PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro, May 17, 2006 (AFP) -
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, the only Balkans leader to have retained power throughout the breakup of the Yugoslav federation, wants to be remembered as the man who steered tiny Montenegro to independence.
Djukanovic, 44, has staked his political future on independence despite Montenegro's strong cultural, historical and religious links to Serbia. Together, the two republics are all that remain of Yugoslavia.
Sunday's independence referendum will be the ultimate test of his power in the republic of only 650,000 people.
Dynamic and efficient, Djukanovic started his political career in the communist regime in the 1980s. He rose fast, becoming a leader of the young communists and winning over old-time party members.
At only 29 years of age, he began his first stint as Montenegro's prime minister in February 1991 as the region teetered on the brink of war.
A year later he saw Yugoslavia disintegrate as Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia declared independence.
During the wars that followed, Djukanovic backed then Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic along with the rest of the government in Podgorica.
But in 1997 he broke ranks with the hardliners in the Yugoslav federation, and became one of the fiercest critics of the Milosevic regime.
His inauguration as president in 1998, after a bitter split within the pro-Serbia ruling party, led to rioting by Milosevic supporters in Podgorica.
During the next two years Djukanovic shed his old communist-era ideology and opened the republic to the outside world.
He stopped cooperating with Milosevic's regime even as NATO jets bombed targets in Montenegro and Serbia during its 1999 war against Yugoslav forces.
Refusing to recognise Belgrade's declaration of war, he demanded Milosevic end his repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
But after Milosevic was ousted in October 2000, Djukanovic failed to adapt to the changed geopolitical realities of the Balkans.
His ambitions for Montenegro's independence were suddenly out of favour with his backers in Europe, who were trying to consolidate the region's new borders rather than promote more splits and divisions.
He was pressured to sign an agreement with Belgrade in March 2003 to stay within a loose union, called Serbia and Montenegro, for at least three years.
The EU-backed accord led to the collapse of his government and a split within the pro-independence movement in Montenegro.
Djukanovic has also found himself at the centre of corruption allegations, and has been named as a suspect in an Italian inquiry into alleged cigarette smuggling across the Adriatic Sea.
He has repeatedly denied any involvement, saying the Italian investigation was an attempt to "destabilise Montenegro".
In May 2003, his ally Filip Vujanovic won Montenegro's presidential election, with Djukanovic taking over the following day as prime minister.
He has since led the campaign for the independence of Montenegro from the front, with this weekend's vote the culmination of his drive for creating the world's newest country.
In a recent interview, Djukanovic told AFP he was confident of victory in Sunday's independence referendum, but added he was ready to resign if the vote goes the other way.
"If Montenegrin citizens give one vote more against independence, I will withdraw. I do not see myself in the authorities creating a stronger federal union with Serbia," Djukanovic said.
Throughout Podgorica there have already been rumors that the veteran leader is ready to withdraw from politics whatever the result of referendum, after he leads his Democratic Party of Socialists in elections due later this year.
Djukanovic himself has said he is likely to make a career change after he retires from politics, probably to start a tourism business.