Veteran Leader Seeks Presidency in Montenegro With EU Hopes

(Bloomberg) -- Veteran leader Milo Djukanovic is seeking to return to Montenegro’s presidency on Sunday with a pledge to complete European Union accession after the Balkan nation parted ways with Russia by joining NATO last year.

“We are at the gate of Europe,” Djukanovic told a campaign rally last week. “It’s time that we finish the job we started.”

He called his opponents “traitors against the national interest” who would abandon the path to the EU and opt out from western sanctions against Russia that Montenegro has joined. The Adriatic nation, which unilaterally adopted the euro in 2002 , hopes to join the bloc around 2025.

Djukanovic was just 29 when he became prime minister in 1991 -- his first paid job -- initially ruling as an ally of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. He governed during Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup in the 1990s before later portraying himself as a pro-western reformer.

He was in power in 2006 when the small Adriatic nation of 620,000 gained independence from Serbia. After several terms as premier and president, he resigned in 2016 after accusing Russia of attempting a coup and an assassination against him with the help of local nationalists. Prosecutors have charged 14 people, including two opposition leaders and two Russian intelligence officers, for the alleged conspiracy.

“Russia won’t like it if Djukanovic wins and we should expect it to maintain or even escalate its pressure on Montenegro,” Timothy Less, the director of Nova Europa political risk consultancy, said by email. “His election will confirm what many see as western policy of propping up Balkan strongmen as long as they are pro-Western, anti-Russian.”

Presidential Comeback

Now he’s preparing a comeback as the head of the biggest political group, the Democratic Party of Socialists, amid accusations of rampant corruption, power abuse and betraying traditional allies Serbia and Russia. His critics say the June 2017 accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should have been preceded by a referendum.

Yet the 56-year-old tops opinion polls and may garner 51 percent of votes, according to a March survey by the Podgorica-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights. His main challenger, Mladen Bojanic, is seen winning 36 percent. Four other candidates are also running. The winner would replace Djukanovic’s ally Filip Vujanovic, who’s used up his maximum of holding two consecutive terms in office.

Bojanic, a former lawmaker, civil rights activist and stock broker, has built his campaign around a call for Montenegrins to end Djukanovic’s dominance of the country’s political system, saying “his only strategic direction is to move from autocracy to dictatorship.”

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