Voters in tiny Montenegro choose president

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Voters in Montenegro on Sunday are choosing a president between the government-backed incumbent and an opposition leader who has demanded that NATO apologize for the 1999 bombing of the country while it was still part of Serb-led Yugoslavia.

The presidential election is viewed as a popularity test for Montenegro’s governing coalition which has ruled the tiny Balkan nation for more than two decades.

President Filip Vujanovic, who is seeking his second term since Montenegro gained independence in 2006, is a strong advocate of Montenegro’s integration into the European Union and NATO, and has been leading in the polls.

The country last year opened talks with the EU and hopes to be the next Balkan country to join the 27-nation bloc after neighboring Croatia enters in July.

“I expect strong support for our policies from our citizens,” Vujanovic said upon casting his ballot.

Vujanovic’s challenger, Miodrag Lekic, is a former ambassador-turned opposition leader, whose candidacy won backing from most opposition parties. He said Sunday that “the citizens want changes and I expect the changes.”

Lekic has urged for a referendum on NATO membership and an apology for the 78-day bombing by the military alliance that halted the war in Kosovo in 1999.

Montenegro was the ally of Serbia during the air attacks, but it later split after voters supported the independence in a tight referendum. Relations with NATO remain a sensitive issue and many here still view the military alliance with mistrust.

But for the majority of Montenegro’s more than 600,000 people the most important issue at the election remains the economy. The average salary in the country is less than 500 euros, while unemployment rate officially stands at around 20 percent.

“We have had enough,” said Radmila Pavicevic, an elderly resident of the capital, Podgorica. “They (authorities) have nearly choked us pensioners to death, and I feel sorry for the young too.”

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Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.

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