Montenegro faces an early parliamentary vote that could determine its path to the EU

PODGORICA – Montenegro is holding a snap general election on Sunday, a vote that could provide clues as to whether the tiny NATO member in the Balkans will overcome the deep political divisions and instability that have hindered its path to joining the European Union.

Some 542,000 voters are eligible to choose between 15 parties and coalitions fielding candidates ranging from groups that are decidedly pro-Western to groups that are pro-Serbian and pro-Russian.

The election will be Montenegro’s first in more than 30 years not to include Milo Djukanovic, who has been the country’s prime minister or president almost continuously since 2001. He lost a presidential election in April and has faded into the background in politics.

Polls and analysts believe that the centrist Europe Now movement, led by financial expert Milojko Spajic and current President Jakov Milatovic, will most likely be the front runner, but does not have enough seats in parliament to form a new government on its own .

Spajic, 37, a former finance minister who launched economic reforms in 2021 that included increases in average wages, is now promising further pay rises and a seven-hour workday instead of the current eight hours.

“I am very keen to implement the plan that I put to the citizens,” said Spajic, who could become the country’s next prime minister, at one of his pre-election rallies. “I will resign if I don’t realize this.”

The Socialist Democratic Party, the party formerly led by Djukanovic, has seen a decline in popularity after three decades of dominance and has a new leadership looking for a chance to make a comeback.

Party leader Danijel Zivkovic accuses the country’s current government of jeopardizing Montenegro’s path to the EU and promises to lift the blockade if the DPS returns to power. Montenegro, a picturesque Adriatic country with a population of around 620,000, was once believed to be the first country from the Western Balkans to join the EU.

Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006 and defied Russia to join NATO in 2017. A party-dominated alliance seeking closer ties with Serbia and Russia ousted the DPS from power in the previous 2020 general election.

However, the new governing alliance soon fell into disarray, blocking Montenegro’s path to the EU and leading to a political stalemate. The government failed in a no-confidence vote last year but stayed in office for months because of the stalemate.

Also taking part in Sunday’s elections are the United Reform Action coalition, which includes incumbent Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic, and a pro-Serbian-Russian coalition called For the Future of Montenegro.

Abazovic, who presented himself as an anti-mafia leader in a country teeming with crime and corruption, also promises several steps to improve voters’ living standards.

“If we defeat the mafia, there will be (money) for everyone,” Abazovic said recently. “We will set up a judicial fund that would return the stolen funds to the budget of the state and all citizens.”

The lukewarm election campaign was rocked this week by the exchange of allegations between Abazovic and Europe Now party leader Spajic about South Korea’s “crypto king” Do Kwon.

Kwon was arrested in March in Montenegro on an international warrant alongside another South Korean national in connection with a $40 billion cryptocurrency crash of his Terraform Labs that devastated retail investors around the world.

Both South Korea and the United States have requested his extradition from Montenegro, where he is on trial for allegedly using a fake passport.

Abazovic claimed Spajic had close business ties with Do Kwon.

Spajic described Abazovic’s allegations as “political persecution” and accused him of abusing Montenegro’s institutions and sparking controversy during election week “for fear of losing power”.

Political scientist Daliborka Uljarevic said that such claims and counter-claims prove that the main election issue is not EU entry, but “economic populism”, which is reflected in most parties promising higher wages.

“This (EU) way is stopped. We are not moving towards the EU. “The EU was neither an issue nor a pre-election promise, it was completely lost in this part,” said Uljarevic.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed, or redistributed without permission.

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