PODGORICA Russia is pouring money into Montenegro's election campaign in an attempt to derail the country's progress towards joining NATO, the country's Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said on Thursday, three days ahead of an election.
Djukanovic, who has led the tiny Balkan country as president or prime minister for more than 25 years, is facing his toughest ever electoral challenge from opposition parties that accuse him of cronyism and of treating Montenegro as a personal fiefdom.
In an interview with Reuters, he said opposition parties were being financed by Moscow, which saw Sunday's parliamentary vote as a final opportunity to stop the Balkan region's rush to integrate with the European Union and the Atlantic alliance.
"Russia has engaged a serious financial potential, which is I assume, made possible through its oligarchs and funelled through secret channels through Serbia and Republika Srpska," Djukanovic said, referring to the Serbian part of Bosnia, Montenegro's northern neighbour.
"Traditional opposition, pro-Serb parties are now proponents of Russian interests in the Balkans," he added.
"These elections are the last chance for opponents of Montenegro and the Balkans adopting European values," he said.
Russia and opposition parties have denied allegations that Moscow has intervened in the election campaign, though Russia's foreign minister has dubbed as "irresponsible" NATO's planned admission of Montenegro.
Sunday's vote pits Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists against two major opposition alliances, containing a mixture of pro-Serb and pro-Western parties.
They accuse Djukanovic of using scare tactics to stay in power.
"He labels every opponent a danger to Montenegro and its state interests," Nebojsa Medojevic, a senior figure in the opposition Democratic Front alliance, said on Thursday.
He also accused Djukanovic of being the one most closely aligned with Moscow's interests.
"Russian interests and influence entered Montenegro during Djukanovic's (rule). In 2005, Djukanovic communicated closely with Russian official politics, informal centres of power, the Russian mafia and intelligence structures," Medojevic said.
He pledged to hold Djukanovic to account for alleged corruption if he took power.
The Adriatic republic of 620,000 people has strong economic and traditional ties with Russia, another predominantly Orthodox Christian country. But Djukanovic said Montenegro had to look westwards.
"The stability of the Western Balkans and (European) integration go hand in hand," he said.
The European Union and the US see closer integration with Europe's political and economic alliances as the best way of maintaining peace in a region, which was wrecked by war in the 1990s when Yugoslavia broke up into seven successor states.
Croatia and Slovenia have already joined NATO and the EU, while Serbia and Bosnia are both pursuing EU membership.
NATO membership is a sensitive issue in Montenegro, which was bombed by NATO in 1999 when it and Serbia were all that remained of Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, it is nearing the end of the accession process. Ten countries have already ratified its accession treaty.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Thomas Escritt and Hugh Lawson)