leader.

Milo Djukanovic stepped down after the alleged pro-Russian plot in October to prevent the country from joining NATO.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Djukanovic said that Moscow "is waging a kind of war against Europe and the West as a whole" and is threatening "the very existence of the European Union" by supporting right-wing groups which are against the 28-nation bloc.

"Montenegro has found itself in the line of fire," Djukanovic said. "But, I'm sure Montenegro is not the main target."

"The Balkans appeared as a good terrain for the demonstration of force after Russia's campaigns in Ukraine and Syria," Djukanovic said. "With the example of Montenegro, (Russia) wanted to show that Europe and NATO cannot expand without its consent. I believe that this is the key message for the EU and NATO."

In a gesture of support, British Prime Minister Theresa May said Tuesday that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will raise concerns about reports of Russian interference in Montenegro when he visits Moscow in the next few weeks.

Djukanovic, who has led Montenegro for over 20 years, has brought the picturesque Adriatic Sea state of 600,000 people to the threshold of NATO. Montenegro has also been the regional leader in in its bid for EU membership, leaving the other regional states — such as Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Albania — far behind.

Montenegro's prosecutors have accused Russia and its secret service operatives of plotting the election-day coup attempt that included plans to take over parliament and arrest and kill Djukanovic in order to bring to power a pro-Russian leadership.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied involvement in the alleged plot. But it has openly supported and financed opposition nationalist parties opposed to the NATO bid.

Djukanovic said he believes that Moscow will continue its bid to destabilize Montenegro with its "subversive" propaganda campaign.

"Hardly a week passes by without a message from Moscow that there is no place for us in NATO, that we have to reconsider that orientation and that it could lead to the political and security destabilization in Montenegro," Djukanovic said.

The Kremlin has been warning against NATO expansion in Europe, especially the western Balkans, which Russia considers to be in its sphere of interest.

Montenegro's NATO membership has been ratified by 25 of the Western military alliances' 28-member states. U.S. lawmakers still haven't approved it amid fears in Montenegro and the region that President Donald Trump's new administration is too lenient toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Djukanovic said he believed that ratification in the U.S. Senate "is only a formality," but added that the consequences of unlikely rejection "would be much worse for NATO and Europe, then for Montenegro."

"That would mean that NATO and Europe are succumbing to (Russian) pressure," Djukanovic said.

In London, May told the House of Commons that "we're seeing increasingly brazen interference by Russia and others" in the western Balkans.

She said that "in light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot," she asked the EU at a meeting last week "to do more to counter destabilizing Russian disinformation campaigns and to raise the visibility of the Western commitment to the region."

May said Britain "we will provide strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns in the region and we will host the 2018 Western Balkans summit.

"In the run-up to that summit we will enhance our security cooperation with our Western Balkan partners, including on serious and organized crime, anti-corruption and cybersecurity."

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Jill Lawless contributed from London.