Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska declined to confirm claims by Paul Manafort, who later managed President Donald Trump’s election campaign, that he was hired to help Montenegro gain independence in 2006.
By Dusica Tomovic
Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, former owner of Montenegro’s KAP aluminum plant and one of the largest investors in the country, declined to respond to BIRN’s inquiry about claims by American consultant Paul Manafort that he was hired by the businessman to support Montenegro’s independence referendum in 2006.
BIRN contacted Deripaska’s EnPlus group in Moscow, his Russian headquarters, and the Brussels-based PR agency FTI Consulting, hired by the billionaire to run his Montenegrin business, after Manafort, who later became Donald Trump’s election campaign chief, confirmed that he worked for Deripaska to help the country separate from Serbia in 2006.
“I have always publicly acknowledged that I worked for Mr. Deripaska and his company, Rusal [aluminium group] to advance its interests,” Manafort said after the Associated Press reported on March 22 that he had signed a contract to work for Deripaska in 2006 for $10 million a year.
“For example, one of the projects involved supporting a referendum in Montenegro that allowed that country to choose membership in the EU, a measure that Russia opposed. I did not work for the Russian government,” he insisted.
According to a memo quoted in the Associated Press report, Manafort pitched his services to Deripaska in 2005, after the Russian had already invested millions of dollars in the KAP aluminium plant in Podgorica.
Manafort managed Trump’s campaign without pay between March 2016 and August 2016, when he resigned after investigators in Ukraine found handwritten ledgers showing $12.7 million in cash payments allocated for him.
The money reportedly came from the party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted amid massive corruption allegations.
Manafort’s attorney denied that he received “any such cash payments.”
On March 23, Manafort confirmed that he worked for Deripaska, a Russian billionaire with close ties to Putin, but rejected the Associated Press report alleging that the work was aimed at furthering the political interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the US and other countries, such as Montenegro.
But according to the US media, diplomatic cables from 2006 described Deripaska as almost a state actor in Russia – “a more-or-less permanent fixture” on Putin’s agenda, and “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis”.
Deripaska responded to the Associated Press report on March 28 in a paid advertisement that ran in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Deripaska said in the advertisement that he would be willing to testify before the US Congress on the issue, and said that the AP story generated “a massive and aggressive disinformation attack” against him.
He did not, however, commented on his alleged meddling in Montenegro’s referendum process in 2006.
Deripaska’s and the Kremlin’s support for Montenegro’s independence has been widely rumored in the country since 2006, although relations between the Moscow and Podgorica have cooled in recent years after Montenegro pushed harder for membership of NATO.
Disputes over Russian investment in the country’s most important industrial asset, the Aluminum Plant Podgorica, KAP, also contributed to a cooling of relations.
On December 7 last year, Deripaska announced he was personally suing Montenegro for “hundreds of millions of euros” over the loss of his investment in the KAP plant.
Ten years earlier, he had been welcomed as a crucial investor who could revive Montenegrin heavy industry and attract thousands of Russian tourists to the country’s coast.
The opposition at that point, which mostly supported staying in the joint state with Serbia, claimed that Montenegrin independence would never have happened without the Russians, who at the time were the main foreign investors and made up most of the foreign tourists in the country.
Milo Djukanovic’s government during this period maintained strong political ties with Moscow.
Russian financial support for independence returned to the public debate during the campaign for elections last October’s parliamentary.
Then Prime Minister Djukanovic and the strongest pro-Russian opposition group, the Democratic Front, traded barbs for months about who got money from Moscow to propagate Russian interests in Montenegro.
The opposition claimed that the Russian influence in Montenegro strengthened because of Djukanovic and that in 2006, on the eve of the independence referendum, the veteran PM received “hundreds of millions of dollars from Moscow” to split from Serbia.
“Russian interests and influence came to Montenegro during the Djukanovic government. Since 2005, Djukanovic has closely communicated with Russian officials, informal centres of power, the Russian mafia and intelligence structures,” said Nebojsa Medojevic, one of the opposition leaders, ahead of the October elections that were marred by an alleged Russian plot to overthrow Djukanovic.
In 2011, speculation about alleged financial aid from Moscow for the Montenegrin referendum was fuelled by Russia’s then Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu who said that Russia “lent 300 million dollars to Montenegro” to revive the aluminium business as it was already certain that the KAP plant would go bankrupt.
The opposition has urged the prosecution to investigate and determine whether that money funded the KAP plant or was used for the independence referendum campaign.
But after last October’s elections, when relations with Russia hit a new low, Djukanovic has openly accused Moscow of financing the opposition in Montenegro and playing a role in the alleged coup plot.
Djukanovic said the opposition Democratic Front wanted to ensure that “forces imposed from the outside come to power in Montenegro, immorally and undeservedly… to pick up crumbs from the Russian table, the source of payment for their betrayal of Montenegro”.
The Front denied claims that it had received money from Moscow to unseat Djukanovic, accusing Djukanovic himself of having received tens of millions of euros from Russia years ago.
On December 13 meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Djukanovic had “betrayed Russia” over his pursuit of Montenegrin membership of NATO.