Meritocracy – a principle only on paper

Proclaimed principles of the new government, with the principle of meritocracy being particularly emphasized, have announced that the changes in all areas of Montenegrin society, including the intelligence and security sector, will be characterized by further necessary professionalization and modernization. This would ultimately result in a more efficient structure of the National Security Agency and the Intelligence and Security Directorate within the Ministry of Defense, adjusted to modern security risks and threats. The guarantees given by renowned representatives of the new government have suggested a no-compromise-founded dedication to the Euro-Atlantic values, which Montenegro has accepted in the previous period and which were confirmed by its NATO membership in 2017.

However, the activities that followed soon after Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s Government constitution in December 2020 have been perceived among a significant part of both the Montenegrin and international public as undermining of previously achieved results in that field, weakening of cooperation, and sowing of distrust in the relations with partner NATO member states, as well as compromising of the services that were dealing with such issues in the country.

Despite the fact that the previous government saw some politically motivated recruiting in the intelligence and security sector, it is undeniable that continuous activities aimed at its development have been made in the previous period, with the respect of highly professional principles and standards, which has even been recognized and approved by international partners among the broad intelligence community.

Under the guise of revolutionary platitude that was proclaimed by the parties of the new parliamentary majority regarding the dismantling of the former regime, the intelligence and security sector saw significant changes through rather unsubtle and indiscrete activities, which are typical of similar situations in other countries.

The National Security Agency of Montenegro (ANB) was particularly affected by such behavior, whose staffing has already been diminished after 2010, and, particularly, 2015 heavy retirements when all the members of the Agency reaching the age of 50 were required to take compulsory retirement. After Dejan Vuksic, a lawyer from Kotor without any intelligence and security background or any previous experience in that field, assumed the position of the Acting Director, he significantly purged the then management, at the same time trying to compromise the removed Heads. Some of them have been even laid off after the disciplinary proceedings for making allegedly professional missteps in their work. The criminal proceedings were instituted against the former Director of the ANB Dejan Perunicic and one member of the Agency because of their alleged illegal wiretapping and surveillance of individuals from the Montenegrin public scene.

All activities of the ANB Acting Director Vuksic have seemed as being a part of a carefully crafted plan, whose goal is to make final changes in the Agency’s staffing in a way that it corresponds to national, ideological, and political preferences of the representatives of the new government. From the very beginning, their differences raise otherwise many questions regarding the concept and the strategy of the national security of Montenegro.

Similar activities were undertaken in the Ministry of Defense, where appointments to certain managerial positions, particularly including those in the Intelligence and Security Directorate (OBD), were made under the circumstances that attracted the attention of both the domestic and the international public. Many ambiguities were noticed regarding the lawfulness of the actions and professional references of the staff newly appointed to the prominent positions in the Ministry. Fairly clumsy and seemingly insufficiently planned moves of the new authority, unlawful appointments, sudden and unclear removals, as well as controversies concerning motivation to carry out certain activities have all contributed to the dismantling of arduously built credibility of the defense sector both in Montenegro and at the international level.

Appointment of Malisic – the breach of the Law

After having assumed the position, one of the first moves of the new Minister of Defense Olivera Injac was to appoint lieutenant colonel Veljko Malisic, the officer on active duty in the Armed Forces of Montenegro (VCG), to the position of Secretary of State for the Ministry of Defense. Thereby, the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees was breached, as well as the Constitution of Montenegro.

And when the appointment provoked very strong responses among the public, the Ministry of Defense, at first, denied the breaching of the Law. According to Article 130 of the Constitution of Montenegro, in order to be appointed the Secretary of State, Malisic should have been discharged from duty by the Defense and Security Council (the President of Montenegro, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, and the President of the Parliament of Montenegro), which did not discuss the topic. The Law on Civil Servant and State Employees excludes the possibility of an officer on active duty to be appointed to a position in the Ministry of Defense. Nevertheless, Lieutenant colonel Malisic was dismissed from the post of the Secretary of State upon his personal request the same day (January 21, 2021) by the Government’s decision, and upon the proposal of Minister Injac, he was appointed the Acting Head of the Logistics Department in the Ministry of Defense.

Controversial personalities of Covic and Simonovic

After having assumed the position of Acting Director of the OBD, which he will hold, as it turned out, shortly, Aleksandar Saranovic presented new members of his staff – the VCG officers Radule Covic and Ivica Simonovic. Considering everything that has happened in the following period, it is evident that neither did Saranovic have an influence on their appointments in the OBD nor he was familiar with their professional references and previous activities.

