Voters in the small Balkan state of Montenegro voted on Sunday in a parliamentary election that could determine whether it continues on its Western course or turns back to traditional ally Russia.
The vote pitted the long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, against a cluster of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition groups that staunchly oppose the government’s pro-Western policies, especially its NATO bid.
The outcome could jeopardize NATO and European Union enlargement in southeastern Europe and could prove decisive in the Kremlin’s attempts to regain influence in the strategic Balkans region.
The scenic country of 650,000 people, squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and towering mountains, is deeply divided among those who favour – and those who oppose Western integration.
Pre-election polls have predicted the closest race since Montenegro gained independence from much larger Serbia a decade ago.
Predominantly Orthodox Christian-like Russia, Montenegro was Moscow’s historical ally. 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 which invited the state to join.
Rallying supporters ahead of the vote, Djukanovic said the ballot for the 81-seat parliament will decide whether Montenegro continues on a Western course or becomes “a Russian colony”. He is facing the toughest challenge yet to his quarter-century rule.
Opposition leaders have accused Djukanovic of corruption, nepotism and economic mismanagement and say he is trying to scare voters by suggesting that chaos will prevail if he loses.
“The only chaos will be within Djukanovic’s cabinet,” opposition Democratic Front leader Andrija Mandic said after he cast his ballot on Sunday.
“I have no doubt that the opposition will show its strength and that the Democratic Front will become future framework of the Montenegro government,” he said. “Today is the last day of Djukanovic’s 27-year rule.”
There are fears that violence could erupt on the streets of Podgorica, the capital, between opposition and government supporters after the results are announced.
“I want everything to pass peacefully and everything to be good, and whoever wins I wish all the luck,” said voter Nadezda Stjepanovic.