, Podgorica, Montenegro, Oct 16 – Montenegro began voting in parliamentary elections Sunday with opposition groups hoping to end the quarter-century rule of pro-Western premier Milo Djukanovic, who warns that his rivals would derail imminent NATO accession.
Djukanovic, who led the small Balkan nation to independence from Serbia in 2006, has forged closer ties with Western countries, pursuing membership of both NATO and the European Union.
But analysts say the prime minister — accused by critics of cronyism, corruption and links to organised crime — faces a tough challenge to form a stable government after Sunday’s election.
Just over half a million citizens are eligible to vote at polling stations, which opened at 7am (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 8pm (1800 GMT).
Djukanovic, who faced large anti-government rallies last year, has pitched the vote as a choice between ties with the West or with traditional Slavic ally Russia, whom he accuses of funding opposition parties.
“Are we going to be part of developed European society or a Russian colony?” he asked supporters waving national red flags at his final rally in the capital.
The latest private survey seen by AFP forecasts his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) leading with less than 40 percent of the vote, a result that would mean coalition partners were needed to form a government.
“Even if the DPS could reach with their political allies some tiny majority, that would be unstable,” said Zlatko Vujovic, director of the Centre for Monitoring and Research, which is observing the election.
– NATO or not –
Montenegro was invited to join NATO in December, a decision yet to be ratified by Podgorica and existing member-states.
Moscow has warned of consequences if the Adriatic republic joins the alliance, already angered by its decision to join the EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
The Democratic Front, Montenegro’s main opposition bloc, calls for closer ties with Russia and is against membership of either the EU or NATO, demanding a referendum on joining military alliance.
“The outcome of the election will definitely decide: is Montenegro joining NATO… because one part of the opposition is clearly insisting on stopping that process,” said Vujovic.
Other opposition groups have more mixed positions — some are pro-EU but would also like a referendum on NATO — yet they have spoken of joining forces despite their differences to oust Djukanovic.
The issue of NATO accession divides the country’s 620,000 people, who remember the alliance’s 1999 bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, of which Montenegro was then part.
But Ljubo Filipovic, a civic activist and former deputy mayor in the coastal town of Budva, said most citizens were more concerned with the economy, which has seen soaring public debt.
He suggested Djukanovic had long exploited geopolitical rivalries as a way to distract from domestic problems.
“That’s how we’ve been stuck with him for 27 years,” Filipovic told AFP.
The 54-year-old is the only Balkan leader to have held on to power since the collapse of Yugoslavia began in the early 1990s, serving several times as prime minister and once as president.
Above the main Republic Square in Podgorica, a city laden with communist-era architecture, a campaign video showed the smiling premier in Montenegrin vineyards and by construction projects.
“We are here to mark an end to Djukanovic’s gang of thieves,” thundered Predrag Bulatovic, a Democratic Front leader, to a cheering crowd in the square on Friday night.