(iht) - Montenegrins vote on Sunday in the tiny Balkan state's first presidential election since it split from Serbia two years ago.
The ballot is another test for Montenegro's reformed socialists, who have ruled virtually unchallenged for the past 20 years. It will also determine whether the nation on the Adriatic Sea cements its independence or slides back to Serbia's influence.
Incumbent Filip Vujanovic of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists is regarded as likely winner of the four-man race.
Nebojsa Medojevic of the liberal Movement for Changes, and pro-Serbian challengers Andrija Mandic and Srdjan Milic were likely to split the rest of the votes in a deeply divided country, according to pre-election surveys.
Ethnic Serbs, about 30 percent of Montenegro's 620,000 people, are still unhappy about the country's split from Serbia in a May 2006 referendum. They are seeking closer political and economic ties with Belgrade, which have been chilly since the breakup.
"Those presidential candidates who were against Montenegro's independence two years ago have no moral right to lead the country in the future," Vujanovic said in an interview. "We won independence, now we have to start our fight for Montenegro in the European Union."
The 53-year-old lawyer said he is confident of winning more than 50 percent of the votes on Sunday, which would avert a runoff in two weeks. His ruling party fears that the pro-Serbian and liberal groups could unite behind one candidate in the possible second round, seriously challenging Vujanovic's chances of winning re-election.
"Whatever anyone says, Montenegro remains a Serbian state," said Andrija Mandic, the pro-Serbian challenger. He said that his victory would mean that the pro-independence support in the country has changed.
Montenegro was an independent kingdom before World War I, then part of Yugoslavia until that nation disintegrated in violence in 1991. Montenegro remained joined with Serbia until it seceded peacefully.
Since the split, its economy has boomed. Annual economic growth is about eight percent and foreign direct investment since 2006 was about €644 million (US$1 billion), propelling Montenegro to the top of Europe's per capita foreign investment list.
But it has had trouble getting rid of its image as a smuggling society rife with corruption.
Medojevic, a liberal technocrat, said his victory would mean the beginning of an end for the 20-year rule of Montenegro's socialists, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who holds the main power in the country.
"Montenegrins have had enough of their 20-year rule," Medojevic told thousands of cheering supporters in his final pre-election rally in capital Podgorica on Friday. He accused Vujanovic and Djukanovic of corruption and economic mismanagement.
"Montenegro is an independent country, but it still needs to become a free and democratic state without its corrupt and smuggling-prone regime," said Medojevic, who has the support of young voters.
Italian prosecutors last month questioned Djukanovic in an investigation of allegations his government supported a massive cigarette smuggling operation in the 1990s. The cigarettes were allegedly smuggled on motorboats into Italy from across the Adriatic.
Djukanovic reportedly told the prosecutors that the cigarette smuggling helped Montenegro survive under the autocratic former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and international sanctions imposed because of his warmongering policies in the Balkans in the 1990s.