By Aleksandar Vasovic
PODGORICA Montenegro's ruling party faces its toughest test in 27 years in power on Sunday, when it hopes its election promise to bring the country into NATO and closer to the European Union will outweigh opposition allegations of cronyism and corruption.The Western alliance invited the tiny Balkan country of 620,000 to join last year, partly out of concern at Russian influence in Montenegro, which has strong cultural and commercial links to its traditional Orthodox Christian ally.Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, 54, presents the election as a choice between continuing Western integration under his Democratic Party of Socialists or being reduced to a "Russian colony" under the opposition."Do we want stable, prosperous and European Montenegro or will we be a country of backwardness, violence and hopelesness," Djukanovic asked supporters at a final rally on Thursday. "Will we be a Russian colony in the Balkans?"Djukanovic accuses opposition parties, some also pro-Western, of taking Russian money.
Both they and Russia deny this. The opposition says the allegations are a smokescreen to cover for the culture of cronyism Djukanovic has allowed to flourish over his quarter-century of dominance in the country.Parts of Montenegro were bombed by NATO when the alliance intervened in 1999 to end a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by Serbia, with which Montenegro was then in a state union. Ties with ethnic kin in neighbouring Serbia remain strong.With few reliable polls in the country, the election is hard to call, but long-term allies have recently deserted Djukanovic, in an indication that the opposition message has traction.
For Russia, Djukanovic told supporters, Sunday's parliamentary vote was Moscow's last chance to derail the Balkan region's wholesale rush towards NATO and EU membership, widely seen as the best prospect for stability and growth in a region that was wracked by war for much of the 1990s.The former Yugoslav republic's economy has grown at an average of 3.2 percent a year for the past decade, thanks mainly to foreign, especially Russian, investment in energy, mining and tourism in a country known for its spectacular mountains and sea coast.But opposition parties say organised crime has flourished on Djukanovic's watch.
At an opposition rally in the capital Podgorica, hundreds of backers of the Democratic Front (DF), an alliance of pro-Serb and pro-Western parties, waved Serb, Russian and Montenegrin flags, chanting their campaign slogan "Us or Him." "Djukanovic, step down peacefully on Sunday if you love Montenegro," said Nebojsa Medojevic, a pro-Western politician and one of DF leaders.Voting starts at 0500 GMT and closes at 1800 GMT. (Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Thomas Escritt/Jeremy Gaunt)
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