By Nicholas Wood International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 8, 2006
PODGORICA, Montenegro With Montenegrins going to the polls on Sunday, few here have any doubt about the winner. For 15 years, Milo Djukanovic, the Balkans' longest-serving political leader, has dominated politics in this tiny state and is likely to keep power as prime minister after the votes for Parliament are counted.
Buoyed by his success in May, when voters opted in a referendum to form an independent state and break away from Serbia, the prime minister's two-party alliance seems likely to win about 45 percent of the vote, well ahead of the rest of the field, according to various opinion polls.
On Sunday, 480,000 people are eligible to vote for 81 parliamentary seats. The margin of victory will dictate the shape of the next government, but whatever the exact composition, most commentators agree that Djukanovic will be in a position to lead Montenegro into a new era, no longer dogged by the issues of the former Yugoslavia.
Separated from Serbia, Montenegro now sees itself free of the problems that have beset its neighbor in its quest for international acceptance, most notably cooperation on the hunt for war criminals, as well as the tricky question of the future of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which the United Nations administers. Instead, Montenegro's next government will be free to focus on the more tedious process of integration into the European Union.
Djukanovic, a young apparatchik in the Yugoslav Communist Party in the late 1980s, weaved his way through the last 15 years, forming alliances with the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and the West, and all the while he served as either president or prime minister, a position he first held at the age of 29 in 1991.
Now, after a lackluster campaign, so soon after the election on secession, Djukanovic has tried to depict himself as the inevitable leader of a country heading toward membership in the EU.
This election is "the second leg of the match we played up to May 21," he told supporters last month referring to the referendum on independence, adding, "After winning back our home at the referendum, at these elections we should pick a responsible caretaker."
Repeated suggestions he made during the May referendum campaign that he would step down from office before this election appear to have been forgotten.
But while Djukanovic has emphasized that Montenegro is ready to focus on its future, diplomats say it will have a tough time as it seeks to reshape its image as a new European-oriented state. Its tiny size - it has a population of just 650,000 people - has raised a question over its capacity to complete the complex and highly technical EU application process, and its reputation for corruption is an albatross
The government's reputed involvement in organized crime, including extensive cigarette smuggling, earned Montenegro one of the worst reputations for corruption in the Balkans.
Djukanovic's government was named in a European Union suit launched against U.S. tobacco makers for alleged collusion in cigarette smuggling. Philip Morris agreed to pay $1.25 billion in an out-of-court settlement with the EU in 2004 and agreed to crack down on the smuggling.
While Montenegro was an ally of the West pitted against Milosevic's Serbia, scant pressure was brought against it to end the smuggling, which many citizens regarded as a key source of revenue. In 2004 an Italian court issued an arrest warrant for Djukanovic in connection with the smuggling, a warrant that is still outstanding. Djukanovic dismisses the charges as politically motivated.
Now most analysts here agree the smuggling has stopped, but opposition politicians charge that Djukanovic and his allies have grown rich while in power and have little interest in real economic reform.
Nejbojsa Medojevic, the leader of the Movement for Changes, a new opposition party that has campaigned on anti- corruption platform, said: "Djukanovic is directly linked to the financial oligarchy in Montenegro.
"Their interests are opposed to European standards. If Djukanovic wins the elections, EU integration will go very, very slowly."
In a twist to the election campaign, a state prosecutor announced an investigation Thursday into Medojevic's purchase of an apartment in Podgorica, which Medojevic calls that a smear to discredit him before the voting. Opinion polls indicate that Medojevic is popular but is unlikely to win enough votes to rival Djukanovic.
Other Balkan nations have their own corruption problems. Croatia and Macedonia are beset by similar problems, said James Lyon, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, and both countries already have European Union candidate status.
"Basically if you look at the rest of the region it is exactly the same," said Lyon. "The difference in these larger countries it is easier to hide."
The quality of Montenegro's administration is likely to be a tougher problem to tackle. There are, for example, no precise figures on the number of government employees, which range from 5,000 to 30,000.
Vanja Calovic, executive director of MANS, a group that is lobbying for government and administrative overhaul, said, "We are a really small country, so we have a few government employees and on the other side our system of education does not prepare people do their jobs sufficiently well."
But to make progress on reform, said a European Commission official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, "Absolutely the main is issue is administrative capacity.
"They know it, we know it."