October 13, 2016 - 3:11 AM
PODGORICA, Montenegro - Voters in Montenegro face a stark choice: continue on a chartered pro-Western course and NATO membership, or slide back to the embrace of their traditional Slavic ally Russia.
The election Sunday in this tiny Balkan nation is the most significant since the vote for independence from much larger 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.
The vote pits Montenegro's long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists, led by powerful pro-Western Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, against a cluster of pro-Russian and pro-Serbian opposition groups which staunchly oppose the country's NATO bid.
In July, NATO adopted a declaration welcoming Montenegro as a new member. What remains is Montenegro's ratification of the accession agreement.
Djukanovic, who ruled Montenegro as a premier or president for more than 25 years, is hoping to secure a parliamentary majority to ratify the NATO agreement in the assembly, without holding a popular referendum whose outcome would be highly uncertain. The opposition is demanding a referendum on NATO.
The latest polls suggest that Djukanovic's ruling DPS will gain a majority in Montenegro's 81-seat parliament. But without enough seats to rule alone, analysts say Djukanovic will have tough time forming a ruling coalition.
The scenic country of 650,000 people, squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and towering mountains, is deeply divided among those who favour and oppose the Western integrations.
Russia strongly opposes the expansion of the Western military alliance 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.
As a Serbian ally, Montenegro was bombed in 1999 by NATO, which launched air strike to stop a crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists. That made NATO highly unpopular in the predominantly Christian Orthodox country.
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.
Russian companies have invested millions in Montenegro, which has also become a favourite Russian tourist destination. Russians have also been buying property along the Adriatic Sea. An estimated 10,000 Russians have become Montenegrin citizens.
Officials from President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, who have branded Djukanovic's NATO bid "irresponsible with far-reaching consequences," have openly supported Montenegrin opposition parties and have reportedly financed some of their leaders — something they deny.
In a sign that tensions could escalate, pro-Putin bikers and people from Russia, Serbia, eastern Ukraine and Bosnia have recently set up a "Balkan Cossack Army" in Montenegro to fight for Christian Orthodox interests.
The opposition groups 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.
During the heated campaign, Djukanovic accused opposition leaders of "treason" for putting the Kremlin's interests first.
"There is no worst crime than to betray the interests of your own country," he said. "They won't succeed, no way!"
Nebojsa Medojevic, leader of the opposition Democratic Front, has rejected Djukanovic's claims, saying the group "has not had any political, financial or logistic support from Moscow."
He said Montenegro is seeking its "first democratic government since 1945," accusing Djukanovic of creating "a sick system with widespread corruption and crime."
Milan Petrovic, a 50-year old from Podgorica, supports the opposition, believing "they would bring thieves to justice and Montenegro to a brighter future than NATO membership offers."
But teacher Nikola Popovic, 33, hopes NATO membership would bring in more foreign investments and raise living standards.
"In a cultural sense, we more belong to the European Union than to Russia, even though we have stronger ethnic ties with the Russian people," he said. "The time has come for us to go West."
AP Writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016