PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegro's election Sunday will decide whether the small Balkan state continues on a Western course or becomes "a Russian colony," the prime minister said as he faced the toughest challenge yet to his 25-year rule.
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic told supporters at a pre-election rally that the ballot is his country's most important since its vote for independence from Serbia a decade ago. The outcome could jeopardize NATO and European Union enlargement in southeastern Europe and could prove decisive in Moscow's bid to regain influence in the strategic region.
"Everyone is aware that the fate of the state will be decided ... whether Montenegro will become a member of the EU and NATO, or a Russian colony," Djukanovic said Friday.
The vote pits Djukanovic's long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists against a cluster of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition groups that staunchly oppose the country's NATO bid.
The latest polls suggest that Djukanovic's party will gain a majority in Montenegro's 81-seat parliament. But if it does not get enough seats to rule alone, analysts say Djukanovic will have tough time forming a ruling coalition.
"Uncertainty is the characteristic of this election, because for quite some time ... we did not have elections in which the outcome and the postelection coalition was so uncertain," said political analyst Daliborka Uljarevic.
The scenic country of 650,000 people, squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and towering mountains, is deeply divided among those who favor and oppose Western integration. Until recently, Montenegro had been a faithful ally of Russia. But after splitting with Serbia in a 2006 referendum, Montenegro took a strong turn toward Euro-Atlantic integration.
Russia strongly opposes the expansion of NATO in European ex-communist countries it considers part of its "strategic interests." Wary of Russian influence in the still-volatile region, which was engulfed in bloody civil wars in the 1990s, the West wants Montenegro in NATO.
Djukanovic has accused the Kremlin of meddling in the election process by secretly financing the opposition parties — something their leaders strongly deny.
The opposition groups are accusing Djukanovic of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement and have pledged to lift Western sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine if they win.