Soon after the news on the appointment saw the light of day, a very strong response of the public followed. They particularly referred to the appointment of officer Radule Covic to the position of the Inspector-General in the OBD, for which he was recommended by his own experience in protocol and procedure breaching when it comes to dealing with classified information within NATO. Precisely, in 2018 in Poland, Covic participated in the preparing of the Montenegrin Army for the mission in Latvia in support of NATO battle formations to deter Russian aggression in the Baltic states. On the occasion, he made a severe breach of the procedure with NATO documents, which is why he was immediately returned to Montenegro. Covic downloaded the data about the battlegroups, which are a part of forward presence in the East, to his USB device. The Alliance System has discovered it and he was immediately reported to the Ministry of Defense of Montenegro. The Ministry of Defense instituted a proceeding against Covic, urgently withdrawn from the mission in Poland, and he was brought to hearings several times at the Intelligence and Security Directorate.

Insufficiently analyzed appointments

Even though the Deputy Prime Minister and the coordinator of all Security Services Dritan Abazovic defended the newly-appointed staff in the OBD and stated, while commenting on the appointments in the Ministry of Defense, that this is the staff whose background was checked and who have the support of both the Government and the international partners, it is evident that those appointments were, at the very least, insufficiently considered within the circles of the new government that made these decisions. The fact that Covic was recommended in 2014 by the then military power to a post in the newly established Department for Military Intelligence and Security Affairs corroborates this. He was removed from the post due to professional missteps, indiscipline, and because he tried to obtain unauthorized classified information that was not related to his duties, and he was recommended to join the VCG units, outside the intelligence and security architecture of the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces of Montenegro.

Major Ivica Simonovic, that some of the managing positions in the OBD had also been booked for, has a similar professional reputation. He was previously employed in the intelligence and security sector of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Montenegro, J2, from where he was deployed to another VCG unit, probably because of his publicly expressed pro-Russian sentiment. It is interesting that Simonovic, together with 180 military personnel, signed the letter of support to the Serbian Orthodox Church to preserve its property and historic rights on the territory of Montenegro, and he is a supporter of an NGO We don’t give you Montenegro (Ne damo Crnu Goru), whose executive director is the current Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic.

Unlawful appointments

Problematic appointments in the Intelligence and Security Directorate have been continued with the appointment of the retired chief warrant officer Miodrag Jokanovic, formerly employed in the IT sector of the Ministry of Defense. It remains unclear what motivated Minister Injac to engage in, obviously, unlawful activities and breach knowingly the provisions of the Law on Civil Servants and State Employees, which strictly stipulates that a person exercising the right to retirement cannot take up employment within the state administration. Besides, it is unclear whether chief warrant officer Jokanovic has any professional experience in the intelligence and security sector unless the experience included his particularly close relations with certain members of the former security structures.

Therefore, the reaction of the previously removed Director of the Human Resources Directorate in the Ministry of Defense Mihail Volkov does not surprise. He filed a lawsuit before the Special State Prosecutor’s Office stating that Minister Injac committed an offense by unlawfully employing chief warrant officer Jokanovic – Abuse of Office under Article 416 of the Criminal Code of Montenegro.

Recruitment against professional standards

Despite the fact that the warnings of the experts, and primarily the reaction of the Western partners, have resulted in the forced withdrawal of Covic and Simonovic from the OBD, insisting on personnel of such profile, who were professionally compromised not only within the Montenegrin intelligence and security system but also the one within NATO, leads to a conclusion that those who made such decision were lead to a certain extent by other than professional standards, which have possibly been imposed by those outside the institutions having the power. Whatever the case, such actions lead in one direction only – the loss of credibility among NATO partners.

Since Minister Injac has been put in charge of the Ministry of Defense, events in that sector discredit already accomplished achievements regarding the development of an effective intelligence and security structure, which should be seen as a strategic service of Montenegro and not as a polygon where the Minister of Defense will try to implement in practice the theoretically acquired knowledge about this field. After all, this is not or, at least, should not be the Minister of Defense’s job. The OBD Director, within the Law, should be allowed to act autonomously, which was not the case with Aleksandar Saranovic. His refusal to accept the assigned inappropriate role corroborates the belief that the priority of the new government is to appoint politically loyal, nationally and religiously clearly profiled staff, whose priority would not be professional appointments and non-selective approach to anyone, in any situation.

If such a trend of appointments in the OBD continues, the relations between Montenegro and the Alliance may be severely disturbed, which could have very serious consequences on the security of Montenegro itself. Likewise, removals and appointments in the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense point out not to the depoliticization of the sectors but to the recruitment of people close to certain circles within the new, rather heterogenic, parliamentary majority, whose certain representatives have, to put it mildly, non-benevolent relation towards Montenegro’s NATO membership.

All presented indicate that this very sensitive sector has been subject to serious political games, whose victim is Montenegro’s reputation, its status among international partners, but also its security.